HOTEL PONCE DE LEON
I11 W 'I W4 wI
-. EX LIBRIS
WILLIAM R. ADAMS, Ph.D.
HOTEL PONCE DE LEON
The Ponce de Leon Hotel, St. Augustine, shortly after its formal opening
in January 1888. Workmen are laying out the gardens and walks for the
Alcazar Hotel, then under construction. From a photograph in the possession
of Dr. Thomas Graham, Flagler College, St. Augustine.
Reprinted from the Florida Historical Quarterly, LIV, July, 1975.
Cover design by Susan Schollenberger
FLAGLER'S MAGNIFICENT HOTEL
PONCE DE LEON
by THOMAS GRAHAM*
ST. AUGUSTINE is unusual among most American cities in that
it possesses a distinct local atmosphere and character. Largely
this-charm stems from its Spanish heritage-the narrow streets
overarched with balconies, its moss-covered coquina rock walls,
and its ancient historic monuments such as the Castillo de San
Marcos. But many of the buildings and homes of the city reflect
the spirit of a more recent age, that of Victorian America before
the turn of the century, when St. Augustine was the winter home
of affluent Northerners. The most prominent Victorian buildings
are three magnificent structures surrounding a central plaza
which reproduce the architectural spirit of old Europe. These
were once the Cordova Hotel, the Alcazar Hotel, and, pre-
eminent among the three, the Hotel Ponce de Leon. Together
they give St. Augustine a central focus different from any other
city, and they represent solid proof that preserving the past is not
incompatible with modern urban life.
The origins of the Hotel Ponce de Leon date back to the
winter of 1885 when Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler
brought his second wife Alice Shourds Flagler to St. Augustine
for the winter. The city had been a resort for invalids even before
the Civil War, but the elite of northern society began discover-
ing its attractions toward the end of the nineteenth century and
made it their winter home. The Flaglers took rooms in the new
San Marco Hotel, a six-story wooden structure dominating the
view just outside the old city gate at the north end of town. The
San Marco had been erected in 1884 by the firm of McGuire and
McDonald, under the guidance of Osburn D. Seavey, a career
hotel man who became manager of the luxury hotel when it
Mr. Graham is assistant professor of history, Flagler College, St. Augus-
tine, Florida. An earlier version of this paper was read at the Florida
Historical Society annual meeting, Gainesville, May 9, 1975.
4 FLORIDA HISTORICAL QUARTERLY
After long consultation with Seavey and James A. McGuire,
an unschooled man with a genius for construction, Flagler de-
cided to build a hotel of his own. Two others who became in-
volved in the enterprise were Dr. Andrew Anderson, an in-
fluential year-round resident of St. Augustine who lived on an
estate just west of town, and Franklin W. Smith, a Bostonian
with the means to dabble in philanthropy, politics, and amateur
Flagler would later say that originating the design for the
Hotel Ponce de Leon was the most perplexing task he ever faced
in his Florida enterprises. He explained the dilemma to the
French writer Edwin Lefevre: "Here was St. Augustine, the oldest
city in the United States. How to build a hotel to meet the re-
quirements of nineteenth-century America and have it in keep-
ing with the character of the place-that was my hardest prob-
lem."2 The suggestion of a solution to that problem already ex-
isted in St. Augustine in the form of Smith's home, the Villa
The residence was an exotic amalgam borrowing from the
motifs of Spain's Moorish castles but utilizing cast-in-place con-
crete. It was one of the first buildings in the United States to
employ this technique of construction. Smith had hit upon the
idea of experimenting with concrete construction while studying
classical architecture and recent building innovations in Europe.
He knew that the Romans had used concrete in walls, aquaducts,
and even the domes of buildings. However, this art had been lost
during the Middle Ages, only to be revived subsequently in the
humble form of mud fences and peasant cottage walls. The
Spanish had used tapia, a mixture of lime, sand, and oyster shell,
in making house walls during the seventeenth century, and some
may even have survived in St. Augustine in Smith's time.3 With
the discovery of Portland cement in the nineteenth century it
1. Louise Decatur Castleden, comp. and ed., The Early Years of the Ponce
De Leon: Clippings from an Old Scrap Book of those days (n.p., 1957
[?]), 30; Sidney Walter Martin, Florida's Flagler (Athens, 1949), 103-07;
St. Augustine Tatler, February 17, 1894; interview with Joseph McAloon,
St. Augustine, August 2, 1974. Mr. McAloon was employed at the Ponce
de Leon from 1904 to 1960.
