Ponce de Leon may have established the oldest city in America, but oil-railroad
baron Henry Flagler built it, and then some.
The names of America’s early industrial
tycoons come easily to people’s minds: Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Ford, Carnegie,
Morgan, to cite a few. Mention Flagler and most people say who? But ask a
Floridian and they’ll tell you about a city, a county, a beach, a college,
museums, hospitals, buildings and over one hundred streets, parkways and
boulevards from St. Augustine to Key West.
When Henry Flagler decided he liked
Florida, he went all in.
In the late 1800s Flagler teamed up with
John D. Rockefeller to form Standard Oil, and Henry’s fortune flowed like the
gas and oil he sold. Shivering in his New York home (despite free heat), Henry
was ready for a warmer climate and new adventures. A honeymoon in St. Augustine
became the start of his love affair with Florida.
The result? The still operational Florida
East Coast Railway―train service that ran the length of the state, with
viaducts spanning the waters all the way to Key West. Along the route, hotels,
businesses and communities sprang up. His adventurous spirit left a trail
throughout Florida, but his most enduring mark was left in St. Augustine where
he first fell in love.
Flagler in 1888 opened his first public
accommodations, the grand Ponce de Leon Hotel, a magnificent display of Spanish
Renaissance Revival architecture. With electricity by Thomas Edison―one of the
first hotels in the country to have it―and stained-glass windows by Louis Comfort
Tiffany, Flagler’s hotel branded St. Augustine with a unique guise that is its
face to this day. The former Ponce de Leon Hotel, now housing Flagler College,
draws the eye of approaching travelers from across the Bridge of Lions, with
its high towers and multiple balconies. Across the street, the former Hotel Alcazar,
also built by Flagler, reveals more of his panache, matching the de Leon’s
superb architecture. It now houses the Lightner Museum.
Tours of both buildings reveal incredible
detail in both architecture and ingenuity. Outside the former Ponce de Leon Hotel,
terra-cotta tile and coquina concrete rise up and around, encircling visitors
like a warm embrace as they ponder a colorful and deceptive fountain in the
garden entryway. Inside, Flagler College students take lunch in a dining room shaped
to enhance acoustics, where small orchestras once kept hotel guests
entertained. The rotunda walls boast priceless Tiffany stained glass, arcing
like kaleidoscopes around the room. A soaring front lobby dome supported by
hand-carved pillars reveals costly gold-leaf sculpture and symbolic paintings.
In the palmed and manicured interior courtyard of the Hotel Alcazar, giant koi,
viewed from an arched stone bridge, wander aimlessly through a small pond.
Three sprawling floors inside offer paintings, blown and stained glass, a
unique collection of pianos, sculpture and more, in a hotel that once boasted
of having the world’s largest indoor pool, which is now a restaurant.
Charming shops line St. Augustine streets and pedestrian-friendly walkways.
And St. Augustine hasn’t forgotten Henry
Flagler. The early debut of electricity he brought to his hotels is wildly
embraced by the city, with beads of lights trimming the spires and rooflines of
these unique buildings. Nights of Lights starting in November is an all-out
effort to multiply the effect by lighting the town and its structures in every
possible way. Strings of lights wrap the trunks of old palms and drape from tree
top to tree top. Horse carriages and multi-car trams twinkle as they snake
through the narrow streets, bathing their riders in the glow of up-lighted
structures and spotlighted facades. Shops and restaurants create magical
backyard fantasies of luminescence. Even the river sparkles in reflection of
the city’s efforts.
Henry Flagler in 1913 died in Palm Beach. He
was eighty-three. The man called the Father of Miami was brought back to his
beloved St. Augustine by train, with mourners peppered along the route to pay
their respects, appropriately so.
Florida owes a great debt to Henry
Flagler, one he would have no interest in collecting. He came to a place of
wilderness and wetlands and left it greatly enhanced. The money and effort he
brought to enrich the Sunshine State was always a heartfelt effort on his part
as much as an investment in commerce.
One could say the magical city of St.
Augustine is his special gift to Florida.
Written by Thomas O’Grady Jr., an
author and freelance writer living in Palm Coast, Florida.