Palm Beach, Fla. — It was the Gilded Age, a post-Civil War, pre-Great Depression era when the rich got richer and those who had it flaunted it, building grand and grandiose mansions and hotels as Rococo-Beaux Arts-Renaissance expressions of what they deemed the apogee of culture.
In California, it was William Randolph Hearst and his San Simeon. In South Florida, visionaries and eccentrics built spectacular hotels for the wealthy and hotel-size winter homes for themselves.
Great examples of Gilded Age architecture survive, geographically close and yet a world apart from the oh-so-trendy Art Deco district of Miami's South Beach.
In January, I flew to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., rented a car and drove about 50 miles north to Palm Beach, where I stayed overnight at the Breakers. From there, I hotel-hopped down the Atlantic Gold Coast, staying at Boca Raton Resort & Club, about 30 miles south, before continuing 50 miles south to the Biltmore at Coral Gables. En route, I visited the winter homes -- both now museums -- of Florida pioneer Henry Morrison Flagler, who struck gold as a founder of Standard Oil, and International Harvester co-founder James Deering.
I loved every painted ceiling, Oriental carpet, splashing fountain, marble column, palm-lined entrance and Baccarat chandelier. For those in the money, ostentation knew no bounds.
But when the party was over -- dealt the double blow of a 1926 hurricane and the 1929 stock market crash -- some of these palaces fell on hard times. Buyers and heirs did not always treat them reverentially, and several came perilously close to being razed. In the '40s, all three hotels were converted to military hospitals or barracks.
But they're back and beautiful. All that grandeur does come at a price -- stiff tabs for pretty standard rooms.
None is grander than the Breakers, the current incarnation of the 1896 Flagler-built Palm Beach Inn. It changed its name after guests began requesting rooms "over by the breakers." That hotel burned down twice, the second fire, according to the hotel's historian, traced to a newfangled curling iron in 1925. Today's oceanfront Italian Renaissance building dates back to 1926.
With completion of a $145-million renovation in 2002, the 560-room hotel has remained faithful to its past. The glorious public rooms have been refurbished, the guest rooms renovated for the first time since the '70s.
The owners (Flagler family descendants) have added a luxe oceanfront spa and fitness center, high-end shops and a kids' high-tech play center. One of the four pools is for children. With it all, the Breakers has to-the-manner-born elegance.
My room (Internet rate of $436, including tax) overlooked a rooftop but was a decent if not extravagant size, nicely done in soft green and coral, with roomy bath, king-size bed and all the perks -- umbrella, terry robes, turndown service.
Room service is pricey ($7 for Cheerios), but the gourmet-food and news shop has a fine little deli where I bought a bagel and coffee ($4.50) and ate breakfast as I sat on a wicker chair on the veranda overlooking lawns and palm-bordered driveway. Restaurant service was sometimes slow and less than perfect, despite a 20% service add-on. Still, where but in the Tapestry Bar can one relax in living-room comfort while hearing live jazz and gazing at 15th century Flemish tapestries?
Early on, when the Breakers was strictly a winter resort, families brought their nannies. Today, the hotel's Coconut Crew day camp is the baby-sitter, but the hotel still caters to a carriage trade. Guests in the $750-to-$995-a-night rooms on the sixth and seventh floors sleep on Frette linens and enjoy the perks of the Flagler Club, including complimentary breakfast and drinks.
Prohibition-era patrons had to be a bit more creative to get drinks. The hotel's publicist, Margee Adelsperger, pointed out a secret staircase that once led to a balcony overlooking the majestic Circle dining room. "Palm Beachers would sneak up and sit behind the band with their bottles," she said.
My next stop was the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum (formerly Whitehall), a $4-million wedding gift from Flagler to his third wife, Mary Lily. (Widowed once, he married her after divorcing Ida Alice, who was declared insane for, among other things, insisting that her Ouija board had told her the czar of Russia wanted to marry her.)
The newlywed Flaglers hosted many a society soiree in their 55-room, 60,000-square-foot Beaux Arts mansion on Lake Worth. In the mirrored gold and white ballroom, I could almost hear the strains of a minuet as I was told about the 1903 Bal Poudre, a Washington's Birthday gala where powdered wigs were de rigueur.
Flagler spent 11 winters at Whitehall, and in 1913 suffered a fall that led to his death at age 83. The much younger Mary Lily lived four more years, returning only once to Whitehall.