St. Augustine is rich in history, and in the late 1800s, "rich" was the operative word. It was a grand time of magnates, marvels and magnificent monuments... theatrical resorts, lavish architecture and conspicuous luxury. Once a sparsely inhabited near-wilderness, the little town burgeoned as a premier resort destination for well-to-do northerners. It all began in 1883 with an auspicious visit by Henry Morrison Flagler. He came for his honeymoon and stumbled upon love at first sight. The wealthy visionary saw the city's potential as a sparkling tourist Mecca, and returned soon after to polish this diamond in the rough.
In 1888, Flagler unveiled a fabulous masterpiece of Spanish Renaissance architecture, the Ponce de Leon Hotel, now Flagler College
. With 400 rooms, Tiffany glass, gold-leafed Maynard murals and electricity by Thomas Edison, it catered to the Who's Who of the turn of the century. Crowds of visitors came to St. Augustine for the first time, to luxuriate in what many proclaimed as "the world's finest hotel" – and they've been coming ever since. Today, free guided tours of the opulent edifice offer a glimpse into an extraordinary era. While this was Flagler's first and largest hotel, more sprawling structures followed, including ornate churches and railroads that eventually connected north to south, terminating in Key West. His wildly successful ventures spurred on other developers of like minds and means. Flagler's transformation of sleepy St. Augustine had launched the Gilded Age, changing forever the face of Florida.
Retrace the grandeur of the Gilded Age at The Lightner Museum
, formerly the elegant Hotel Alcazar, another of Flagler's finest. The Lightner collection features three levels of elegant displays that showcase Victorian-era costumes, furnishings, musical instruments, art glass and other treasures harkening back to the high life of the 19th century. The hotel, unlike its predecessor, was built to attract the middle class and was slightly less expensive. But its popularity soon surged as guests could avail themselves of Russian and Turkish baths, cold plunge, tropical gardens, bowling, tennis courts, a café, concert rooms and bicycling. A courtyard, used for business meetings, had its own band, informal dining room and grand parlor. There was a gym available with "state-of-the-art" fitness equipment including pulleys, weights, parallel and horizontal bars and punching bags. The expansive indoor swimming pool was a major draw and still is; a delightful lunch café has displaced the water it once contained, and an antique mall surrounds it.
Next door, The Casa Monica Hotel
continues to offer first-class service, amenities, lodging and dining, just as it did a hundred years ago. The Spanish-Moorish structure was built in 1887 by Franklin Smith, one of Flagler's competitors. All of the suites were equipped with closets, gaslights, gas heat and electric bells to call for service. Baths were located on each floor. With its cottages, the hotel could accommodate up to four hundred guests. And its Artesian sulfur baths, French cuisine and table d'hote would surely guarantee success. But an ill-timed plumbers' strike and furniture factory fire doomed Smith to struggle; he could not compete with Flagler's recently opened Ponce de Leon. Flagler purchased the property in 1888 and renamed it The Cordova. The hotel thrived with many return guests, parties, balls, fairs and charity events, in the grand style of Flagler's now famous resorts. The 1960s saw Cordova's reincarnation as a courthouse, but the 1990s brought about its rebirth as an award-winning luxury hotel, with its original name, The Casa Monica.
Among Henry Flagler's many other legacies are elaborate churches, perhaps the most significant of which is the Memorial Presbyterian Church
. Here, in the attached round mausoleum, lie Flagler's first wife, daughter and granddaughter. The Venetian Renaissance-styled church, in the shape of a cross, was constructed in memory of his daughter Jennie who died giving birth. As with his other projects, Flagler spared no expense; with hand-carved Santo Domino mahogany, detailed terra cotta frieze work by Italian artists and a massive copper dome overhead, the magnificent structure rivals some of the great churches of Europe.
Henry Flagler, more than any other, was responsible for Florida's growth. The man who spawned the Gilded Age surely had a heart of gold. And fortunately for us, he gave it to St. Augustine.