Flagler's Gilded Age
Flagler's Gilded Age

Flagler's Gilded Age

Palaces in Paradise: Henry Flagler’s Gilded Age Vision

If you stroll through the area of St. Augustine immediately west of downtown, you will experience the extraordinary influence of New Yorker Henry Morrison Flagler. He was a co-founder of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller. Flagler stepped back from daily responsibilities of this successful venture and launched a second career in Florida.

Over the next thirty years, he built resort hotels from Jacksonville to Miami and the Florida Keys linked by his Florida East Coast Railway. Steamships took visitors to his resorts at Nassau in the Bahamas and to Havana, Cuba. His Overseas Railway through the Florida Keys was recognized as the “Eighth Wonder of the Modern World.” Ultimately, Flagler was regarded as the “Father of Modern Florida” for his investments in the sunshine state. St. Augustine exhibits some of his most lasting contributions and was his chosen location for his final resting place, the Flagler Mausoleum.

Flagler College, in historic St. Augustine: a fantasy of Spanish, Renaissance, and Mediterranean architecture.

Hotel Ponce de Leon/Flagler College, 74 King Street

Considered architects Carrére and Hastings’ most imaginative creation, the Spanish Renaissance Revival structure was named for explorer Juan Ponce de León. The hotel is a complex of more than 270,000 square feet, located on a six-acre city block. The design features architectural elements reminiscent of Spanish cathedrals and palaces that today are World Heritage Sites. In 1968, the hotel became the cornerstone of the new Flagler College.

Flagler’s Legacy Tour program includes visits to the extravagant hotel’s Rotunda, Grand Parlor and Dining Room, the last of which features most of the 79 stained glass windows created by Louis Comfort Tiffany. This is the largest collection in the world in their original location. Today, the building is a National Historic Landmark on a campus recognized as one of the most beautiful in the nation and the world.

Lightner Museum in Saint Augustine

Hotel Alcazar/Lightner Museum, 75 King Street

Across King Street from the Ponce, Carrére and Hastings designed a second resort for Henry Flagler, the Hotel Alcazar. The “house of Caesar” shares the Ponce’s exterior concrete construction with brick and terra cotta details. Uniting the two resorts are the Alameda Gardens. Visitors continue to stroll through the beautiful gardens as they have for more than 130 years. The rear section of the Alcazar featured exercise and game rooms, amusements, and an indoor swimming pool.

After succumbing to the economic devastation of the Great Depression, the building’s future was in question. Since 1948, the building has hosted the Lightner Museum of Victorian-era decorative and fine arts, thanks to Chicagoan Otto Lightner. The front section of the building surrounding the interior courtyard was dedicated as St. Augustine’s City Hall in 1973. Flagler purchased the adjacent Casa Monica Hotel in 1888 which closed in 1932. Hotelier Richard Kessler returned the building to its original use an opulent luxury hotel in 1999, with contemporary amenities.

Memorial Presbyterian, and Flagler mausoleum in historic St. Augustine.

Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church, 32 Sevilla Street

Henry Flagler, son of a Presbyterian minister, had Memorial Presbyterian Church built in memory of his daughter Jennie Louise Flagler Benedict and her newborn daughter Margery, both of whom died in 1889. Flagler commissioned the architects and builders of his other St. Augustine buildings to create the Venetian Renaissance Revival style structure and the adjacent Manse, or Church House.

In 1902, Flagler commissioned 10 tall, narrow stained-glass windows that were designed by artisan Herman Schladermundt. Flagler is entombed in the family mausoleum which he had added to the property in 1911. The complex is part of the Model Land Company National Register Historic District and was selected in 2012 as one of the nation’s eight religious wonders to visit. Flagler supported other religious buildings in the community, including construction of Grace United Methodist Church, funding for Ancient City Baptist Church and the tower of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine.

Interior of the historic Ice Plant Bar, located in Historic St. Augustine.

St. Augustine Distillery and Ice Plant, 110 & 112 Riberia Street

Located at the west end of the downtown is the working waterfront that supported Flagler’s resort and railway systems. Today, you can enjoy a free tour of the St. Augustine Distillery, then go next door to the Ice Plant bar and restaurant. To whet your appetite for this adventure, a little history is in order. The City Ice and Fuel Company occupied the north part of the building. The ice storage facility provided the hotels with distilled water. The St. Augustine Gas and Electric Light Company, now Florida Power & Light (FP&L), occupied the southern part of the building.

Within the building, the structure and uses were distinct, separated by a party wall. That continues today. These two commercial uses are located in a single structure. As required legally for liquor production, sales, and distribution, a holdover from the days of Prohibition, they operate exclusively of one another. In this case, they complement each other as well.