The Breakers - More Than a Century of History

The Breakers’ celebrated history is a tribute to its founder, Henry Morrison Flagler, the man who transformed South Florida into a vacation destination for millions. Now into its second century, the resort not only enjoys national and international acclaim, but it continues to thrive under the ownership of Flagler’s heirs.

Flagler’s Fortune and Florida’s East Coast

When Henry Morrison Flagler first visited Florida in March 1878, he had accumulated a vast fortune with the Standard Oil Company (today Exxon Mobil) in Cleveland and New York as a longtime partner of John D. Rockefeller. In 1882, with the founding of the Standard Oil Trust, the then 52-year-old was earning and able to depend on an annual income of several millions from dividends. Impressed by Florida’s mild winter climate, Flagler decided to gradually withdraw from the company's day-to-day operations and turn his vision towards Florida and his new role of resort developer and railroad king.

In 1885, Flagler acquired a site and began the construction of his first hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. Ever the entrepreneur, he continued to build south towards Palm Beach, buying and building Florida railroads and rapidly extending lines down the state's east coast. As the Florida East Coast Railroad opened the region to development and tourism, Flagler continued to acquire or construct resort hotels along the route.

Royal Poinciana Hotel

In 1893, Flagler announced one of his boldest plans – to extend the Florida East Coast Railroad to the isolated area of Lake Worth and construct the Royal Poinciana Hotel on the lake’s eastern shore.

Touting warmer weather and easy access, it is as if at his command, the cream of American society crowded into this tiny town to experience the Royal Poinciana, his six-story, 1,100 room, Georgian-style hotel.

From its opening in 1894, the Royal Poinciana eventually became the world's largest hotel, stretching more than 1,800 feet along Lake Worth. The hallways were so extensive – more than three miles in length – that bellhops delivered messages and packages to guest rooms via bicycle.

Palm Beach Inn (The Original Breakers)

Delighted that many of America's most socially prominent families shared his love for Palm Beach, Flagler built a second hotel - Palm Beach Inn - on the beachfront portion of the Royal Poinciana's property.

The Palm Beach Inn, which opened on January 16, 1896, was fully booked for most of that first season. The hotel was smaller and quieter than the vast Royal Poinciana and overlooked the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of asking for rooms at the main hotel, many regular Palm Beach guests asked for rooms “down by the breakers.” The name stuck and when Flagler doubled the size of the Palm Beach Inn for the 1901 season, he renamed the hotel The Breakers.

On June 9, 1903, as workers were enlarging the wooden building for the fourth time in less than a decade, The Breakers burned down. Just two weeks after the fire, the 73-year-old Flagler announced that The Breakers would not only be rebuilt, but it would also open for the upcoming winter season.

The Breakers II

On February 1, 1904, The Breakers reopened to universal acclaim. The new Breakers, a rambling four-story, colonial-style building constructed entirely of wood, contained 425 rooms and suites. Rooms started at four dollars a night and included three meals a day.

As did its predecessor's, The Breakers guest register read like a “who's who” of early-20th century America and included: various Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Astors; the tycoons Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan; the publisher William Randolph Hearst; the five-and-dime kings W.T. Grant and J.C. Penney; and even assorted European nobility and U.S. presidents.

On March 18, 1925, twelve years after the death of Henry Morrison Flagler, tragedy struck again. That afternoon, the cry “fire in the south wing” suddenly filled The Breakers. Despite the firefighters' best efforts, the hotel was doomed. With strong southeast winds, the palatial hotel was soon engulfed in flames. Fortunately, no lives were lost in the blaze, a miracle considering the number of guests and employees. Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, then the Mayor of Chicago, was a guest at the hotel with his wife for the season. Attending the St. Patrick’s Day Ball the night before, Mrs. Thompson allegedly left her brand new, electric Marcel curling iron on when she departed her guest room, where the fire was proven to have started.

Refused to be beaten by this catastrophe and fueled with the same determination and vision as Flagler himself, Flagler’s heirs, led by William R. Kenan, Jr., president of the Florida East Coast Hotel Company and the Florida East Coast Railway Company, and the brother of Flagler’s wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, announced that it would not only build the world's finest resort hotel on the site of The Breakers, but it would do so in time for the opening of the 1926-27 winter season, a little more than a year away.

The Breakers That Stands Today – Circa 1926

The Florida East Coast Hotel Company selected the architectural firm Schultze and Weaver, which later designed the Waldorf-Astoria, Pierre, and Sherry Netherlands hotels in New York City, to rebuild The Breakers. During an earlier trip to Rome, Leonard Schultze had admired the Villa Medici (1575) and decided to use this building, Italian Renaissance in design, as the architectural inspiration for The Breakers facade.

On December 4, 1925, the New York City-based Turner Construction Company signed a contract to build the new seven-story Breakers. Construction began in January 1926. More than 1,200 construction workers labored around-the-clock, while 72 artisans from Italy completed the magnificent paintings on the lobby ceilings. The immense structure was completed for $7 million in a scant 11½ months and opened on December 29, 1926, just in time for the start of the Palm Beach season.