2. Edwin Lefevre, "Flagler and Florida," Everybody's Magazine, XXII (Feb-
ruary 1910), 182.
3. Surviving examples of tabia or "tabby" walls can be seen today at
Kingsley Plantation State Park, east of Jacksonville.
Henry Morrison Flagler (1830-1913)
N>~ P S'~1
Hotel Ponce de Leon under construction
.b q,~li*5ifi~i~llp~;I: 'C'
le~cIy__~1~ , ,,, M1'
FLAGLER'S MAGNIFICENT HOTEL PONCE DE LEON 7
became possible to produce much stronger mixes of concrete, and
the way was opened to use it in more substantial buildings.
While in Europe in 1882 Smith observed how concrete was
used in the building of a chateau on Lake Geneva. Returning to
Boston he tested concrete mixes and then started on his home in
St. Augustine. The walls were made by setting-up a wooden
trough ten inches deep into which a concrete mix was poured.
Iron rods and railroad track iron were dropped into the con-
crete to reinforce the structure. Every second day, after the con-
crete had dried, the wooden forms were removed, reassembled at
a higher level, and another layer of cement poured on top of the
first until the walls reached the desired height. The result was a
building constructed at minimal cost, that was yet strong and
Smith's success with the Villa Zorayda convinced Flagler that
he could employ poured concrete and a Spanish architectural
theme in creating a large hotel. Seavey was induced to resign his
position with the San Marco to assist in the planning. For
architects, Flagler went to McKim, Meade and White of New
York, the leading firm in the nation, and hired two young men
with no major achievements yet to their credit: John M. Carrtre
and Thomas Hastings. Both had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-
Arts, Paris, and were specialists in the style of the French Renais-
sance. Perhaps Flagler selected this inexperienced pair because of
his long friendship with Hastings's father."
The property selected for Flagler's project lay just outside the
old Spanish defense perimeter, athwart the tidal marshes of
Maria Sanchez Creek and bisected by King Street, which ran west
past the Villa Zorayda and Anderson's estate. The two buildings
of note on the property were a skating rink on stilts in the creek
south of King Street and the modest Sunnyside Hotel on the
4. Franklin W. Smith, Design and Prospectus for a National Gallery of
History and Art at Washington (Washington, 1891), 20-46; Carl W.
Condit, American Building Art: the Nineteenth Century (New York,
1960), 223-26. It has been alleged that the noted architect Stanford
White designed the Villa Zorayda, but the evidence indicates that he
did not. See Lawrence Grant White to N. L. Duryea, April 4, 1949,
photostat, Zorayda Castle file, St. Augustine Historical Society.
5. Harry Harkness Flagler to Duryea, April 27, 1949, photostat,
Zorayda Castle file, St. Augustine Historical Society; "The Work of
Messrs. Carrere and Hastings," Architectural Record, XXVII (January
8 FLORIDA HISTORICAL QUARTERLY
north.6 In the summer of 1885 the site for the hotel was pre-
pared by dumping tons of sand into the marshes and driving in
hundreds of pine pilings. The foundations were poured of an
especially strong concrete mixture employing one part sand, two
parts coquina shell gravel (imported from quarries on nearby
Anastasia Island), and one part cement. The walls were con-
structed of a mixture using five parts shell, two sand, and one
cement.7 The only iron reinforcement in the building (and other
Flagler hotels in St. Augustine) was in the spans over arches, the
longest being twenty-two feet. McGuire and McDonald conduct-
ed tests with reinforced slabs for use as flooring, but it was finally
decided to use wood in the floors.8 When completed in May
1887, the Ponce de Leon was the first major structure in the
United States constructed of poured concrete; however, its limited
and primitive use of iron reinforcement set it apart from innova-
tive modern structures of the twentieth century.9 Recent engineer-
ing studies have shown the building to be in perfectly sound
The Spanish Renaissance architecture of the Ponce de Leon
was largely the work of Bernard Maybeck, designer for Carrere
and Hastings and later a pioneer of modern architecture in Cali-
fornia.11 The hotel's decorator was Louis Tiffany of New York,
who had recently reorganized his company to specialize in glass
for architects and builders. The magnificance of the windows he
designed for the Ponce de Leon had an important impact in
stimulating demand for the creations which would make his
name synonymous with excellence in glass.12 The great rotunda
and dining hall of the hotel were decorated with mural paintings
by George W. Maynard, while the ceiling of the grand parlor was
covered with angelic canvasses by Virgilio Tojetti, painted in
6. Harry Harkness Flagler to Duryea, April 27, 1949, St. Augustine His-
7. McGuire and McDonald to Carrere and Hastings, July 15, 1910, 1910
McGuire Letterbook, Ponce de Leon Hotel Collection, Flagler College,
St. Augustinre, Florida.
