by Nila Do Simon | March 4, 2024

Journey Through Time: The Breakers Marks 128 Years of Palm Beach History at its Flagler Club

The Breakers remains a timeless icon in its 128th year while continuing to reinvent itself in a modern era, including the most recent revival of its exclusive Flagler Club, a boutique hotel inside the hotel.

The manicured drive of Palm Beach’s The Breakers, originally opened by Henry Flagler in 1926. Photography courtesy of the Breakers.

Today, on The Breakers’s 128th birthday, the grand dame at the center of Palm Beach feels more regal and alive than ever. Gusts from the Atlantic Ocean conform into gentle breezes as they collide with the oceanfront property on this Tuesday morning, filling the Italian Renaissance-style hotel with effervescent breaths as guests and club members mill around the 200-foot-long lobby. A young couple enters the lobby and stares in awe at what envelops them: a dramatic arched ceiling hand-painted by 75 Italian artisans and the 161-by-25-foot carpet with a colorful botanical motif. They ask a passerby to take a picture of them next to the enormous hexagonal floral arrangement that anchors the lobby, a familiar scene which has been played out by guests for decades. 

The feeling is unified on this special birthday: The Breakers may be 128 years old, but it’s just getting started. 

Model Isabella Gonzalez on the Flagler Club’s outdoor terrace, reserved exclusively for Flagler Club guests. Photography by Sonya Revell. Kelly Green Midi Bias Slip Dress and gold hoops by Dannijo. Hand Woven Straw Clutch by Milly Kate.

Though today’s birthday is a momentous occasion by all accounts, only a quiet celebration is taking place behind closed doors among a handful of team members and with minimal fanfare. It’s a fitting birthday tribute to the iconic hotel and its leadership team, who believe that a hat tip to the past is vital, but find it just as rewarding to look to the future.

Tricia Taylor, The Breakers’s newly installed president, is one of the few employees who might grab a slice of birthday cake, or not. She hasn’t decided yet. But she will sing “Happy Birthday” with her colleagues, she insists. A soft-spoken hospitality veteran who has worked at The Breakers for 28 years, Taylor arrived to the property as a 24-year-old graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Despite her education, which includes a stop at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, nothing could have prepared Taylor for what she was about to experience: a 140-acre property with a palatial main building emerging from the center of its oceanfront lot, two 18-hole golf courses, a beach club that would eventually house four pools and a premier food and beverage program that would soon recruit one of the world’s few female master sommeliers. Though she admits her knowledge of The Breakers at that time was limited, “I did know it was the grand dame of hotels,” says Taylor, a native of the Pacific Northwest.

And who wouldn’t agree with Taylor? From ballrooms with ceilings painted in gold diagonal patterns and adorned with 260 hand-carved cherubs to a domed event space with oval frescos depicting Renaissance landscapes, The Breakers is nothing less than spectacular.

My family and I wanted to escape to The Breakers during a few open days in January—and to check out the immaculate Flagler Club, the recently renovated 21-room boutique hotel located on two private floors of the main hotel building. Closed for nearly one year for a full-scale renovation, Flagler Club’s much-anticipated reopening proved to be worth the wait. Like all visitors of The Breakers, there was no shortage of decadent treats awaiting us, otherwise known in the hospitality industry as surprise and delights. Kids are often gifted with stuffed animals either upon arrival or as a parting present from the valet attendant (a shark and flamingo, in my kids’ cases). Gourmet chocolate bonbons from Norman Love Confections are left on nightstands during turndown service (mysteriously disappearing from my nightstand and later appearing on my husband’s nightstand). Staff members greet you by name. The list goes on and on. 

Flamingo’s Five Favorite Things To Do In Palm Beach

The Breakers’s 200-foot-long lobby has hand-painted ceilings and several arched glass doors leading to one of their courtyards. Photography courtesy of The Breakers.

A 20th-Century Elon Musk

To become acquainted with The Breakers is to become familiar with its founder, groundbreaking industrialist Henry M. Flagler. On the business side, Flagler made his extreme fortune in oil. The Flagler Museum, located steps from The Breakers in Palm Beach and which serves to preserve the magnate’s impact, writes on their website that “By the time of his death in 1913, Henry Flagler had accumulated almost unimaginable wealth from his business ventures. Flagler’s estate was worth an estimated $100 million, equivalent to more than $12.5 billion today.”

A resident of New York and then Ohio, Flagler saw potential in Florida where others had not. Then considered an undeveloped, too-tropical part of the country, Florida was unattractive by most standards. Except to Flagler. He helped develop St. Augustine by building the 540-room Hotel Ponce de Leon in 1888 at the age of 58. Realizing that the area needed an improved transportation system to carry hotel guests, Flagler began buying railroad tracks in Northeast Florida, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the Florida East Coast Railway.

He went on to construct a winter resort for wealthy tourists in Palm Beach. In 1894, Royal Poinciana Hotel opened and two years later, the Palm Beach Inn (what is now called The Breakers) opened. The hotel was so renamed because the ocean waves would crash and break against the property’s sand. Back then, The Breakers’s room rates started at $4 a night and included three meals a day. 

“He was the Elon Musk of that era,” says Rick Rose, a former hotelier and Palm Beach’s premier historian. “Building up Florida and Palm Beach at that time was literally akin to Musk saying that he’s going to take a rocket to the moon.”

A historic photo of The Breakers in Palm Beach. Photography courtesy of The Breakers.

The risky move paid off for the visionary. During the Gilded Age, Palm Beach became a playground for the wealthy (including the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Astors), America’s Riviera that supplanted the South of France as the destination of choice around the time of World War I. 

“He just opened up the entire state of Florida in 25 years,” Rose says of Flagler. 

The Breakers as we know it today, a 534-room property that’s an ode to iconic Mediterranean villas, is actually the third iteration of the hotel, with two separate fires taking down the first two buildings (needless to say, the third structure was very much focused on incorporating nonflammable building materials). Flagler himself has never seen this version of his groundbreaking hotel, but somehow he has immortalized himself within these walls. 

Building up Florida at that time was akin to Musk saying he’s going to take a rocket to the moon.
— Rick Rose

A walk in any of the hotel’s halls brings us closer to Flagler and his legend. His framed portrait, white mustache and hair parted down the center, is hung in a hallway just off the lobby, watching over guests as they admire his vision. Now both a hotel and club, with memberships available at The Breakers Ocean Club and the nearby Breakers West Country Club, The Breakers has ballooned into a luxurious aspirational lifestyle.

The property is still a family-owned business, bequeathed to Flagler’s third wife, Mary Lily Kenan, and later her family, the Kenans, when she died. It is one of the few family-owned, independent hotels in the world—a rarity in today’s world of mergers and acquisitions. The Kenan family prefer to stay out of the media (through their representative, they politely declined an interview for this story, and I couldn’t find one recent quote by a Kenan member about the resort), but their touch on the hotel is what speaks volumes. They invest an average of $30 million annually into maintaining the property—restoring or improving the guest experience—with notable changes including the 2012 addition of HMF, a vibey lounge that stays open late into the evening, and Henry’s Palm Beach, a bistro where American comfort food with a Palm Beach twist is served.

“They are constantly asking, ‘How can we make improvements and better the property?’” says Taylor, who works directly with the family and the board of directors to determine its revitalization plans. “Every part of a guest’s touchpoint is looked at to analyze how it can be improved.”

The Flagler Club terrace is open for guests to lounge, sip champagne and enjoy views of the Atlantic Ocean and of West Palm Beach. Photography courtesy of The Breakers.

Right This Way

At the pinnacle of The Breakers’s elite guest-experience ethos, literally and figuratively, is the Flagler Club. Taylor oversaw the renovation of this “hotel within a hotel” that is marketed as an ultra-exclusive boutique experience noted for its privacy and dedicated staff, including a chauffeur for the club’s Tesla reserved only for guests. Reopened in November 2023, the 13-room, eight-suite space is located on the sixth and seventh floors at the top of The Breakers, with restricted access for Flagler Club guests. Guests also have entry to the private lounge and sixth-floor terrace overlooking the hotel’s iconic palm-lined driveway, Lake Worth Lagoon and West Palm Beach (“with incredible sunsets,” Taylor adds). 

The refreshed space “reflects today’s travelers,” says Jessica Regen, the general manager of Flagler Club, while sitting at the club lounge, which has hosted private events with beauty brand Guerlain and famed fine-art photographer Gray Malin. 

To reimagine the boutique hotel, The Breakers enlisted Tihany Design, their aesthetics partner since 2012, and whose hospitality portfolio includes designing The Beverly Hills Hotel, Mandarin Oriental, Geneva and Casa Manni Roma. Managing partner Alessia Genova and her team were tasked with keeping an elegant, Palm-Beach look, but ensuring a light and airy vibe, almost “homey experience” Genova says. That is, if your home was designed by a New York City-based firm with a namesake who is an inductee of the Interior Design Hall of Fame. Gone are the brown and bulky furnishings, and in are the classic Palm Beach-inspired motifs and finishes, such as seafoam green architectural chairs, coral-pink accent pillows and off-white sofas with undulating backs that mimic the soft waves breaking outdoors. Guest rooms are equipped with Dyson Supersonic hair dryers, L’Occitane en Provence products and luxurious Frette robes and slippers, all exclusive to Flagler Club guests.