Exceeding everyone's expectations, the hotel opened showcasing a 200-foot-long main lobby with an arched, hand painted ceiling; a vast Florentine Dining Room, richly decorated with a beamed ceiling modeled after the Palazzo Davanzati (ca. 1400) in Florence; magnificent North and South Loggias; and shaded terraces and landscaped patios.

Far grander than its predecessor, The Breakers was more than America's greatest winter resort, it was an unrivaled masterpiece. The Architectural Forum praised The Breakers “without doubt one of the most magnificent, successful examples of a palatial winter resort hotel,” (May 1927). The president of Turner Construction Company reported soon after the opening, “Those who know, say it is the finest resort hotel in America, and it is not likely that the circumstances of ownership, time, and place will produce its counterpart in years to come.”

Now into its second century, The Breakers continues the tradition of excellence started by Henry Morrison Flagler. Today it remains one of the few, privately-owned resorts independent of chain affiliation. The heirs to the original ownership have successfully maintained and revitalized the hotel, keeping with the Flagler tradition and spending millions on renewal and expansion. With their commitment, capital expenditures averaging $25 million a year continue to be reinvested, ensuring The Breakers remains energized and alluring to future generations.

View our historic photo tour

HISTORIC TIMELINE OF THE BREAKERS

1893 Henry Morrison Flagler purchases 140 acres between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Worth.

1894 On February 11, Flagler opens his first luxury Palm Beach hotel on Lake Worth, the Royal Poinciana, which becomes the largest hotel in the world at the time.

The Florida East Coast Railway begins service to West Palm Beach on April 2.

1896 Flagler enlarges a winter home on the oceanfront side of his 140-acre property to form the Palm Beach Inn (later renamed The Breakers - see 1901). As an extension to the Royal Poinciana, the Palm Beach Inn opened on January 16 and held the designation of being the only oceanfront hotel south of Daytona Beach.

Flagler extends the Florida East Coast Railway to Miami and builds the Port of Palm Beach, a 1,000-foot pier off the Palm Beach Inn, which allows travel via steamship to Nassau, Havana and Key West.

1897 Flagler contracts Alexander H. Findlay to build the first nine-hole golf course in Florida.

1899 Due to Palm Beach's growing popularity and new reputation as a “winter paradise,” the Royal Poinciana is enlarged by half its size.

1900 During the summer, Flagler lays foundation for Whitehall, his private residence.

1901 Guests begin to request rooms “down by the breakers” and the Palm Beach Inn is officially renamed The Breakers.

On August 24, Henry Morrison Flagler (71) marries Mary Lily Kenan (34) in Kenansville, North Carolina.

1902 Mr. & Mrs. Flagler move into Whitehall, one of the great estates in America's Gilded Age, on February 6. This exquisite 55-room marble palace on Lake Worth was built as a gift for Flagler’s bride. Today, Whitehall is known as the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum and it is open for the public to enjoy.  

1903 While being enlarged, The Breakers catches fire and burns to the ground on June 9. A magnificent new wooden structure opens in its place on February 1, 1904 and is deemed one of the finest hotels in America.

Flagler extends his railroad to the front of the hotel for convenience; tracks remained next to the circular driveway until the late 1920’s.

1913 Following a serious fall at Whitehall, Flagler moves to his seaside Nautilus Cottage where he dies on May 20.

1925 On March 18, the “second” Breakers burns down due to a fire that was allegedly started by one of those “newfangled curling irons.”

The Turner Construction Company signs a contract to build the new Breakers on December 4.

1926 In a tribute to Henry Flagler’s vision, The Flagler heirs build the current Breakers in a record 11½ months at a cost of $7 million. The hotel opens its doors on December 29, 1926, just in time for the start of season. Inspired by the Italian Renaissance, the exterior design is similar to Flagler’s Ponce de Leon hotel masterpiece, located in St. Augustine, Florida. The resort’s interior boasts both gilded and hand-painted ceilings by Florentine artists, Venetian chandeliers and paintings of great Renaissance rulers. Today, The Breakers is recognized as one of the most splendid architectural and artistic achievements of its era.

1928 As The Breakers increases in popularity, and seating guests comfortably at dinner becomes a problem, the heirs add The Circle, one of the most picturesque dining rooms in the world.

1930 The Royal Poinciana is gradually torn down (1930 - 1935) as The Breakers has become the primary resort in town.

1942 On September 10, The Breakers becomes the U.S. Army’s Ream General Hospital where thousands of servicemen and women recuperate from their wounds and illnesses during World War II. Prominent visitors included Eleanor Roosevelt and President Harry Truman.

More than a dozen babies, known as “Breakers Babies,” are born at the hotel (1942 – 1944).

1944 In May, the U.S. Army returns The Breakers to its owners, who prepare for reopening on December 24.

1966 The Breakers Ocean Golf Clubhouse opens.

1968 The Breakers adds: 150 guest rooms to the east wings, extensive meeting facilities, the Venetian Ballroom, and a new Beach Club, which replaces the older Beach Casino.

