Day 4: Henry Morrisson Flagler
Location: West Palm Beach, FL to Orlando, FL
Yesterday we wanted to check out the
Henry Morrison Flagler Museum in West Palm Beach, FL but it was too late for that. Today we showed up first thing in the (late) morning in front of Whitehall, a sumptuous mansion the Florida-famous Henry Morrison Flagler built in West Palm Beach, FL as a wedding gift for his third wife in 1902 during the American Gilded Age.
I’m saying “Florida-famous” but it was by design, in reality Flagler was one of the wealthiest American industrial tycoons of his time, partnering with John D. Rockefeller to form the Standard Oil Company which would quickly move to acquire a quasi-monopoly over oil refining in the United States by 1880. But while Rockefeller created a widespread philanthropist foundation in its name, Flagler concentrated on developing the Florida East Coast, sometimes anonymously, more often through his Florida East Coast Railway company and his many hotels.
The mansion itself was built on an accidental cocoanut grove (formed after the wreck of a Spanish cocoanut cargo ship) and was ludicrously luxurious by 1900 standards. Electricity, central heat, totaling 75 rooms, it was a marvel of architectural engineering as it only took 18 months to build. We know the total cost of the estate was about $4,000,000 ($2,500,000 for the mansion and another $1,500,000 for the furniture) in 1900, which would put in anywhere between $500,000,000 and $1,000,000,000 in 2017.
On top of the wonders of architecture and interior decoration the Museum preserves and displays, it also hosts the Florida East Coast Railway Railcar № 91 which was one of Flagler’s two personal custom railcars to survey his railroad empire. It comprises a small salon/study, a bedroom, a shower with side jets, a sitting section that could be transformed into a sleeping section with eight folding or Murphy beds, and finally a kitchen with a stove and single Murphy bed as well.
I’m always a little uncomfortable visiting rich people’s houses because while I can admire fine craftsmanship and artworks, there’s always this nagging feeling that many people got stifled to let Flagler (and many others) amass such a fortune. I know philanthropy was (and still is) a big part of wealthy people’s life but I don’t think a very limited number of people should call the shots regarding charity funds allocation just because they managed to deprive more people of their work’s real value than anyone else.
I totally would trade Flagler’s mansion in exchange for having more people having a better quality of life but the harm has already been done and I’m still admiring the end product of a long chain of injustice.
In the end we spent 5.5 hours in the museum including taking a delightful “Afternoon Tea” with berried lemonade, canapés and mini-desserts with a view. We then hit the road to Orlando, FL for 4 hours and it would have been boring towards the end if it wasn’t for the soothing voice of Roman Mars and his excellent design podcast “99% Invisible”.
Tonight we sleep again in a gated community, a term I first saw used about Facebook before realizing it was actually a physical reality as well. And as for Facebook I’m not too happy about it but a bed is a bed.
Continued next page.