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 and railroad developer.

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.

Historical image of The Breakers beachfront, circa 1950
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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. 
  • On April 2, the Florida East Coast Railway begins service to West Palm Beach.

1896

  • Flagler enlarges a winter home on the oceanfront side of the property forming the Palm Beach Inn (later renamed The Breakers), an extension of the Royal Poinciana and the only oceanfront hotel south of Daytona Beach.
  • Flagler also 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 guests to 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 a room “down by the breakers” and the Palm Beach Inn is officially renamed The Breakers.
  • On August 24, Flagler marries Mary Lily Kenan in Kenansville, North Carolina.

1902

  • On February 6, Mr. and Mrs. Flagler move into Whitehall, one of the great estates of America’s Gilded Age. This exquisite 55-room marble palace on Lake Worth was specially built as a gift to Flagler’s bride.
  • Today, Whitehall is also known as the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum and 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. The tracks remain until the late 1920s.

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, his heirs build the current Breakers, one of the finest resorts in the world, at a cost of $7 million.
  • The Breakers is completed in a record 11 1/2 months and opens on December 29, just in time for the start of season.

1928

  • As The Breakers increases in popularity, and to accommodate guests more comfortably at dinner, the heirs add The Circle, one of the most picturesque dining rooms in the world.

1930 - 1935

  • The Royal Poinciana is gradually torn down as The Breakers has become the primary resort in town.

1942 - 1944

  • 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.
  • More than a dozen babies – known as “Breakers Babies” – are born at the hotel.
  • In May of 1944, the U.S. Army returns The Breakers to its owners. The Breakers reopens as a hotel on December 24.

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 - 1997

  • The Breakers establishes The Shops at The Breakers, an ever expanding and evolving collection of world-class boutiques, that includes The Breakers Signature Shop, Guerlain, Absolutely Suitable and more.
  • In 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

  • A guest room and suite renovation comes to completion and the Main Drive is redesigned.

2003

  • 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 beachfront redevelopment that includes the addition of two pools, three whirlpool spas, 20 private poolside bungalows and The Ocean Grill.

2007

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

2008

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

2012

  • The Breakers begins a design partnership with Tihany Design, which launches with the opening of HMF, the resorts chic social club. Its name honors The Breakers legendary founder, Henry Morrison Flagler.

2013

  • The Breakers introduces The Surf Break - an open-air, oceanfront bar, the Adult Pool and the re-imagined Flagler Steakhouse.
  • The resort embarks on another phase of guest room revitalization.

2014

  • With views of the Atlantic, Ocean Fitness, a spectacular 6,000 square foot, indoor-outdoor fitness center, opens to hotel guests on a complimentary basis.

2015

  • The Breakers unveils the ultra-luxurious Flagler Club – an exclusive 25-room boutique hotel within the hotel.
  • Following a dramatic transformation, the indoor-outdoor Spa at The Breakers reopens as the resort’s coveted destination for relaxation and personal renewal.
  • Newly re-imagined Ocean House (formerly The Ocean Grill) opens.

2016

  • Inspired by the yachting lifestyle of Palm Beach, the legendary Seafood Bar is completely redesigned by Tihany Design and re-opens in time for the upcoming winter season.

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.
  • 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, Ponce de Leon Ballroom and 25 poolside bungalows are all refreshed by celebrated Tihany Design.

2020

  • The Gulfstream Meeting Rooms, Ocean Fitness center and Polo Ralph Lauren and Match boutiques are updated.
  • Reimagining every facet of the employee, guest and member experience, The Breakers implements its comprehensive B SAFE – Health & Safety Initiative.
  • Making its debut on Royal Poinciana Way, Via Flagler by The Breakers opens. This al fresco plaza features a collection of boutiques, eateries and galleries that 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

  • Blending a classic café with a contemporary boutique, the resort welcomes Main Street by The Breakers at Via Flagler.
  • On January 16, The Breakers commemorates its 125th anniversary.
  • The Family Entertainment Center reimagines its playground and adds a nine-hole mini golf course.
  •  The expansion of digital services includes the debut of a virtual tour and guest app.  

2022

  • The resort elevates its Adult Pool experience, while The Shops at The Breakers welcomes Polo Ralph Lauren Kids, redesigns the Guerlain Paris boutique and expands Absolutely Suitable – a popular destination for swimwear, resort apparel and accessories. Breakers West Country Club completes a series of enhancements to the clubhouse, as well as a full-scale renovation of its Rees Jones golf course.

Thanks to our long-standing family ownership, The Breakers continues to reinvest an average of $25 million in annual capital improvements and ongoing revitalization. More to come…

 

Historic and current split view of The Breakers Main Drive

Florida's Original Vacation®

Peek inside our history with two special videos: