The Gilded Age was a lavish time in American history when the nation’s wealthiest families built over-the-top mansions to showcase their status. But their power wasn’t limited to places like New York, Chicago, and Newport. These people also made summer homes and hotels in the South, many of which still exist today.
This story is based on one I wrote for Fodor’s. You can read it here.
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Tycoon Henry Flagler is one of the most influential people in Florida, responsible for the railroad that ran through miles of swamp to connect the state. He created West Palm Beach in 1898 for the employees of his resort, the Royal Poinciana Hotel.
He next opened The Breakers Hotel, named for the crashing waves alongside the property. It still operates today and has a restaurant named in honor of Flagler.
Flagler built Whitehall, his Palm Beach home, in 1902 for his third wife. At 75 rooms spread across 60,000 square feet, the couple only spent winters there. The mansion was built by Carrère and Hastings, the firm behind Flagler’s hotels. He lived here until his death after falling down the stairs. It was saved from demolition in 1959 and opened as a museum.
Learn more about Flagler’s West Palm Beach on the West Palm Beach: Historic Neighborhoods Food Tour.
Flagler not only made an impact on Palm Beach but also forever changed St. Augustine, where he first stayed on his honeymoon. He wanted to purchase the Moorish-inspired Villa Zorayda from millionaire Franklin W. Smith, but he wouldn’t sell. Today, it operates as a museum.
Instead, Flagler opened his own hotels for visiting Northerners, starting by purchasing the Casa Monica Hotel from Smith, which still operates as a hotel. He then opened Hotel Alcazar, now the Lightner Museum, and the Ponce de Leon Hotel, which is part of Flagler College. Students provide tours of the campus, including the Tiffany glass windows.
Get a skip-the-line ticket to the Lightner Museum before you go.
Like Flagler, Henry Plant found success in developing a railroad in Florida, this time on the west coast. In 1887 he built the PICO Hotel in Sanford, near Orlando, for his steamboat and rail passengers. He later opened The Belleview Inn near Clearwater.
In 1891, he built the Tampa Bay Hotel in Tampa as a place for steamboat passengers to stay. In its heydey, the hotel hosted guests like Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, and Winston Churchill.
Today it operates as the Henry Plant Museum, showcasing the Gilded Age decor of the then-500 room hotel. It’s built in the Moorish revival style with minarets and domes.
Georgia’s Cumberland Island was once the stomping grounds of the Carnegie family, who had homes like Dungeness and Plum Orchard. Today members of the extended family still live in private homes. Visitors can explore the Dungeness ruins, tour Plum Orchard, and admire the wild horses.
The Jekyll Island Club was established in 1886 as a playground for the rich and famous on Georgia’s Golden Isles. The club had a notoriously tough application process with a membership of Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies. The mostly winter retreat quickly earned the nickname “The Millionaire’s Club.”
These wealthy men also worked while here, establishing the Federal Reserve Bank system in 1910 and making the first transatlantic phone call. The club fell into disrepair during the Great Depression but was restored in 1986. Today it operates as a hotel with historic homes open for tours.
George Washington Vanderbilt II visited the quiet town of Asheville before deciding to built his “summer home” there. What he built became Biltmore Estate, an over 170,000 square-foot mansion that far surpassed his brothers’ homes in Rhode Island and New York. In fact, it remains America’s largest privately-owned home.
Thomas Edison installed the home’s electricity and Frederick Law Olmsted designed the grounds. While the land has been parceled over the years, the home remains in the care of the extended family.
Biltmore Estate opened to tours in 1956 and hosts exhibits and film crews, used as the setting for the movie Richie Rich. The property has multiple restaurants and inns, as well as America’s most-visited winery.
Among those to visit here were financier William C. Whitney, Titanic survivor and socialite Madeleine Astor, and William Kissam Vanderbilt, brother of Biltmore-owner George.
The wealthy families set up “cottages,” which are grander than they sound, and took part in horse racing, fox hunts, and polo. Banksia was one of these cottages and now operates as the Aiken County Historical Museum.
The Willcox Hotel was created in 1900 to service this winter clientele. The luxury property hosted Vanderbilts and Roosevelts before closing in the 1950s. It reopened and remains a luxury hotel.
After Williams’ death, it was inherited by his son-in-law Patrick Calhoun, the grandson of statesman John C. Calhoun. In 1914, it operated as a hotel and in 1932, portions of the property were subdivided. In 1976, it was purchased and restored.
In 2004, it began operating as Charleston‘s Gilded Age museum. It’s also been used in films like North and South and The Notebook. It is decorated in the Gilded Age style and contains artifacts from the period.
Have you been to any of these Gilded Age landmarks?