Sep 16, 2010

Two Hotels in St Augustine

At the beginning of the 1888-89 winter season, Henry Flagler opened two opulent hotels in St Augustine, Florida: the Ponce de Leon, and the Alcazar. These hotels represented the beginning of the “Flagler System”, comprising railroad links and resort hotels that would eventually stretch the length of Florida’s East Coast. Rivaled only by Henry Plant’s similar Plant System (based in Tampa and extending down the state’s West Coast), Flagler’s System combined transportation, real estate development, infrastructure development, and marketing, to create Florida’s first luxury resorts – self-contained accommodation, recreation and entertainment complexes, that radiated “an unprecedented aura of conspicuous luxury” (Braden 2002: 77). If Vizcaya, completed in 1916, marked the end of Florida’s Gilded Age culture, Henry Flagler’s St Augustine hotels marked the beginning.

Carrère and Hastings, Hotel Ponce de Leon (above) and Hotel Alcazar (below)

Searching for gold and the fabled fountain of youth, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed near St Augustine in 1513, and a permanent Spanish settlement was founded there in 1565. There are echoes of this first, sixteenth-century colonization of the Florida coast in Flagler’s nineteenth century development, as Northern wealth, culture, new technologies, and industrial systems, combined to produce a particular type of Florida space – the exclusive, autonomous resort (which, in turn, is echoed in today’s luxury condo complexes and lifestyle developments). Flagler made his initial fortune as a partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, and in the 1880s began to focus his considerable wealth and energy on Florida. In 1885, the same year he commissioned New York-based architects Carrère and Hastings to build the Ponce de Leon, he bought a railroad from Jacksonville to St Augustine, and within a few years had completed the Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar, as well as purchased the existing, adjacent Casa Monica hotel (renamed the Hotel Cordova). But St Augustine’s Gilded Age status was short-lived, as Flagler extended his railroad and hotel system further south in 1894 to Palm Beach, a destination that soon displaced St Augustine’s reputation as the “winter Newport”.

Above: Ponce de Leon, Courtyard Fountain (with frogs and turtles)
Below: Ponce de Leon, main entrance

Both John M. Carrère and Thomas Hastings trained at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, then worked for McKim, Mead and White in New York, before establishing their own firm with the dream commission of Flagler’s no-expense-spared St Augustine hotels. Their designs for both hotels followed basic Beaux Arts planning – an orderly arrangement of public spaces, guest rooms, and service spaces along a central axis. The Spanish Renaissance references – including orange terracotta tiles and decorative mouldings, courtyard fountains, and distinctive towers – at once evoked the Spanish heritage of the existing town, but also the Renaissance aspirations of the wealthy. Thomas Graham argues that the architects subtly but self-consciously evoked the old town’s overhanging balconies, while the coquina stone texture of the concrete walls was similar to St Augustine’s 17th century Castillio de San Marcos (see Graham, 1998). In addition to the European historical references (which included Italian Renaissance as well as Spanish Renaissance), the architects incorporated marine motifs such as turtles and frogs in the Ponce de Leon’s central courtyard fountain, and shells and seahorses in the detailed terracotta relief around the main entrance. While the use of concrete for the walls was technologically innovative and modern, and the planning conventionally Beaux Arts, the romantic, escapist experience was produced via the lavish and detailed decoration throughout.

A shell doorhandle at the Ponce de Leon

The Ponce de Leon was the centerpiece of Flagler’s St Augustine and the carefully choreographed arrival sequence began at Flagler’s railroad depot, usually at night, from which guests were taken by carriage to the front gate where they were met with a spectacle of glittering electric lights. While luggage was discreetly taken around the back, guests passed under the grand arched gate and entered into the exotic realm within. Men continued to the lobby’s domed rotunda, while women entered via the ladies’ entrance (so as to avoid the vulgarities of monetary transactions). Inside, the experience was no less spectacular. Wooden columns, decorated with caryatids, held up the large central dome of the entrance rotunda. Four stories above, Spanish-themed murals painted by George Maynard were illuminated by electric light bulbs, while the floor featured mosaics created by Italian artisans. The New York firm Pottier & Stymus decorated the grand parlor, a large space featuring Florentine crystal chandeliers, and an onyx mantlepiece into which was set one of Thomas Edison’s electric clocks. Finally, the magnificent two story, oval-shaped dining room, which doubled as a ballroom, featured a barrel vault ceiling decorated by Maynard, with stained glass and furniture designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Above: Ponce de Leon's rotunda with murals by George Maynard
Below: Ponce de Leon's dining room
Below: the grand parlor, Ponce de Leon, with Edison's electric clock above the fireplace

On completion of the Ponce de Leon, construction began across the square on the Hotel Alcazar. With 300 rooms, the Alcazar was both smaller and cheaper than the Ponce de Leon (with 450 rooms), and its season extended from December to April, while the Ponce de Leon was only open from January through to March. The Hotel Alcazar was similarly constructed from gray concrete with orange roof tiles and terracotta ornaments, but was more eclectic in its decorative inspiration, drawing on Spanish Renaissance, Italian Renaissance, as well as Islamic (Moorish) motifs. While Carrère and Hastings went on to design later Gilded Age classics, including the New York Public Library, the exact contribution of a young Bernard Maybeck, who worked as a draftsman on both St Augustine hotels, is unknown but intriguing in suggesting later possible continuities of Beaux Arts eclecticism.

