Historical Architecture in St. Augustine, Florida
St. Augustine’s architectural masterpieces are a picturesque journey back in time.
Immerse yourself in the culture and heritage of the Nation’s Oldest City with a tour of the centuries-old churches, landmarks, and buildings. Read on to discover some of St. Augustine’s most prized architectural gems.
Gilded Age Wealth & Architecture
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 it was love at first sight. The wealthy visionary saw the city’s potential as a sparkling tourist destination, and returned soon after to polish this diamond in the rough.
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, forever changing the face of Florida. Flagler built the Hotel Ponce de Leon, now Flagler College, as well as ornate churches and railroads that eventually connected north to south, terminating in Key West.
Hotel Ponce de Leon (Flagler College)
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. Today, free guided tours of the opulent edifice offer a glimpse into an extraordinary era.
The Lightner Museum
Formerly the elegant Hotel Alcazar, The Lightner Museum building is another of Flagler’s finest projects. Unlike its predecessor, The Ponce De Leon Hotel, this hotel was built to attract the middle class and was slightly less expensive. Its popularity surged as guests enjoyed Russian and Turkish baths, a cold plunge pool, tropical gardens, bowling, tennis courts, a café, concert rooms, and bicycling.
The hotel’s many gathering spaces included a courtyard, dining room, and grand parlor, and there was even an on-site band. The gym offered the most "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. Today, the indoor pool area houses a delightful lunch café and antique mall.
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.
Casa Monica Resort & Spa
Built in this same time period this luxury hotel reflects the Spanish-Moorish style. The hotel was built by Franklin Smith, a competitor of Henry Flagler. It was later purchased from Smith by another tycoon and renamed the Cordova. The luxurious Cordova was a near equal to the Hotel Ponce de Leon with suites equipped with gaslights, gas heat, and electric bells to call for service. In the 1990s, the historic structure was transformed into The Casa Monica Resort & Spa. The hotel continues the tradition of first-class service and amenities.
Architecturally Significant Churches in St. Augustine
Architecturally, St. Augustine’s historic district churches are some of the most impressive in town.
Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church
A deeply religious man, Henry Flagler’s most enduring legacies are elaborate churches. The Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church is a Venetian Renaissance-styled church in the shape of a cross. It was constructed in memory of Flagler’s daughter Jennie, who died giving birth. As with his other projects, Flagler spared no expense, incorporating 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. Flagler’s first wife, daughter, and granddaughter lie in the attached mausoleum.
Grace United Methodist Church
Located just one block north of Flagler College, Grace United Methodist Church was also built by Henry Flagler in 1887 using the same builders and architects as the Hotel Ponce De Leon. The church is built in the Spanish style and features breathtaking stained glass windows.
The Cathedral Basilica is a magnificent example of Spanish Colonial Renaissance. Located off the city’s Plaza de la Constitucion, the cathedral was built in 1797 and then reconstructed in the late 1880s. The Basilica, with its towering spire, is a symbol of the oldest Catholic parish in the United States.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Trinity Episcopal Church was founded in 1821 and is the oldest Protestant Church in Florida. You’ll know it by its steeple, which rises above the Plaza. Be sure to step inside and see the stained glass windows.
Other Architectural Gem
Villa Zorayda Museum
Also built during the Gilded Age heyday in St. Augustine, the Villa Zorayda Museum is an unusual example of Spanish architecture. The museum was built in 1883 by Bostonian Franklin W. Smith and is a 1/10th scale reproduction of a portion of the Alhambra Palace in Spain.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum
North of the historic district is a castle built by William G. Warding in the 1880s. The poured concrete structure was once owned by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings who hosted Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ripley. The exotic structure with its parapets and notched arches is now the home of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum.