Gilded Age Glamour at Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de Leon

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

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