1970 The Breakers becomes fully air-conditioned.

1971 The Breakers, originally open mid-December to mid-April, commences year-round operation.

1973 The Breakers named to the National Register of Historic Places.

1995 The hotel completes a five-year, $75 million renovation program.

1996 The resort celebrates its Centennial anniversary as a Palm Beach and national landmark.

1999 The Breakers opens its new oceanfront Spa, Beach Club and Ponce de Leon Ballroom.

2000 Echo, the resort’s first off-site restaurant opens; it features the distinctive cuisines of Asia.

2001 The historic Ocean Course completes a renovation and the new Golf & Tennis Clubhouse opens.  

2002 The guest room & suite renovation comes to completion, the main drive is redesigned and the resort owners commit to capital expenditures averaging $15 million per year.

2003 Building on its reputation as one of America’s leading family-friendly resorts, The Breakers unveils its new Family Entertainment Center, a complex of activities for all ages.

2004 Famed golf course architect Rees Jones partners with The Breakers on the reconstruction of The Breakers Rees Jones® Course located at Breakers West.

2006 The Breakers unveils a new $15 million beachfront redevelopment that includes the addition of 20 private poolside bungalows, two pools, three whirlpool spas, a Beach Gazebo and The Ocean Grill.

2007 A five-year, guest room renovation commences and the John Webster Golf Academy opens at both Ocean Course and Rees Jones® Golf Course at Breakers West.

2008 The resort completes the second phase of its five-year room revitalization. This phase reduces the resort’s guest room count to 540 guest rooms, including 68 suites.

In November, The Breakers opens a new fashion and fine jewelry boutique, Mix at The Breakers®.

2010 The resort celebrates the opening of its Guerlain boutique and Signature Shop.

2011 The five-year, $80 million guest room renovation is completed and the hotel opens Lilly Pulitzer® at The Breakers and Match at The Breakers® - the ultimate resort shoe boutique.

2012 The Breakers’ begins a design partnership with Tihany Design, which launches with the opening of HMF - the resort’s chic social club. The restaurant’s namesake honors the resort’s founder, Henry Morrison Flagler.

2013 The Breakers introduces The Surf Break – an open-air bar nestled between the Active and South Pools, the Adult Pool and the re-imagined Flagler Steakhouse – a vibrant take on the classic American chophouse.

The resort embarks on another phase of guest room revitalization.

2014 With views overlooking the Atlantic, the resort opens its 6,000-square-foot, indoor/outdoor Ocean Fitness center.

2015 After a full-scale, $5 million transformation, The Breakers unveils Flagler Club, a 25-room boutique hotel within-the-hotel. Upon completion, the resort’s room count stands at 538 rooms, which includes 68 suites.

Following a dramatic $8 million transformation, the indoor/outdoor Spa at The Breakers reopens as the resort’s coveted destination for relaxation and personal renewal, along with the newly re-imagined Ocean House (formerly The Ocean Grill).

2016 The Breakers elevates 65 guest rooms and suites to a new level of casually chic elegance and opens the legendary Seafood Bar – with breathtaking, sweeping views of the Atlantic, the restaurant is designed by Tihany Design, and inspired by the yachting lifestyle of Palm Beach.

2017 The expansion of the south mezzanine meeting spaces increases the number of conference rooms to 33.

2018 Named after Mary Lily Kenan, Henry’s wife, Mary Lily’s welcomes visitors with sweet treats and frozen indulgences.

The Breakers’ popular shopping destination, News & Gourmet, undergoes an extensive makeover and the historic Ocean Course unveils a full-scale renovation by award-winning golf architect Rees Jones.

2019 The Imperial and Royal Poinciana Suites in the resort’s south oceanfront tower, along with the hotel’s main lobby, the Ponce de Leon Ballroom and our 25 poolside bungalows are all refreshed by celebrated Tihany Design.

2020 The resort updates its north tower guest rooms, Gulfstream Meeting Rooms, Ocean Fitness center and Polo Ralph Lauren and Match boutiques.

Making its debut on Royal Poinciana Way, Via Flagler by The Breakers opens. This alfresco plaza features a collection of boutiques, eateries and residences and includes the resort’s second off-site restaurant, Henry’s Palm Beach - elevated, American comfort food with character and first off-site boutique, SHAN – innovative, ready-to-wear swimwear and resort wear clothing.

2021 An experience that blends a classic café with a contemporary boutique, the resort welcomes Main Street by The Breakers to its retail collection at Via Flagler.

On January 16, The Breakers commemorates its 125th anniversary.

Thanks to the dedication of its long-standing family ownership, The Breakers continues to reinvest an average of $25 million each year in capital improvements and ongoing revitalization. More to come in 2021. 

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The Breakers' Birthday

Founded in 1896, see how our resort is celebrating 125 years of hospitality...

125th Anniversary