When Henry Flagler arrived for the first time in St. Augustine in 1873 it was a very small town. He saw potential for it to become a winter playground for the very wealthy families of the Gilded Age. A winter version of Newport was what he had in mind. How did he know what would attract the oh so very rich? Henry Flagler was one of them. He made his money as an original partner with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil. His legacy remains strong in St. Augustine today, one hundred years after his death. He is called the Father of Florida Tourism and it all began right here.
Henry Flagler came to St. Augustine seeking a better climate for his wife who suffered from tuberculosis. They enjoyed the area but found the accommodations below par and the lack of good transportation even worse. His wife died in 1881 and he remarried in 1883. Returning to St. Augustine he set out on a new venture to create a city with all the luxuries the rich could want and then some. He remained on the Standard Oil board but devoted all of his time and resources to developing a resort town. He bought up railroads from New York to Jacksonville. Then he extended the rail lines to St. Augustine and eventually to Key West. He built a 2 story railroad depot to receive his guests. He wanted the land a small church occupied. After several unsuccessful attempts to purchase Grace Memorial Methodist Church he offered to build them a new church if they’d move. He didn’t want the city jail near his new resort so he offered to build a new one if they’d move it one mile outside the city limits. He began construction on the Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1887 and opened for “the season” in 1888. No expense was spared. The rotunda ceiling was painted by the same artist who later did the Library of Congress rotunda, windows in the dining room were designed by Tiffany and since electricity during construction was so new, Thomas Edison headed the team to provide it. You would suppose he chose a well known architect to design the hotel. No, he chose a firm who had never done a large public building. He chose well as the firm went on to design the Senate and House Of Representatives Office Buildings and the New York Public Library.
For his guest’s recreation he built the Alcazar Hotel across the street complete with the largest indoor swimming pool, bath house, gym and ballroom. This hotel also served as residence for those who could not afford the (in today’s dollars) $250,000 per season price tag at the Ponce de Leon. Remember the lovely pictures of St. Augustine’s city hall in our holiday lights post? That was the front half of the Alcazar Hotel. The Lightner Museum is housed in the rear half. We’ll tell you about that soon.
You can tour the former Ponce de Leon hotel, now the Flagler College campus, on a student led tour. We rate this as a top “must see” when in St. Augustine. There is a great deal of symbolism in the architecture. Four themes run throughout: Spanish, Celtic, nature and religion. Henry Flagler was a very religious man who believed only God could create perfection so he had intentional imperfections designed into several places. The most jaw dropping room for us was the original dining room with the Tiffany stained glass windows. Students still use this as the cafeteria. Certainly not anything like my college dining experience! There are even four original chairs interspersed amongst the copies that can be used by the students. The Tiffany windows were appraised a few years ago at $130,000,000. They represent the largest private collection of Tiffany stained glass in the world. The Woman’s Salon is a museum in itself with portraits of Henry Flager and his third wife. Since she was 37 years his junior, he had himself painted younger and his wife painted older. Life before Photoshop!
Just a few blocks from the college is Grace Memorial Church where a parish member was available for a short history lecture and questions. Definitely worth a stop. Henry Flagler also built several other churches, a post office and a hospital. Eventually he moved to West Palm Beach. We plan to visit the Flagler Museum there.
All of this sightseeing made us hungry. We mostly ate at camp but one evening we did try a local spot called O’Steens. This is a small diner style restaurant that has been a local favorite for 40 years. We were lucky and beat the crowds. Waits of over an hour are not uncommon at peak periods. A local specialty is a tomato base clam chowder with datil pepper sauce. Spicy and delicious just the way we like it. We both had their special plate size meals and it was more than enough. Only order the full size meals if you are really, really hungry.
Without Henry Flagler, Florida might not be the vacation Mecca it is today.