Above and below: details of the Hotel Alcazar's towers

Beyond its similar appearance, the Alcazar provided a complement to the Ponce de Leon in that it housed most of the recreational facilities for both hotels, including a gymnasium and baths complex, and the casino, which included an indoor swimming pool and a ballroom. The Russian bath, popularly known as “the Senate” because guests wrapped themselves in togas while they sat on marble tiers immersed in steam, featured a curious marble table with levers and switches for controlling the steam, heat and water flows (see images below). The Turkish bath was essentially a sauna, and the ritual for both baths included being sprayed with water before entering, and upon exiting, a dip in a cold bath followed by a massage. Such treatments were promoted as a cure-all for everything from heart and liver disease to obesity. The Alcazar’s indoor swimming pool, measuring 156 by 56 feet, was lit by a skylight four stories above. As per 19th century convention, men’s and women’s time in the baths and gymnasium were kept separate, and the swimming pool area included a smaller women’s only lap pool. However, even though the Alcazar and Ponce de Leon featured conventional 19th century gendered spaces such as men’s wood-panelled billiard rooms and women’s delicately decorated parlors, Susan Braden argues that Flagler’s luxury hotels were progressive in actively reducing the number of gendered spaces and in increasing the number of shared public spaces and recreational activities.

Above: the Russian Bath, Hotel Alcazar
Below: the marble console for controlling heat, steam and water in the Russian Bath
Below: the indoor swimming pool at the Hotel Alcazar
Despite the historical references and European details throughout, both of these St Augustine hotels featured modern American technologies, including Otis elevators, electric lights in every room (with electricity generated by Edison’s dynamos in the on-site boiler room), modern refrigerators, a telegraph room, and modern plumbing (including high-tech flushing toilets). As it extended down the coast, Flagler’s system was also distinguished by its incorporation of modern logistics, such as importing luxury goods from the North via the railroad, establishing central warehousing facilities in Florida, and distributing goods via rail to his various hotels.

Above: Inside the courtyard, Hotel Ponce de Leon
Below: Inside the courtyard, Hotel Alcazar

It was a system that included importing the Gilded Age culture of the Northern elite. Flagler’s St Augustine hotels featured extensive indoor and outdoor recreation facilities, fine dining, personal services from barbers to physicians, and on-site shops selling luxury items imported from the North. Organized cultural events and entertainment included costume balls, musicals, theater performances, and an artist-in-residence program at the Ponce de Leon. Flagler even published the Tatler, a seasonal society newspaper for hotel guests. The St Augustine hotel experience is described by Braden (after Thorstein Veblen) as “conspicuous leisure” – designed for a visibly wealthy leisure class with the money and time to travel and pursue various recreational pursuits from sports to theater. While the wealthy elite traveled to such resorts for both pleasure and health reasons, another important reason was to see and to been seen, as images of Vanderbilts and Astors wintering in St Augustine featured in mass magazines of the era.

Hotel Ponce de Leon, now Flagler College

But St Augustine’s time in the spotlight was short – by 1900 Palm Beach had became the place for wealthy Northerners to spend the winter. The Hotel Alcazar closed as a hotel in 1932, and was purchased by Chicago publisher Otto Lightner in 1947 as the future home for his extensive antique collection (and it finally opened as the Lightner Museum in 1974, while part of the hotel also houses the St Augustine City Hall). Meanwhile, the Ponce de Leon remained open until 1967, after which it was occupied by Flagler College, which continues to operate from the hotel today – the once luxurious hotel rooms are now student accommodation. Finally, it is worth briefly considering the continuity of Flagler’s hotels in later Florida developments. Racial and social difference were carefully reinforced in the design of these hotels – America’s late 19th century elite society excluded Jews, recent immigrants, and African Americans (except in servile roles, of course) – and for the first six seasons, rooms at the Ponce de Leon were available by invitation only. As an exclusive space separate from the existing community (except as a source of cheap labor), Flagler’s St Augustine luxury hotel development could be considered a distant precursor to Florida’s many gated lifestyle communities and luxury condo developments of the 21st century.


Braden, Susan R., The Architecture of Leisure: The Florida Resort Hotels of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant, Gainsville: The University Press of Florida, 2002.

Graham, Thomas, “Henry M. Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de León”, The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol. 23, 1998.

Photos by D. J. Huppatz

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