8. J. A. McGuire to Carrere and Hastings, June 25, 1910, 1910 McGuire
Letterbook, Flagler College.
9. Condit, American Building Art, 228.
10. Wm. R. Kenan, Jr., Incidents by the Way: Lifetime Recollections and
Reflections, 4th ed. (n.p., 1955), 13.
11. Condit, American Building Art, 228.
12. Robert Koch, Louis C. Tiffany, Rebel in Glass (New York, 1966),
The Dining Hall
- N -
" ilA A
FLAGLER'S MAGNIFICENT HOTEL PONCE DE LEON
Paris and stretched between the ceiling moldings as the hotel was
completed. The rich, romantic interior atmosphere was ac-
centuated by the use of imported marbles, carved wood, framed
paintings, oriental carpets, and ornate vases and furniture.13
Utilities for the hotel were provided by the most modern and
ingenious devices. Four Edison direct current dynamos were
placed in the boiler plant to generate electricity for lighting.14
Water for the hotel was supplied from artesian wells over 500
feet deep. Since the water was impregnated with sulphur, it was
necessary to pipe it through several fountains on the grounds to
aerate it before pumping it into the twin towers of the hotel
where four large iron tanks received it. In 1892 a pipeline to a
fresh-water pond west of town was constructed so that the hotel
guests would not be required to drink sulphur water-even
though physicians of the day often recommended it for its sup-
posed healthful properties.5 In one important respect, however,
the Ponce de Leon failed to anticipate a change in public de-
mand. Since standards of the day had deemed public bathrooms
sufficient, the Ponce de Leon originally had only one private
bathroom-that in Flagler's suite-and almost immediately it be-
came necessary to begin an extended program of adding private
baths to the rooms of the hotel.16
In order to provide entertainment and places of amusement
for the hotel guests, Flagler built the Casino and Alcazar Hotel
immediately south of the Ponce de Leon across King Street. The
Casino contained a large indoor swimming pool, therapeutic
baths for treatment of various illnesses, a bowling alley, billiards
room, and ballroom. There were also adjacent tennis courts.7
The Alcazar Hotel was originally planned as a..shopping arcade
with moderately priced rooms in the upper floors to accommodate
the overflow from the Ponce de Leon. However, the Alcazar was
13. Florida, The American Riviera; St. Augustine, The Winter Newport
(Bowling Green, New York, 1887); St. Augustine Tatler, February 3,
1894; Martin, Florida's Flagler, 119-21.
14. McGuire to L. C. Haines, May 6, 1914, 1914 McGuire Letterbook, Flagler
15. A. C. Abbot, "Notes on Work done in St. Augustine at the Ponce de
Leon, Alcazar and Cordova Hotels, June 2nd to June llth, 1892," type-
script report, Letterbox 8, Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, Palm
16. Interview with Joseph McAloon, St. Augustine, August 2, 1974.
17. St. Augustine Tatler, February 8, 1908.
12 FLORIDA HISTORICAL QUARTERLY
from its opening an extremely popular establishment, and soon a
dining room was added and a row of shops converted into a lobby
so that the Alcazar might operate as a full-fledged hotel.18 Flagler
himself later declared it to be "every bit as good as the Ponce de
Leon."19 One reason for the popularity of the Alcazar was its
less stuffy atmosphere than the "high tone" Ponce de Leon, where
formal dress was required at evening meals. Anna Marcotte,
editor of the St. Augustine Tatler, noted: "The people of St.
