Gilded Age Glamour at Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de Leon

July 3rd, 2014

Time to board the Florida East Coast Railway train and head up north to St. Augustine for this week’s summer historic road trip. St. Augustine is a city that boasts a diverse, multicultural history dating back to Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León’s 1513 arrival. Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler envisioned an “American Riviera” getaway for visitors escaping the harsh Northern winters. Flagler enjoyed St. Augustine’s picturesque setting and subtropical climate. To promote travel and leisure activities Flagler embarked on establishing St. Augustine as the resort capital of the world. By the end of 1888, his three grand hotels-the Ponce de Leon, the Alcazar, and the Casa Monica/Hotel Cordova-were bustling with tourists and high-profiled names.

Ponce de Leon pre1900Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, Florida. Photo Courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory 

The most extravagant of these hotels and the first to be built was the Ponce de Leon. Flagler hired the newly formed firm Carrère & Hastings to design the hotel. The firm is best known for the New York Public Library. John M. Carrère (1858-1911) and Thomas Hastings (1860-1929) both met while studying architecture at the internationally renowned École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In early 1885 they formed their firm and their first project was to design Flagler’s new hotel. The ambitious project involved heavy research on hotel architecture in relation to Florida’s dynamic history and sunny weather. The end result was a hotel made of concrete with crushed coquina limestone, an indigenous material in St. Augustine. The Ponce de Leon was one of the first buildings in the United States constructed with concrete.

Architectural historian Susan R. Braden has noted the significance using concrete in Flagler’s hotels. “The three extraordinary hotels recalled historic coquina-based concrete building traditions in St. Augustine. In addition, they reflected the often flamboyant taste for historically stylish architecture so popular during the Gilded Age, and they revealed the aesthetic and technical potentials of modern concrete construction. At a time when most American hotels displayed predictably rectangular ground plans and Stick or Queen Anne detailing, these three resort hotels boldly and evocatively referenced Florida’s Mediterranean-like setting and St. Augustine’s Spanish colonial past.”

Ground broke in 1885 and the $2.5 million hotel opened to the public on January 12, 1888. The six acre hotel embodied a Beaux-Arts design with Spanish Renaissance-style influence. The Ponce de Leon’s exterior was decorated with an array of vibrant colors that speak to Florida’s climate: orange clay roof tiles, red Georgia brick trim, and cast terra-cotta decorations. Louis Comfort Tiffany and Company also contributed to the many stained-glass windows.

The Dining Hall_Flagler_CollegeFlagler College Dining Hall. Tiffany designed stained-glass. © Maksim Sundukov 

The Hotel was in business for nearly a century and served as a Coast Guard Training Center during World War II. In 1967 the Ponce de Leon ended operations and then became part of the newly founded Flagler College campus in 1968. Initially a women’s college, Flagler College became coeducational in 1971. Today it is a leading liberal arts colleges in the state.

Hotel Ponce de Leon and Residence Hall (aerial view), Flagler CollegeFlagler College Campus

For a definitive review of Flagler’s Florida resorts, refer to Susan R. Braden’s The Architecture of Leisure: The Florida Resort Hotels of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant (2002).

-Marvin Aguilar

Take a Dive into Miami Beach’s Roman Pools

June 20th, 2014

Roman Pools Bathing Casino, 1926. Photo Courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory The next stop on the historic Florida summer getaway tour is Miami Beach. Before the days of luxury oceanfront hotels and pastel-painted Art Deco buildings, people flocked to the famous Miami Beach Bathing Pavilion and Swimming Pool Read More...

Breeze into Summer at The Barnacle in Coconut Grove

June 5th, 2014

The scorching summer heat is fast approaching South Florida. What better way to cool off than sitting on a rocking chair overlooking Biscayne Bay? The open-air verandas at The Barnacle provide comfortable cooling shade while visitors take in the ocean breeze on the hottest of days. Ralph Middleton Munroe Read More...

Old Meets New: Florida at the 1939 ‘World of Tomorrow’

May 21st, 2014

Florida Pavilion at 1939 World's Fair New York. Photo Courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory Visitors to the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York (now the location for the Queens Museum) were amazed by the exhibits highlighting the futuristic 'World of Tomorrow.' At the entrance stood the iconic 700-foot Trylon obelisk and the 18-story Perisphere Read More...

The Tropics Come to Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair

May 7th, 2014

People got a taste of Florida's subtropical architecture miles away from the sunny beaches at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago with Robert Law Weed's Florida Tropical House. Officially known as A Century of Progress International Exposition, the 1933 World's Fair theme explored the impact of scientific discoveries on society Read More...

All Aboard Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway

April 23rd, 2014

Henry M. Flagler in Key West. Photo Courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory Grab your fishing rod, pack the cooler, and drive on down to the Florida Keys for a blissful day out on the historic old Seven Mile Bridge. While the adjacent bridge is used for automobile transportation, the old bridge is a lasting legacy of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway Read More...

Kiehnel & Elliott: A Brief Survey of the Firm’s Miami Projects

April 9th, 2014

It is no surprise that when looking at Miami Boom-Era architecture the name Kiehnel & Elliott comes to mind. The firm, originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had designed several buildings before moving its offices to Miami in 1922. The firm’s buildings became exemplary of the Mediterranean Revival style during the 1920s such as the extravagant El Jardin (now the Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart) in Coconut Grove Read More...

Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Lady of the Everglades

March 27th, 2014

Photo Courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ (1890-1998) name is synonymous with Florida environmental activism. The Minnesota-born, Wellesley College graduate came to Miami in 1915, at age 25, to work as a society columnist for the Miami Herald. Her father, Frank Stoneman, was editor-in-chief at the time Read More...

Modernizing UM: Marion Manley’s Revisioned College Campus

March 13th, 2014

Thirty-second Annual Convention of the Florida Association of Architects, Saint Petersburg, November 1946. Photo Courtesy: HistoryMiami Marion Manley (1893-1984) has been called “Miami’s first woman architect.” Born and raised in Kansas, Manley attended the University of Kansas before transferring to the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1914 Read More...

Miami’s Overtown: A Celebrated Past

March 5th, 2014

Former homes at Goodbread and 17th and 18th Streets. Photo Courtesy: HistoryMiami Miami’s Overtown neighborhood survives as a significant reminder of early Black settlement in South Florida. When the City of Miami was incorporated in 1896 the Black settlers and immigrants, from Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and other countries, were segregated in a Black’s-only community Read More...