St. Augustine's Written History

  • Skilled workmen from the United States and Europe labored to create the Ponce de Leon Hotel, beginning in 1885. The hotel with its massive twin towers was constructed in Spanish Renaissance style, with windows created by Louis Comfort Tiffany and the interior 540 guest rooms designed by Bernard Maybeck. When the Ponce de Leon opened on January 10, 1888, America’s wealthy elite rushed to see the red-tiled roofs, magnificent gardens, and lavish dining room. At night, the electrical lights powered by the hotel’s generator created a glowing wonderland that attracted visitors from far and wide. To help accommodate the over-flow crowd from his main hotel, Flagler constructed the Alcazar Hotel, featuring elaborate steam rooms, one of the largest indoor swimming pools in the world, and a bowling alley. Flagler bought Franklin W. Smith's Casa Monica Hotel, which was across the street from the Ponce de Leon, and renamed it the Cordova. By 1889, Flagler owned three of the country’s most impressive hotels. Flagler also built a railroad bridge across the river, linking St. Augustine all the way to New York.

    In order to build his resort, Flagler funded the construction of replacement churches for the ones he demolished with his projects. He financed Grace Methodist Church and Memorial Presbyterian Church, a modern hospital and the City Building. The population of St. Augustine soon doubled, and improvements in street paving, law enforcement, and fire protection had to be expanded through increased taxes. Faced with the realities of an economic depression and competition from other resorts, St. Augustine saw fewer and fewer visitors. Although St. Augustine’s Flagler Era had begun to fade as soon as the trains began taking winter visitors to more southern destinations, it permanently ended on May 20, 1913 when Henry Flagler died in Palm Beach.

    World War

    When fighting broke out in Europe in 1914, news stories about the horrendous casualties on the Western Front seemed unrelated to life in the Oldest City. With European resorts closed by the fighting, St. Augustine soon received enough royalty and millionaires to revive all of the attractions that had proved so popular twenty years earlier. By mid-1917, the economic benefits of the war paled in comparison to the loss of America lives. Young men from St. Augustine were drafted or volunteered and the local National Guard units were mobilized. After their arrival in France, letters home described the terrible fighting and the people of St. Augustine became vitally interested in the war that had once seemed so far away. Many residents responded by buying Liberty Bonds, contributing to Red Cross programs and coping with food shortages. When the armistice final arrived, the St. Augustine Record reported that the city “went wild with patriotic enthusiasm”.

    A Decade of Progress

    In 1914, despite the distractions of “the War to End All Wars,” St. Augustine embarked on an improvement program that would be long-referred to as the “decade of progress”. A huge fire that year destroyed much of the area just north of the plaza, and the city began rebuilding after replacing horse-drawn fire pumps with the very latest motorized fire engines. In 1915, local leaders approved funding for the paving of 64 miles of roadways throughout St. Johns County. Inspired by the success of their road and the rapidly growing number of automobiles on the roads, St. Augustine’s managers embarked on their first promotional program designed to attract automobile-owning families to the city and its beaches for a summer-long vacation. A paving program for city streets was conducted and gas street lamps illuminated the city's districts. St. Augustine's fishing fleet continued to grow, and a new city ice plant allowed the catch to be transported. Water and sewer systems were upgraded, electricity came into widespread use and the telephone system was expanded to include hotel rooms throughout St. Augustine.

    Boom and Bust

    In 1925, developers D. P. Davis turned his attention to St. Augustine and revealed his ambitious plans for using the same dredging techniques he had mastered in Tampa to develop the marshy swamp at the end of Anastasia Island – an area clearly visible from downtown St. Augustine. Although Davis Shores was a major failure in the 1920s, it was revived thirty years later and now exists as one of the city’s most popular residential areas. Davis’ project was also largely responsible for the beautiful Bridge of Lions, completed in 1927 to provide easy access between the downtown area and the upscale homes that were expected to be built at Davis Shores.

    During the Depression, St. Augustine's residents simply decided to work together until better days arrived. Fishing remained both a viable industry and a way to supplement the family’s diet during hard times. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad continued to provide steady employment. With coordination and support from local churches, various organizations devoted to helping out during difficult times were quickly organized. The main Visitor Information Center at the intersection of Avenida Menendez and Castillo Drive was constructed as a civic center as part of the Works Progress Administration – a massive public works program designed to create jobs and make improvements to American communities. The same program also provided for significant improvements to the Government House.