Palette Magazine

Lavish South Florida Estates That Have Become Iconic Museums

Rick Karlin

The drawing room at the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum in Palm Beach
The drawing room at the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum in Palm Beach Courtesy of the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum

There’s no shortage of grand homes in South Florida. Many of the most impressive ones were built in the 1920s, when this was the winter playground for America’s wealthiest families. Luckily, a few of those lavish estates are now museums, where you can get a dash of culture and brush with the well-heeled crowd of a bygone era.

A Gilded Home

Oil baron, railroad tycoon and land developer Henry Flagler commissioned Whitehall — a 100,000-square-foot mansion with 75 rooms — as a wedding gift for his wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler. Until his death in 1913, the home was both the couple’s winter retreat and the heart of Palm Beach’s high society. After Kenan Flagler passed away in 1917, the home exchanged hands several times, and even came dangerously close to being demolished. It was saved by Flagler’s granddaughter, Jean Flagler Matthews, who through the non-profit Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, purchased the property in 1959 and opened it to the public the following year. Now a National Historic Landmark, the museum hosts exhibitions that highlight artists and themes relating to the Gilded Age. Guided tours of this stand-out of Beaux Arts architecture are available year round.

Sub-tropical Splendor

Built in 1916, the Italian Renaissance and Baroque-style Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is also a National Historic Landmark. Owned and operated by Miami-Dade County, it is one of the area’s most easily recognized estates, having appeared in numerous movies, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Bad Boys II and Iron Man 3. Originally the winter home of agricultural industrialist James Deering, it’s no surprise that the 34-room mansion is surrounded by formal gardens, lush terraces and even a hedge maze. The main house and the gardens are still home to an impressive collection of European antiquities, American artwork, period furnishings and decorative pieces; and the gardens, which span 10 acres, are a botanical attraction in their own right.

An Artistic Palace

In the grand tradition of opulent gift-giving, Hugh Taylor Birch — for whom the nearby nature preserve is named — gave the Bonnet House site as a wedding gift to his daughter Helen and her new husband, Chicago artist Frederic Clay Bartlett, in 1919. The Bartletts were among the first Americans to collect Post-Impressionist works. Though Helen died from breast cancer in 1925, Bartlett’s art collection continued to grow through his second marriage to painter and heiress Evelyn Fortune Lilly, who often surrounded herself with other artists. In 1983, she donated the property to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. Bonnet House maintains an extensive collection of art by Lilly that visitors can see as they tour the house and gardens.

Papa’s Place

Though not imposing in the same way, the Key West home of famed writer Ernest Hemingway is nonetheless an impressive National Historic Landmark. One of the area’s most frequented attractions, The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum was originally built in 1851 in Spanish Colonial style, constructed of native rock hewn from the grounds. Apart from its architectural appeal, visitors flock to the place where the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author penned some of his most famous works, including To Have and Have Not. The museum still displays the Hemingways’ extensive collection of art and décor, and the cats that roam the property (almost 50 in all) are all polydactyl (six-toed), descended from a white six-toed tom cat given to Hemingway by a local captain.