Augustine are proud of the Ponce de Leon, but they love the
Alcazar."20 Although the Alcazar was smaller than the Ponce de
Leon, it would open earlier and close later in the season than its
more imposing neighbor, and therefore usually would accom-
modate more visitors during a winter.21
While the Flagler hotels and Casino were under construction,
Franklin Smith was building a hotel of his own, the Casa Monica,
in the adjacent block across Tolomato Street (now Cordova
Street). Still experimenting with refinements in concrete con-
struction, he utilized several independent but abutting units,
using a new mixture of concrete employing sand dredged from
the bay bottom. The resulting concrete was denser and harder
than that used in the Flagler hotels and was more uniform in
texture because it contained less shell.22 The architectural style
of the Cordova was medieval rather than Renaissance, with
massive turrets and battlements. Smith's Casa Monica Hotel
opened within days of the Ponce de Leon, although it was not
fully completed at the time. Flagler purchased the Casa Monica
from Smith within a year, renaming it the Cordova. For a few
years in the early 1890s the Cordova enjoyed its share of pros-
perity, but after 1895 only its rooms would be opened, and in
1903, when it was connected to the Alcazar by a bridge over
Cordova Street, it would be degraded to the position of "Alcazar
annex."23 A short-lived attempt was made to reopen the Cordova
18. Ibid., January 9, 1892; April 1, 1893; January 27, 1894.
19. Lefevre, "Flagler and Florida," 182.
20. St. Augustine Tatler, March 23, 1901.
21. See "Annual Report of the Florida East Coast Hotel Co.," volumes for
the years 1913-1931, Flagler Museum. The "Annual Reports" are de-
tailed typescript accounts of the Flagler hotel system's financial affairs.
Volumes for the years 1913 through 1962 are preserved in the Flagler
22. Smith, Design and Prospectus, 45.
23. Interview with Joseph McAloon, St. Augustine, August 2, 1974; St.
FLAGLER'S MAGNIFICENT HOTEL PONCE DE LEON 13
as a low-cost hotel in the late 1920s, but this failed and there-
after the building stood empty except for the shops on its ground
floor along King Street.24
The Ponce de Leon itself was completed in May 1887, while
the Alcazar and Casa Monica were still unfinished. Local resi-
dents had never seen anything like these pretentious structures,
and scoffers predicted that the large hotels would never be
filled.25 But Flagler worked to insure that his plans were ac-
complished. He purchased and improved the railroad from
Jacksonville to St. Augustine to provide adequate transportation,
and he mailed thousands of copies of Florida, The American
Riviera to notables in the United States and Great Britain to
make certain that the world knew what was about to transpire in
the nation's oldest city.26
As the day of the Ponce de Leon's grand opening neared, an
army of painters worked in shifts around the clock finishing their
tasks. With construction finished, dozens of laborers were given
their severance pay and discharged. Giant bonfires of rubbish
from the construction site lit-up the evening sky as asphalt from
nearby schooners was unloaded so the sandy streets around the
hotel could be given a smooth black pavement. Finally the em-
ployees of the hotel-some 350-began arriving by train from
On January 10, 1888, the first plush vestibule train ever to
arrive in St. Augustine pulled into the depot. Its passengers, in-
vited guests of Flagler, were taken to the Ponce de Leon at dusk
and saw for the first time the majestic hotel glimmering with
hundreds of electric lights. Those taking dinner with Mr. and
Mrs. Flagler that evening were the hotel's architects, builders,
artists, and several railroad executives.28 Two days later the hotel
opened its registers for regular guests. The first grand ball was
held in the large vaulted dining hall, with two orchestras playing
in balconies at either end of the room. Among the hundreds of
Augustine Tatler, January 13, April 7, 1894; January 18, 1896; January
24. "Annual Report, 1927"; interview with Joseph McAloon, St. Augustine,
August 2, 1974.
