It was all about mega-money, mega-power, and ambition in the hands of one man, Henry Morrison Flagler. Already wealthy beyond belief from his partnership with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, Flagler discovered how great the climate in Florida was when he went there to improve his wife’s failing health. It occurred to him that Florida might be an ideal place to visit during the winter for the rich and famous and decided St. Augustine was just the place to make it happen.
Pleasing the affluent would require the finest of everything, so capitalizing on the fact that St. Augustine was an old Spanish city, he decided on Spanish Moorish architecture and hired the firm of McKim, Meade and White from New York to design the biggest concrete structure in the country at that time. The windows and interior were designed by Louis C. Tiffany, and Thomas Edison was in charge of planning and providing electricity. The great rotunda in the dining room was decorated with painted canvases by George W. Maynard, and the parlor was covered with paintings by Virgilio Tojetti. Flagler called that enormous castle The Hotel Ponce De Leon.
Flagler discovered it became warmer the farther south he went in Florida, and soon he built railroads and resorts all the way to Key West. St. Augustine still had many great years and a few not too great. Finally, in 1967, it was not feasible to continue operating as a hotel, and the building was sold, becoming a women’s college, known as Flagler College. Now it is a coed school that offers two tours a day to the general public.
Entering the front gate, we could see the women’s dorms surrounding the formal courtyard with the original fountain in the center. As we waited in the foyer for the tour to begin, we watched a video showing the different stages of development for the building and more. Then a student conducted the tour, explaining how the gentlemen registered themselves and their families while the wives sat in the elegant formal parlor, socializing. The heavily air-conditioned parlor is still furnished with original art work, velvet sofas, and matching brocade-upholstered armchairs and is off limits for students.
We toured the dining hall that looked much the same as it did originally. The upholstered burgundy Victorian side chairs (many were the originals) were in place around tables covered with burgundy tablecloths. The great paintings were still enhancing the rotunda in the center of the hall, and the chandeliers and windows made this the largest collection by Tiffany in one place in the world. As most of the country must have done when it was first opened in 1888, I regretted I couldn’t stay and loll in such opulent ambiance.