1. Hotel History: Ponce de Leon Hotel, St. Augustine, Florida*
The Ponce de Leon Hotel was built by millionaire Henry Morrison Flagler, Standard Oil co-founder (with John D. Rockefeller) and opened in 1888. Flagler had taken his second wife on a honeymoon to Jacksonville and further south to the seaside village of St. Augustine (the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States). Flagler loved the breathtaking expanse of sea and shore, and enjoyed the clear skies and balmy weather when most of the rest of the country's residents (then concentrated in the northeast) were locked in by ice and snow.
St. Augustine had been used by invalids even before the Civil War but wealthy northerners were just beginning to discover its balmy weather at the end of the nineteenth century. While the Flaglers stayed at the new six-story San Marco Hotel they were surprised at the lack of large hotels and other real estate development. After consultation with the owner James A. McGuire, his hotel manager Osborn D. Seavey, Dr. Andrew Anderson, a St. Augustine resident and Franklin W. Smith, a Bostonian, Flagler decided to build a new hotel. He later recalled the difficulty of deciding on the design of the Hotel Ponce de Leon, "Here was St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. How to build a hotel to meet the requirements of nineteenth century America and have it in keeping with the character of the place ? that was my hardest problem."
Flagler went to McKim, Mead & White of New York, the leading architectural firm in the United States, and hired two young architects: John M. Carrere and Thomas Hastings. The 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel opened on January 10, 1888 on a five-acre lot. On opening day, the invited guests arrived on the first plush vestibule train ever to arrive in St. Augustine. That evening, Mr. and Mrs. Flagler entertained the hotel's architects, builders, artists and railroad executives. The first impression of the Ponce de Leon was of size, since the mammoth structure covered most of its five-acre lot. The building was only four stories high but it was large and extensive. Inside the front gate was the beautifully landscaped 10,000 square foot interior court containing a large fountain with a grand entrance to the rotunda. The building's design and ornamentation embodied the style of Spanish Renaissance architecture.
The heartbeat of the hotel was in the spacious rotunda. Its great dome was supported by massive oak columns and its floor was brilliant with inlaid colored mosaics. The architects tried to capture the spirit of Old Spain with allegorical representations of the four elements: fire, water, air, earth and four figures: adventure, discovery, conquest and civilization. Behind the dome of the rotunda was the oval-shaped dining hall seating 700 with a stained glass windows, highly polished floors and enormous columns of antique oak. The ceiling art representing the history of St. Augustine was painted by Virgilio Tojetti, one of the foremost artists of the day.
The hotel had electric lights, steam heat, private parlors, reading and game rooms, exquisite draperies, imported rosewood, walnut and mahogany furniture and Brussels carpet. Since standards of the day deemed public bathrooms sufficient, the hotel originally had only one private bathroom ? in Flagler's suite. Almost immediately after opening it became necessary to add private bathrooms to the hotel rooms.
Among the hundreds of first-night guests were Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Vanderbilt and William R. Rockefeller. During its first five years, the Ponce de Leon was the most exclusive winter palace resort in the United States. Its guests included Hamilton Disston, the nation's largest landowner; Vice President Levi P. Morton; Governor Roswell Flower of New York; Chauncey Depew; Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun; and President Grover Cleveland who later visited the hotel in 1889, 1893, 1899, 1903 and 1905. Four other presidents visited the hotel: William McKinley, then governor of Ohio was a guest in 1895; Theodore Roosevelt in 1905; Warren G. Harding in 1921; and years later Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in March 1963. Other noted visitors were Mark Twain, Somerset Maugham, Babe Ruth, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, John Dos Passos, Robert Frost, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Babe Didrikson, among many others.
The Ponce de Leon was the center of formal entertainment dances. One of these affairs was the Hermitage Ball held in 1892 to raise money for the restoration of Andrew Jackson's Tennessee home. There were swimming exhibitions at the Casino pool, horsemanship tournaments, bicycling and tennis. In 1895, the first golf links were laid on the Fort Marian green and there was great interest among the winter guests in golf equipment and professional instruction. In a manifestation of Jim Crow racism, guests would sometimes attend cake walks sponsored by the Negro bellhops and waiters. The event would begin with a "buck dance", a brisk double-shuffle by one black performer followed by singing and the cake walk. Well-dressed white couples would then stroll in time to the music and vie for prizes awarded by a panel of judges of their peers. Later, cake walks were replaced by black-faced white performers in minstrel shows.
In order to attract modern vacationers so soon after the Civil War and Reconstruction, Florida had to remake its image. After all, Florida was the third state, after South Carolina and Mississippi to secede from the Union and join the Confederate States of America. In the years after the Civil War, U.S. federal officers visiting the South observed that the feeling toward northerners in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida was bitter and hostile. Throughout the late 1860s, the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorists organizations brutalized black landowners and officeholders with lynchings, murders and arson. As late as 1873, Harper's Weeklyreported that Florida was "suited for cultivation as a resort... but for its ceaseless political disturbances...." Northern reporters stated that Floridian's intolerance would drive away potential investment and reduce the state to a perpetual wasteland. In St. Augustine, Henry Flagler's choice of Spanish Renaissance Revival design for his hotels was not accidental. It solidified the city's claim to Spanish heritage and helped to stimulate tourism by erasing memories of Florida's participation on the Confederate side of the Civil War conflict. Founded in 1565, St. Augustine had Spanish origins and was known as "the Ancient City". Flagler could, therefore, be a modern-day Ponce de Leon rather than a carpetbagger and promote Florida as a more desirable vacation destination for Northerners.
The George Maynard paintings and murals "Adventure, Discovery, Conquest and Civilization" in the ceiling of the Ponce de Leon's rotunda and dining room reflected the history of Spanish Florida, not the history of slavery or of racist sectional strife. There was no place in this selective history for slaveholders and secessionists but only dashing Spanish explorers. The "Change of Flags" segment for a local festival included Spanish, French, English and American flags but not the Confederate flag.
The management of the Ponce de Leon had to provide housing for the hotel employees. Behind the main dining hall was a large building which contained the kitchen, workshops, living quarters for the hotel's white employees and several employee dining rooms. A quarter of a mile away on Cordova Street, black males were housed in the so-called "colored barracks" while black women lived in the large laundry building near the railroad depot. A variety of other skilled employees worked in the Flagler hotels: plumbers, gardeners, chefs, musicians, engineers and two Pinkerton detectives to protect wealthy guests from "bunko" artists. Most of these employees worked in northern hotels in the summer and in southern resorts in the winter.
In 1899, Flagler built seven studios in the rear of the Ponce de Leon which were occupied by famous New England painters whose landscapes promoted Florida to the rest of the country. The weekly receptions and exhibitions held by the artists were among the social highlights of the winter season.
Flagler's operational policy was a forerunner of the "loss leader" theory of hotel management. He believed that a fine hotel or restaurant was bound to lose a certain amount of money before it established itself as a place of bona-fide quality. In the 1890s as the Ponce continued to operate at high occupancies, a new hotel manager decided to economize. He wired Flagler for permission to discharge the costly French chef and an equally costly dance band. Flagler wired back, "Hire another cook and two more of the best orchestras."
In 1964, the city became a national stage for demonstrations that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to town. On March 31, 1964, more than a hundred students from the all-black Richard J. Murray High School marched to downtown and sat-in at the elegant dining room of the Ponce de Leon Hotel. They were met by police with dogs and cattle prods and arrested. It was the first mass sit-in of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, and it was reported the next day in the New York Times.
In 1968, the hotel was converted and became the centerpiece of the newly-established Flagler College. Beginning in 1976, with the nation's bicentennial anniversary, Flagler College embarked on an ambitious campaign to restore the hotel and other Flagler-era campus buildings. In 1988, the College celebrated the centennial of the hotel, and a decade later students created the Flagler's Legacy program which provides guided tours of the hotel to thousands of visitors annually.
It was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and became a U.S. National Historic Landmark on February 21, 2006.
*excerpted from my book, "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi", AuthorHouse 2013
2. Quote of the Month
"The Ponce de Leon, for that matter, comes as close as near producing, all by itself, the illusion of romance as a highly modern caravansary can come....and is, in all sorts of ways and in the highest sense of the word, the most 'amusing' of hotels."
Henry James The American Scene 1907
3. My New Book
My new book, "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi" is available now. It is a paperback which tells the stories of 86 historic hotels (50 rooms or more) and each is illustrated with an antique postcard. It has a foreword, preface, introduction, bibliography and index. It has been accepted by the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute for promotion, distribution and sale.
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Joseph A. McInerney, CHA
American Hotel & Lodging Association
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