25. St. Augustine News, April 5, 1891.
26. Castleden, Early Years of the Ponce De Leon, 17.
27. Jacksonville Florida Times-Union, January 1, 3, 8, 13, 1888.
28. Castleden, Early Years of the Ponce De Leon, 37; Jacksonville Florida
Times-Union, January 11, 1888.
14 FLORIDA HISTORICAL QUARTERLY
guests were Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Vanderbilt. An-
other ball later in, the season was attended by Standard Oil execu-
tive William R. Rockefeller.29 Flagler's dream of a winter vaca-
tion palace had become a reality.
During its first half-decade the Ponce de Leon was reputedly
the most exclusive winter resort in the nation. It was a time when
a chance meeting in the halls of the hotel might result in a con-
versation between Flagler; the nation's largest landowner, Hamil-
ton Disston; Vice-President Levi P. Morton; Congressman (later
Governor) Roswell Flower of New York; Chauncey Depew; and
Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun.30 President Grover Cleve-
land paid a brief visit to the hotel only a month after its open-
ing. He was driven to the front gate of the Ponce de Leon in a
coach drawn by four white horses, after having threaded a
circuitous route through the town past banner-decked hotel
loggias and the seawall thronged with local citizens and winter
visitors. In the great parlor he received several thousand persons,
shaking hands with rich and poor, black and white. Cleveland
returned to St. Augustine and the Ponce de Leon on four more
occasions-1893, 1899, 1903, and 1905.31
Four other presidents later enjoyed the hospitality of Flagler's
finest hotel. William McKinley, then governor of Ohio, was a
guest in 1895. In October 1905, the hotel was opened out-of-sea-
son for Theodore Roosevelt. Flagler's brother-in-law, William R.
Kenan, Jr., later president of the Florida East Coast Hotel Com-
pany, noted that Roosevelt never then or later thanked anyone
for the pains taken to accommodate him.32 Warren G. Harding
enjoyed long vacations at the Ponce de Leon, arriving in Janu-
ary 1921, following his election as president, and he returned
again a year later. St. Augustine was charmed by the President,
who fished, went boating, shook hands, and golfed on the new
links north of the city.33 Years later, in March 1963, Vice-Presi-
29. Castleden, Early Years of the Ponce De Leon, 38-40; St. Augustine
News, March 4, 1888.
30. Castleden, Early Years of the Ponce De Leon, 69.
31. Ibid., 59; Jacksonville Florida Times-Union, February 17, 24, 1888; St.
Augustine Taller, February 14, 1903; March 25, 1905.
32. St. Augustine Taller, March 30, 1895; January 6, 1906; Wm. R. Kenan,
Jr., Incidents by the Way: More Recollections, 2nd ed. (n.p., 1949), 36.
33. St. Augustine Evening Record, January 11, 21, 22, February 15, 1921;
March 14, 15, 1922; Marie Groves, "The Ponce de Leon Hotel: 1920-
1929," 7, typed mss., Flagler College.
Courtyard of the Hotel Ponce de Leon
Gala dinner dance, 1903. Mrs. Flagler in center holding bouquet of roses
FLAGLER'S MAGNIFICENT HOTEL PONCE DE LEON
dent Lyndon B. Johnson was a guest at the hotel while in St.
Augustine to participate in ceremonies at the historic restored
Guests of the hotel during its early years were amused by
such indigenous St. Augustine attractions as the Alligator Farm
on Anastasia Island, the dungeons of old Fort Marion, and the
little curio shops which lined sandy St. George Street. The big
hotels also sponsored a variety of entertainments. The formal
dances in the dining hall of the Ponce de Leon attracted fashion-
ably-dressed guests from the other hotels and the town. The
greatest of these affairs was the Hermitage Ball, held in 1892 to
raise money for the restoration of Andrew Jackson's Tennessee
home. The guest of honor was Ellen Call Long, daughter of
Richard Keith Call, governor of Florida during the Territorial
Period and a close friend of Jackson.35 Exhibitions in the Casino
pool were popular; horsemanship tournaments were held reg-
ularly; and bicycling was a favorite pastime. There was tennis
on the Casino courts, but golf was perhaps the most exciting in-
novation of the era. In 1895 the first links were laid on the Fort
Marion green (the moat making a formidable water trap), and
there was great interest among the winter guests in the equip-
ment and techniques employed in the game.36
Some of the more venturesome guests visited the antiquated
rink in town to witness cake walks sponsored by the Negro bell-
hops and waiters of the hotels. The evening would begin with a
"buck dance," done in a brisk, strutting, double-shuffle with the
performer holding his head back. This was followed by singing
and the cake walk itself, for which prizes were awarded. Finely-
dressed couples, women in large shade hats with flowers, would
stroll in a graceful and dignified manner before a panel of judges
selected from distinguished hotel patrons. In a decade when Jim
Crow legislation was drawing the color line more and more
rigidly, it was a source of comment that the cake walks were an
opportunity for blacks and whites to meet in a cordial atmos-
phere.37 Later the cake walks were brought into the Casino and
34. St. Augustine Record, March 11, 1963.
35. St. Augustine News, February 1, 1891; St. Augustine Tatler, January 30,
36. St. Augustine Tatler, March 31, 1894; February 23, 1895.
37. St. Augustine News, March 1, 1891; St. Augustine Tatler, February 29,
1896; March 5, 1898.
18 FLORIDA HISTORICAL QUARTERLY
held more frequently until they were supplanted by black-face
The workers employed by the hotels constituted a second
estate in resort society. They lived in a sphere overlapping that of
the hotel guests, but distinctly separate. A hotel system within the
hotel system was needed to care for the large numbers of em-
ployees. Behind the great dining hall of the Ponce de Leon stood
a building, fully as large as a wing of the hotel itself, in which
were located the kitchen, workshops, living quarters for the
hotel's white employees, and several dining rooms for the various
grades of workers.39 Black males were housed in the "colored
barracks," a quarter of a mile away on south Cordova Street;
female Negroes lived in the large laundry building near the rail-
road depot.40 A variety of skilled individuals were employed by
the Flagler hotels: chefs, musicians, engineers, plumbers, carpen-
ters, gardeners, dynamo-tenders, and two Pinkerton detectives to
protect jewelry and watch out for bunko artists who followed
the wealthy.41 Most of these employees were career hotel workers
who migrated from northern hotels in the summer to southern
resorts during the winter months. Flagler and his business as-
sociates paid the men in key positions sufficiently well so that
many remained with the system for years.42
St. Augustine was the winter home for a colony of artists, in-
cluding most notably William Aiken Walker, who arrived in
1889.43 That same year Flagler opened seven studios in the rear
of the Ponce de Leon, and during the halcyon days of the hotel
they were occupied by a group of talented New England painters
whose canvasses helped make Florida landscapes familiar to the
rest of the United States. Among the earliest of these artists-in-
residence were Frank H. Shapleigh, W. Staples Drown, George W.
Seavey (brother of the hotel manager), Robert S. German, and
best known of all, Martin J. Heade, the famed landscape painter.
38. St. Augustine Tatler, March 14, 1896; February 1, 1902; March 7, 1903;
interview with Joseph McAloon, St. Augustine, August 2, 1974.
39. St. Augustine Tatler, December 15, 1894.
40. Interview with Joseph McAloon, St. Augustine, August 2, 1974; Jack-
sonville Florida Times-Union, January 29, 1888.
41. St. Augustine Tatler, April 1, 1893.
42. McGuire to Sidney M. Cole, September 1, 1908, 1908-1909 McGuire
Letterbook, Flagler College.
43. August P. Trovaioli and Roulhac B. Toledano, William Aiken Walker,
Southern Genre Painter (Baton Rouge, 1972), 40-42.
FLAGLER'S MAGNIFICENT HOTEL PONCE DE LEON 19
During his years at the Ponce de Leon he specialized in painting
flowers and hummingbirds. He used studio number one until
his death in 1904.44 The weekly receptions held by the painters
were among the social highlights of the winter season.45
The dispersion of the artist colony in the mid-1890s was only
one aspect of a general decline in St. Augustine's fortunes as a
luxury resort for high society. The artists left because their
moneyed patrons discovered other tropic vistas where the winter
months might be spent. Indeed the first adverse shock to strike
the Ponce de Leon had been gathering even as the Vanderbilts
and Rockefellers danced at the inaugural season balls. Yellow
fever spread north from Tampa, following the railroads, and
reached epidemic proportions in the summer and fall of 1888.
