Palm Beach County is renowned as the glitz and golf capital of Florida. Trendy Palm Beach Island is the centerpiece of in-season (winter) life and its golf courses, from famed Seminole Golf Club in the north to the Boca Raton Resort & Club on its southern side, golf is life for this South Florida county of more than one million residents.
There’s Florida’s oldest course – the Ocean Course at the fabled Breakers resort on Palm Beach Island; the terrific Palm Beach Par 3 on the island that offers great views of the Intracoastal and Atlantic Ocean; the Delray Beach Golf Club, a Donald Ross design built in 1923; Bink’s Forest Golf Club in the western village of Wellington, like Delray Beach GC, a top-notch public course; the Rees Jones Course at Breakers West; the Resort Course at the Boca Raton Resort & Club where Tommy Armour and Sam Snead each served as professionals; and the Champions Course at PGA National Resort and Spa, home to the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic and site of the 1983 Ryder Cup.
Indeed, Palm Beach County boasts two of the world’s great golf resorts – The Breakers and the Boca Raton Resort & Club, as well as PGA National with its five courses, but county residents and visitors can’t live by golf alone. In that regard, Palm Beach County offers two of the Southeast’s premier museums – the Flagler Museum and the Norton Museum of Art.
Those interested in Florida and Palm Beach County history need to start at the Flagler Museum. Located on Palm Beach Island, the Flagler is the former home (called Whitehall) of railroad magnate Henry Flagler, the man who for all practical purposes developed the north-south Florida coast as we know it today.
The epitome of Gilded Age architecture and wealth, Whitehall – 75 rooms and 60,000 square feet – was a wedding present from Flagler to his wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler. The Flagler’s lived and entertained at Whitehall until Henry Flagler’s death in in 1913.
Following Mary Flagler’s death in 1916, Whitehall changed ownership. A 10-story, 300-room tower was built and the pride of Henry Flagler was turned into a hotel. The tower no longer exists – replaced by an atrium garden – but visitors can still view the west side the mansion and imagine the island views that were available to tower guests.
Although it increasingly came under disrepair, the mansion operated as a hotel until 1959. In 1959, Jean Flagler Matthews formed a nonprofit corporation – the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum – to purchase Whitehall. In 1960 the mansion was opened to the public to the see the world of Henry Flagler and the Gilded Age.
Perhaps Henry Flagler’s greatest accomplishment was the completion of the Over-Sea Railroad that connected the South Florida mainland to Key West. Despite critics who said it couldn’t be done, Flagler completed the seven-year project in 1912. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the completion of the railroad, the Flagler Museum’s fall exhibition – from October 18 to Jan. 8, 21012 – tells the story what is generally considered the most ambitious engineering feat ever undertaken by a private citizen.
Across a much smaller bridge – connecting Palm Beach Island to West Palm Beach – is the Norton Museum of Art. The Norton is one of the country’s more visitor-friendly museum and features art work by the likes of, Gauguin, Matisse, Miró, Monet, Picasso.
Founded in 1941 by philanthropist Ralph Hubbard Norton, the museum’s collection has more 7,000 works of art and photography. Norton originally came to Palm Beach County in his early 20s and stayed at Henry Flagler’s Palm Beach Inn, which later became The Breakers.
In Palm Beach County, understand, life not only imitates art, it’s part of history.