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 was thriving until the Civil War, rebounded by 1883, and then burgeoned as a premier resort destination for well-to-do northerners. While tourism began in St. Augustine in 1821 with numerous nice hotels, it was Henry Morrison Flagler's first visit prior to 1883 that ignited his endeavors. 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 Hotel Ponce de Leon, now Flagler College. With 450 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, 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 Hotel Ponce De Leon, 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, similar to those at The Hotel Ponce de Leon. 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 friendly competitor of Henry Flagler. It was later purchased by Henry Flagler and renamed the Cordova. The luxurious Hotel 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 2000s, the historic structure was transformed into The Casa Monica Resort & Spa. The hotel continues the tradition of first-class service and amenities.