Henry Flagler was unrelenting in his pursuit of improving, and Flagler Club is just that.
— Tricia Taylor

Gonzalez has a lot to unpack in her room at the exclusive Flagler Club. Photography by Sonya Revell. White dress by GCH. Reign Gold Earrings by Dannijo.

“The history informed, in the sense that it is there. You have to acknowledge it and embrace it,” Genova says. “We were ready to continue that story with this renovation, something that fits Palm Beach, a sunny place with palm trees and the beach, but with sophistication.” Escorting me to Flagler Club today is Bernard Nicole, who personally met me downstairs at the lobby to welcome me to the property. If you ask the French-born Nicole what his role at Flagler Club is, he would simply reply, “I am Flagler Club.” And, to be honest, he’s not wrong. Nicole helped open Flagler Club 28 years ago, and then transitioned it from the typical club-level space found at most hotels to its current status as a luxury boutique hotel. With his charismatic, old-school hospitality, Nicole epitomizes the tradition set by The Breakers’s owners from day one. The text messages that I received earlier in the day alerting me that my suite was ready, showcase the bridge from yesteryear’s personal touch to today’s modern luxury. Not to mention the decadent food and beverage offerings that are available four times a day at the Flagler Club lounge, including a rotating menu of chef-made bites (when I was there, it was hand-rolled sushi, fresh caviar and toast points, and lobster rolls topped with edible flowers) while the dedicated chef also creates made-to-order omelets during breakfast hours and a bartender mixes handcrafted cocktails and pours Champagne during the evening. And the desserts. Let’s just say gorgeous displays of macarons, bonbons, fresh-baked cookies and mini fruit tarts seem to be the norm—and we haven’t even talked about the freezer drawer filled with Häagen-Dazs ice cream mini cups.

Bedrooms in the Flagler Club have recently been renovated and fluffed with small luxuries like Dyson Supersonic hair dryers, L’Occitane en Provence products and more. Photography courtesy of The Breakers.

When asked if Flagler Club encapsulates Henry Flagler’s vision, one that dates back over a century, Taylor does not hesitate with her answer. “I believe it does. It’s one of the reasons why we call it Flagler Club. Henry Flagler was unrelenting in his pursuit of improving, and Flagler Club is just that.”

The sunny locale that quickly became a preferred destination for America’s wealthiest just before the turn of the 20th century hasn’t released its grip yet on its place as one of Florida’s most revered hotels. It has hauled in a moving truck’s worth of awards, including recognition as a AAA Five Diamond property. However, its most impressive honor is one that a guest might overlook but is beyond important to the executive team and family owners. In 2023, the property was named one of the 2023 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For, the first and only independent hotel to receive this distinction. Of the nearly 2,300 employees, 97% voluntarily filled out the survey, with 94% responding that The Breakers is a great place to work, compared to 57% of employees at a typical U.S.-based company. Historically, The Breakers has been noted for its staff diversity and abundance of women in leadership.

“That’s one of the reasons I have stayed here for 28 years,” Taylor says. “From the moment I interviewed here, I was told that the team comes first and that you are important.”

Back at the hotel lobby, Taylor walks me to my car, gifting me with two generous portions of The Breakers’s famous chocolate chip cookies. It’s a homey, familial gesture that somehow simultaneously feels luxurious, thanks to their presentation inside a clear cube box tied up with a navy blue silk bow. As the sun sets on our conversation and we walk past the massive Florentine-inspired fountain at the resort’s main driveway, I look back at the palace on the sea, admiring its vastness. I’m reminded of what historian Rick Rose told me earlier, about how “we would never have had a population here without Flagler” and that “this hotel is perhaps his living legacy.”

Gonzalez waits in the Flagler Club lounge, held exclusively for Flagler Club guests, which was designed with Palm Beach living in mind and has an endless array of gourmet snacks and treats. Photography by Sonya Revell. Cerulean Lace Applique Midi Slip Dress, Sicily Earrings and Isabel Bracelet Set by Dannijo.

“He’s often heralded as a visionary,” Taylor says of Flagler. “And I’d have to think that today’s Breakers would have exceeded his imagination and expectations. He would have been surprised.” What a vision that would have been. 

Hair and makeup by Jesus Bravo.