A Look Back on More Than a Century of History at The Breakers Palm Beach

PALM BEACH, FL – The Breakers’ celebrated history is a monumental tribute to its founder Henry Morrison Flagler, the man who transformed South Florida into a vacation land 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 and Florida’s East Coast

When Henry Morrison Flagler first visited Florida in March 1878, he had already accumulated a vast fortune in Cleveland and New York as a longtime partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company.  In 1883, he turned his attention to Florida.  Impressed with the mild winter climate, he began the construction of his first hotel in St. Augustine and continued south to Palm Beach.

 

With the founding of the Standard Oil Trust in 1882, Flagler, then 55 years old, could depend on an annual income of several million dollars from dividends, and he gradually withdrew from the company's day-to-day operations.  But Flagler did not retire.  Instead, ever the entrepreneur, he turned his vision and energy to a new role – resort developer and railroad king. 

 

Flagler started buying and building Florida railroads, rapidly extending the lines down the state's east coast.  As the Florida East Coast Railroad opened up this sparsely settled region to development and tourism, Flagler acquired or constructed resort hotels along the coast.

 

Royal Poinciana Hotel

In 1893, Flagler announced one of his boldest plans ever – to extend the Florida East Coast Railroad to isolated Lake Worth, develop a town (now West Palm Beach) on 200 acres along Lake Worth's west shore, and construct the Royal Poinciana Hotel on Lake Worth's east shore (now Palm Beach).

 

People came to Palm Beach to stay at the Royal Poinciana, a six-story, Georgian-style hotel. Flagler built the destination, provided easy access on his railroad, and the cream of American society crowded into this tiny town as if at his command.           
                                                           

From its opening in 1894, the Royal Poinciana eventually became the world's largest hotel, stretching more than 1,800 feet along Lake Worth, its 1,100 rooms accommodated 1,750 guests.  The hallways were so extensive – more than three miles in length – that bellhops delivered messages and packages from the front desk to guest rooms by 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.  Palm Beach Inn, which opened on January 16, 1896, was fully booked for most of that season.  The hotel was smaller and quieter than the vast Royal Poinciana and overlooked the Atlantic Ocean.

 

Instead of asking for rooms at the Royal Poinciana, many regular Palm Beach guests asked for rooms “down by the breakers.”  The name stuck.  When Flagler doubled the size of the Palm Beach Inn for the 1901 season, he renamed it The Breakers.

 

In 1897, Flagler enlisted Alexander H. Findlay, the father of American golf and a close friend of Flagler’s partner, John D. Rockefeller, to design the first golf course in the state of Florida, adjacent to the Palm Beach Inn.   It was originally constructed with only nine holes, as Flagler thought golf a passing fancy.

 

On June 9, 1903, as workers were enlarging the wood 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 also would 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, including three meals a day. 

 

As did its predecessor's, The Breakers guest register read like a “who's who” of early-20th century America:  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 again struck his empire.  That afternoon the cry “fire in the south wing” suddenly filled The Breakers. 

 

Despite the firefighters' efforts, The Breakers was doomed.  Strong southeast winds fanned the fire.  The palatial hotel, built almost entirely of wood, was soon engulfed in flames.  The clouds of smoke that poured out of the hotel could be seen twenty miles away.  Fortunately, no lives were lost in the blaze, a miracle considering the number of guests and employees at The Breakers.   Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, then the Mayor of Chicago, was a guest at the hotel with his wife for the season; they

attended the St. Patrick’s Day Ball the night before on March 17.  The following morning, Mrs. Thompson allegedly left on her brand new, electric Marcel curling iron when she departed her guest room, where the fire was proven to have started.

 

Flagler’s heirs refused to be beaten by this catastrophe.  Led by William R. Kenan, Jr., president of both the Florida East Coast Hotel Company and the Florida East Coast Railway Company and the brother of Flagler’s wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, they showed the same determination and vision as Flagler himself. 

 

Shortly after the fire the Florida East Coast Hotel Company announced that it would not only build the world's finest resort hotel on the site of The Breakers but also that it would do so in time for the opening of the 1926-27 winter season, 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.  For the hotel's architectural style, Schultze and Weaver selected the Italian Renaissance.  During an earlier trip to Rome, Leonard Schultze had admired the Villa Medici (1575), and used that building as the basis for The Breakers facade.

 

On December 4, 1925, the New York City-based Turner Construction Company signed a contract to build the new Breakers and construction began in January 1926.  The seven-story hotel had to be built, furnished, and landscaped to open just after Christmas 1926, the start of the Palm Beach season.

 

More than 1,200 construction workers labored on The Breakers around-the-clock to meet the opening date.  Seventy-three artisans were brought from Italy to complete the magnificent paintings on the ceilings of the lobby and first-floor public rooms.  The immense structure was completed in a scant 11½ months and opened on December 29, 1926. 

 

The Breakers exceeded everyone's expectations.  The 200-foot-long main lobby, with its high-arched ceiling decorated with paintings; the vast Florentine Dining Room, with its richly decorated, beamed ceiling modeled after the Palazzo Davanzati (ca. 1400) in Florence; the magnificent North and South Loggias; and the 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.  As 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 when Henry Morrison Flagler built his first hotel.  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 in keeping with the Flagler tradition, spending millions on renewal and expansion.  With their commitment, capital expenditures averaging $25 million a year will continue to be reinvested in The Breakers for the long term, to ensure the resort remains appealing to future generations.  Today, its timeless atmosphere reflects the elegance and comfort of a grand residence, yet energized with a youthful and family-minded philosophy.

           

THE BREAKERS HISTORICAL TIMELINE

 

PALM BEACH, FL. – After accumulating a great fortune through a partnership with John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Trust, today Exxon Mobil, Henry Morrison Flagler turned his attention to Florida in 1883.  Impressed with the mild winter climate, he began the construction of his first hotel in St. Augustine and continued south to Palm Beach.  Until his death in 1913, Flagler established along the east coast of Florida an extraordinary legacy of which The Breakers is a monumental part.

 

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

 

1894     On February 11, Flagler opens his first Palm Beach hotel and introduces the concept of luxury hotels to the area.  His hotel, the Royal Poinciana on Lake Worth, eventually becomes the largest hotel in the world for its day.

 

1894     The Florida East Coast Railway begins service to West Palm Beach on April 2.

 

1896     Flagler enlarges a winter home which stood on the 140 acres he purchased in 1893 forming the Palm Beach Inn (later renamed The Breakers - see 1901), an overflow property to the Royal Poinciana.  Upon its opening on January 16, this beautiful inn holds the designation as being the only oceanfront hotel south of Daytona Beach.

 

1896     Flagler extends the Florida East Coast Railway to Miami and opens the Royal Palm Hotel on Biscayne Bay.  He then builds The Port of Palm Beach, a 1,000-foot pier off the Palm Beach Inn.  From this port, guests are able to travel via steamship to Nassau, Havana and Key West.

 

1897     To accommodate golfers at the Palm Beach Inn and Royal Poinciana, Flagler contracts Alexander H. Findlay to build the first 9 holes of golf 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 to accommodate the Northerners flocking to South Florida's beaches and warm climate.

 

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

 

1901     As guests begin to request a room “down by the breakers,” the Palm Beach Inn is renamed The Breakers.

 

1901     Henry Morrison Flagler, 71 years old, marries Mary Lily Kenan, 34 years old, in Kenansville, North Carolina on August 24.

 

1902     On February 6, Mr. and Mrs. Henry M. 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, Mary Lily Kenan.  Today, Whitehall is known as the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum and is open for the public to enjoy.                                                               

 

1903     While again being enlarged, The Breakers catches fire and burns to the ground on June 9.  It was immediately replaced by a more attractive wooden structure that opened its doors on February 1 and was effectively deemed one of the finest hotels in America.  Flagler extended his railroad to the front of the hotel for convenience.  Tracks remained next to the circular driveway of The Breakers until the late 1920s.                                

 

1905     The American novelist Henry James visits The Breakers.  In The American Scene (1907) he describes the hotel as “vast and cool and fair, friendly, breezy, shiny, swabbed and burnished like a royal yacht, really immaculate and delightful.”                                                                                  

 

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

 

1925     The “second” Breakers burns on March 18.  The fire was said to have been started by one of those “new fangled curling irons.”

 

1925     The Turner Construction Company signs a contract to build the new Breakers on December 4.

 

1926     In a tribute to the vision of Henry Flagler, The Flagler heirs built the current Breakers, one of the finest resorts in the world, at a cost of $7 million.  From ground breaking to the first guest check-in December 29, 1926, The Breakers is completed in a record-breaking 11½ months, in order to open just after Christmas, the start of the Palm Beach season.  Today, The Breakers is praised as one of the most splendid architectural and artistic achievements of its era.  The exterior design is Italian Renaissance with an overall layout very similar to the Ponce de Leon, Flagler's hotel masterpiece in St. Augustine.  The inside decor boasts spectacular Venetian chandeliers, paintings of great Renaissance rulers, gilded ceilings as well as ceilings hand-painted by Florentine artists.

