Tuesday 3 March 2009

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Awake: 6:44am Temp 35 sleep 7+08 sunny-cool & windy overnight @ St. Augustine, FL.

After breakfast, K & I motor downtown & join the crowd for a guided tour of the 1st & 2nd floors of the Flagler College building, formerly the luxurious Ponce de Leon Hotel.

A little Florida history: This hotel was the first large scale building constructed entirely of poured concrete. The popularity of "the Ponce" and its style strongly influenced the architecture of southern Florida for the next fifty years. Flagler vowed to spare no expense in building the hotel. And he didn't. When the Ponce de Leon opened in January 1888, its guests lavished in the newest and the best. Although electricity was not widespread, guests enjoyed electric lights powered by four of Thomas Edison's direct current dynamos. It even had steam heat, which was seldom seen in Florida.

Louis Comfort Tiffany decorated the building's interior with stained glass, mosaics and several commissioned murals. The success of the Hotel Ponce de Leon was episodic, immediately contending with a yellow fever epidemic and the worst freeze in state history in 1895. St. Augustine's weather proved not to be as warm and sunny as other resort areas that were developed further south along the peninsula, and the town never boomed as a winter resort. However, tourists did come during the first decades of the 20th century, and the Ponce de Leon was one of only three Flagler Hotels to survive the Great Depression.

Following a lull in tourism during World War II, the hotel attracted large crowds for several years after, but decline resumed and, in 1967, the hotel closed and was sold to become Flagler College in 1968. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places & serves as a residence hall & centerpiece of the college, retaining much of its original presence.

Our tour began in the courtyard with a detailed account of the building & the grounds. We toured the dining hall, which features (79) Tiffany glass windows, (8) Tiffany crystal chandeliers, artwork & Flagler family portraits which adorn the Flagler room, formerly the grand parlor. Our last stop was the ladies lounge; formerly a grand waiting room for the wealthy female guests as their husbands checked in & took care of financial matters.

How lucky these current students are to be housed in such a historic building with a luxurious atmosphere. From our careful observations, the building appears to be well cared for with some areas on the first floor off limits for the student body, except on special occasions. Our tour, given by a sophomore student, lasted over an hr.

Next, we do a self tour of the Lightner Museum, the former Alcazar Hotel also built by Henry Flagler in 1888. The Ponce de Leon, designed to accommodate and impress the "super" wealthy, was just the beginning for Flagler. Across the street, he built the Alcazar Hotel to put up the "merely" rich who traveled there on his train & to serve as the playground for the "Ponce." The hotel boasted a steam room, massage parlor, gymnasium, sulfur baths, a bowling alley, tennis courts & ballroom as well as the world's largest indoor swimming pool- (120) ft long & (50) ft wide. The bottom sloped along from (3) ft to (12) ft.

The four-story Alcazar, costing about half what the Ponce de Leon did, was smaller and the rooms a bit less lavish. Nonetheless it was still a grand hotel. Flagler called it superior. The Alcazar, though, now houses the Lightner Museum ....where we spent a good (3) hrs of our time.

In (1948) Otto C. Lightner, the Chicago publisher & editor of Hobbies magazine converted the empty hotel into a museum to contain his vast collection of art, antiques & other items. (3) floors display furnishings, costumes, Victorian art glass & natural history specimens. (1) room is dedicated to a collection of Tiffany stained glass. Other highlights include Oriental art, art nouveau-works & a Victorian village

You can still see the place of the once world's-largest indoor swimming pool. But its days of glory are gone, so you won't need your swim suit. A mini-mall of antique shops sits -- literally -- on the basin's sides. You reach these shops via concrete stairs at each corner -- the same stairs that once led bathers into the water. The floor has been leveled off & a small cafe occupies the main part of the once swimming pool. The Russian steam baths still exist on the 2nd floor

We stayed long enough to witness the nineteenth-century mechanical musical instruments demonstrated @ 2:00pm...which, if your ears can handle quite a lot of "needing tuned up equipment" was a blast from the past. Seeing this museum was well worth our time & $. I must admit: some of these words are from Bob Martin: Author-Writer-Researcher from the Inquisitive Traveler.

Next, just across the street is yet another Flagler deluxe hotel called: "Casa Monica." In 1887, Henry Flagler sold a parcel of land to Bostonian architect Franklin W. Smith on which Smith built the Casa Monica Hotel, naming the hotel after St. Monica, the mother of revered St. Augustine and namesake of the city.

The hotel opened on January 1, 1888 with only three guests registered & was later sold to Henry Flagler a few short months later. Flagler renamed the property to Hotel Cordova and caused it to thrive, filling the hotel with many return guests and grand affairs. He later connected Hotel Cordova as an annex to The Alcazar, a neighboring hotel also owned by Flagler.

The Hotel Cordova closed its doors in 1932 and was purchased 30 years later in 1962 by St. John's County to be turned into a county courthouse. The structure served as the courthouse for another 30 years before being purchased by The Kessler Collection in 1997.

Opening on December 10, 1999, the Casa Monica Hotel was restored to its original name and grandeur, operating once more as a luxurious hotel. Now celebrating 120 years in existence, the Casa Monica Hotel exemplifies the same splendor and service as it did in 1888, maintaining the original historic and majestic style while uniting it to modern luxury. Our self tour of the Casa Monica Hotel was rather short, but still interesting & impressive.

From here, we walk about (15) min in the cool & windy 50's temp to tour the Presbyterian Church that Flagler had built. Unfortunately, we were a mere (5) mins late & missed the last tour of the day. We don't give up easily so like Arnold would say: "We'll be back!"

Dinner: leftover crab cakes, fresh almond encrusted Bass fish, asparagus & mixed salad.

No movie again tonight.

Lights out: 12:10am

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This page contains a single entry by George Monte Kirsch published on March 6, 2009 2:09 AM.

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