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Grand Dame of Palm Beach

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Whitehall in Palm Beach, Florida Whitehall in Palm Beach, Florida

Palm Beach is noted for grand mansions, but the grandest of all is Whitehall, built in 1902 by Henry Flagler. One of the richest men in the world, Flagler built this as a wedding present for his wife. Modern women may sigh that the good old days when brides got such gifts are long gone.

When the building was being designed, Flagler made his mark most notably in the Grand Hall, which is the first room you enter as a visitor. How to make a 5,000-square-foot room look imposing without being overwhlemed by it? Flagler knew better than the architects how to achieve the effect he desired- lower the ceiling by eight feet.

Each room of the house features a different type of decor or architectural The Grand Hall in Whitehallstyle. What it lacks in visual cohesiveness it makes up for in whimsical variety. A second-floor bedroom in the Arts and Crafts style with heavily carved wooden furniture could not contrast more with the Yellow Roses bedroom, whose overwhelming floral motif might have driven Van Gogh to distraction.

Specialists in various fields will be delighted with the items on display. First is the lace room, featuring a very rare selection of lace that belonged to Henry's granddaughter Jean. Second is Henry's private railcar that sits proudly in a new building adjacent to the mansion. And third is the drawing room which features something which- at the time- was even more precious than gold: aluminum leaf. Covering the gamut from fashion to interior design and railroad cars, there is something for everyone at Whitehall.  

Whitehall even featured a hidden treasure that was in plain view for years- a painting of Venice by Canaletto. It hung on the walls for a long time before an art expert happened to identify it as being by the greatest master of Venetian painting. It is currently being loaned to an exhibit in Europe, and will eventually be given a prominent place here.

Whitehall is host to several events throughout the year, the most popular being the inauguration of their Christmas celebration. Slated this year for December 2, it will feature a lighting of the tree by descendants of Henry Flagler, indoor music on the grand piano and the organ, which was the largest in a private home when it was built. Tea is also being served for the lucky few who can book a table.

Whitehall attracts more than 60,000 visitors a year, and is an essential destination for any tourist. Visit the website of the Flagler Museum for more information: www.flaglermuseum.us

Thanks to David Carson, public affairs director of the museum, for his personalised tour of the mansion.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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