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Postcards of Flagler's Hotels

CHAPTER IV The Flagler Transformation

Flagler's Beautiful Hotels

In January of 1888, the Hotel Ponce de Leon opened its massive doors and from that day forward, the beautiful building west of the plaza has dominated St. Augustine's center. The towers make the city skyline unique and the whole lovely structure, together with the Alcazar and Casa Monica, recreate old Spain in the golden climate of northern Florida.

Henry M. Flagler hired the young architects, Carrere and Hastings, to build his dream hotel, and they produced a masterpiece. There is not a single joint in the whole building. It was cast, rather than built, of coquina quarried on Anastasia Island and mixed six parts to one of cement. The mixture was made on the spot, poured into forms while soft, and rammed down three inches at a time. It provided a material which was practically indestructible as it hardened with age, and it was a lovely color which contrasted beautifully with the terra cotta roof and towers.

As opening day neared, battalions of staff were brought down from New York by special train, as well as a 30-piece military band. The first manager was O. D. Seavey, a colorful man with a genius for hotel management, whom Flagler entrusted with the purchase of all of the furniture and equipment the hotels.

Everyone rushed to meet the deadline. Painters worked from 7 a.m. until midnight, Sundays included, and trainloads and boatloads of furniture, linens, crockery, kitchen equipment, and a thousand other things were unloaded and unpacked. It is said, however, that in the two years it took a small army of men to build the vast hotel complex such diligence was not always the rule. Flagler himself happened to chat with a workman one day, who did not recognize him and said happily: "This is the best loafing place I know. The old man doesn't come around often, but when he does we work like beavers." The signal for the approach of a foreman was the cry "high tide!"

When the hotels opened, St. Augustine became the foremost winter resort in America. In 1893, a Vogue article enthused: "It is as if some modem Haroun-Al-Raschid deserted his own palace and turned it into a hotel." The wealthy and the well-born came in droves to enjoy the sunshine and each other's company.

The New York Herald Tribune reported: "At St. Augustine the weather has been perfect and there have been innumerable sailing parties and picnics besides the usual round of receptions and dances. Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Bishop Mason recently arrived with a party of guests aboard their private car and Mrs. Warden, the wife of the Philadelphia millionaire gave a large reception. The largest outdoor affair of the year so far was a picnic given by Stewart M. Brice, son of Senator Brice. The guests filled several yachts chartered for the occasion which took the party over to North Beach where a repast worthy of old Ponce himself was served by a corps of waiters from the Ponce de Leon." Newspaper accounts of the elaborate balls never failed to provide a detailed account of what each lady wore.

Perhaps the most distinguished guests were President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland who arrived in February of 1893 and were met at the station in North City and escorted over the old shell road through the City Gate. As they passed the Castillo, the Second Artillery fired a 21-gun salute and they proceeded on to the Ponce de Leon where the local school children, dressed all in white, were lined up to meet them. Miss Virginia Markle presented a bouquet of flowers to the First Lady. The committee which planned the welcoming ceremony consisted of such notables as B. Genovar, W. W. MacWilliams, and M. R. Cooper.

In time, the beautiful people moved to hotels farther south with their yachts, their private railways cars, and their other gaudy trappings. Today, the Ponce de Leon houses Flagler College, the Casa Monica is again a luxury hotel, and the Alcazar contains Lightner Museum. But the buildings still stand, beautiful as ever, and lend glory and distinction to our old town.

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