 

1926     On December 30, The Palm Beach Post-Times hails The Breakers as “a milestone in the architectural perfection of American hotels.”

 

1927     In May, The Architectural Forum praises The Breakers as “without doubt one of the most magnificent successful examples of a palatial winter resort hotel.”

 

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

 

1930     Royal Poinciana is gradually torn down between 1930 and 1935.  The Victorian wooden structure was in excess of 35 years old.  The Breakers had long since replaced the Royal Poinciana as the primary resort of the town.

 

1936     In February, Fortune declares, “The new Breakers is undoubtedly the finest resort hotel in the world.”

 

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 include Eleanor Roosevelt and President Harry Truman.

 

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

 

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

 

1944     The Breakers reopens as a hotel on December 24.

 

1966     The Breakers Ocean Golf Clubhouse opens.

 

1968     The east wings, consisting of 150 guestrooms, are added to The Breakers in addition to the grand Venetian Ballroom and extensive meeting facilities.  A new Beach Club replaces the older Beach Casino.

 

1970     The Breakers is fully air conditioned.

 

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

 

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

 

1991     In March, Town and Country observes, “There is nothing quite like The Breakers, nothing quite like its Italianate architecture, its grandeur, or the legacy of its fascinating past.”

 

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. 

 

1997     The Breakers successfully earns back the coveted AAA Five Diamond Award.

 

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

 

2001     Redesign and renovation of historic Ocean Course and opening of new Golf & Tennis Clubhouse designed in the grand, “Old Florida” style of architecture.

 

2002     Completion of oceanfront tower room renovation marks the renewal of all guest rooms and suites; re-design of main drive and arrival.  Owner’s of the resort 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 entertainment and activities for all ages.

 

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

 

2006     The Breakers unveils a $15 million beachfront redevelopment and introduced the ultimate beachfront experience featuring lush tropical landscaping, 20 private poolside bungalows, two new pools – one for relaxation and one for families, three whirlpool spas, a Beach Gazebo and The Ocean Grill.                                                                                                                 

 

2007     The Breakers commences a five-year, guest room renovation.  The John Webster Golf Academy at The Breakers opened at the historic Ocean Course and newly-renovated Rees Jones® Golf Course.

 

2008     The resort completes the second phase of its five-year room revitalization. This phase reduced the resort’s guest room count to 540 guest rooms, including 68 suites. The Breakers opens a new fashion and fine jewelry and accessories boutique, Mix at The Breakers®, in November.

 

2009     The resort completes the third phase of its guest room renewal project.

 

2010     The resort completes the fourth phase of its guest room redesign project and celebrates the grand re-opening of the Guerlain boutique and Signature Shop.

 

2011     The Breakers completes a five-year, $80 million renovation of all guest rooms.  All accommodations feature a fresh, new décor in a distinctive and classic style that offers the highest standards of guest comfort. The resort opens Match at The Breakers® and Lilly Pulitzer® at The Breakers in November.

 

2012     HMF –  an exciting new drinking and dining experience unlike any other in Palm Beach, opens. Its namesake honors The Breakers’ legendary 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 – a more tranquil environment exclusively for guests ages 21 and older; and the re-imagined Flager Steakhouse – a modern and vibrant take on the classic steakhouse experience.  The resort embarks on another phased guest room revitalization.

 

2014     The resort opens Ocean Fitness, a spectacular new, 6,000-square-foot, indoor/outdoor fitness experience situated above the Beach Club complex. Thanks to the dedication of its long-standing family ownership, The Breakers continues to re-invest an unrivaled $30 million each year in capital improvements and ongoing revitalization

 

2015     After a full-scale, $5 million transformation The Breakers unveils the new Flagler Club. This exclusive 25-room experience offers guests private access to re-designed accommodations, personalized service from pre-arrival to departure, and premium amenities inclusive of its Club Lounge and panoramic Terrace re-designed by Adam D. Tihany acting as design consultant to Peacock + Lewis Architects.    

 

2015     Following a dramatic $8 million transformation, the new Spa at The Breakers opens as the resort’s coveted destination for relaxation and personal renewal. Featuring a relaxed modern style inspired by the calming virtues of the resort’s seaside location and Italian influence, the indoor/outdoor Spa embraces guests with a fresh, soothing atmosphere that engages all senses.