The following winter season was disastrous, as Northerners stayed
home rather than risk death from a disease which had no known
cause or cure. Nevertheless, the Ponce de Leon rebounded in
1890 and 1891, and the ample house counts of the first year were
almost equaled. But the following seasons witnessed a rapid,
steady decline in the hotel's patronage which would not be ar-
rested until the turn of the century.46
There were several reasons for St. Augustine's sagging for-
tunes, and the most important was beyond human control. In
December 1894, and in February 1895, Florida was hit by the
worst freezes in its history. In St. Augustine oranges were frozen
solid on the branches, and all but the hardiest of the trees and
shrubs around the Ponce de Leon were killed.47 The immediate
damage was repaired quickly, but the freeze was symptomatic of
a grave shortcoming in St. Augustine as a winter resort: the
weather simply was not as pleasant and sunny as in the more
tropical southern peninsula. With the expansion of Flagler's
own railroad and hotel empire down the east coast and the
44. Castleden, Early Years of the Ponce De Leon, 31; St. Augustine Tatler,
January 30, 1897; January 28, 1905. Later the studios became the offices
of the Florida East Coast Hotel Company, and they are now used as
classrooms by Flagler College. See also Robert C. McIntyre, Martin
Johnson Heade, 1819-1904 (Washington Square, New York, 1948).
45. Frederick A. Sharf, "St. Augustine: City of Artists, 1883-1895," Antiques,
XC (August 1966), 220-23.
46. Hotel Ponce de Leon House Count Book, 1888-1928, Flagler Museum.
47. C. B. Knott to Harry Harkness Flagler, December 29, 1894; January 7,
1895; McGuire to Harry Harkness Flagler, December 30, 1894, Box 45-E,
20 FLORIDA HISTORICAL QUARTERLY
progress of developers such as Henry Plant on the west coast,
St. Augustine found itself in an increasingly unfavorable com-
petitive position. "It strikes me," Flagler confided to his chief
lieutenant J. R. Parrott, "that we have outgrown the Ponce de
Leon."48 By 1894 it was apparent that St. Augustine's share of
the tourist patronage was shrinking as vacationers stopped only
briefly on their way to or from Palm Beach and other more
There were other reasons for the steady decline in the Ponce
de Leon's fortunes. The Panic of 1893 and subsequent decade-
long depression curtailed the vacation travel of much of the
nation.50 But the very nature of St. Augustine society probably
contributed more to the loss of business. The elite social set from
the North seems to have found life in old St. Augustine "slow,"
local business leaders were often unresponsive to calls for con-
certed action to make the city more attractive, and the town
council was under constant criticism for failure to clean up the
streets.51 Flagler himself expressed his disgust with the com-
munity's leaders in a 1906 letter: "I have realized from the be-
ginning that St. Augustine was a dull place, but it does seem as
though twenty years would stir up some little measure of public
spirit; enough at least to keep the only street we have to the
Railroad in decent condition."52 Anna Marcotte, outspoken ed-
itor of the Tatler, published repeated demands for civic responsi-
bility: "Shall this be the Newport of the South, or a Coney
Island?"53 By the time she asked the question the answer was
already apparent-Palm Beach would be the winter Newport; St.
Augustine would have to settle for less.
Yet St. Augustine recaptured some of its oldtime spirit as
prosperity returned to the nation in the first decade of the
twentieth century. When the tide of winter travelers to Florida
48. Henry M. Flagler to J. R. Parrott, September 9, 1895, Florida East
Coast Correspondence file, 1895, St. Augustine Historical Society.
49. St. Augustine Tatler, March 3, 1894.
50. Hotel Ponce de Leon House Count Book, 1888-1900, Flagler Museum;
St. Augustine Tatler, February 17, December 15, 1894.
51. St. Augustine Tatler, March 13, 1897; Parrott to Henry M. Flagler, July
6, 1906; J. E. Ingraham to Henry M. Flagler, June 27, 1906, F E C Cor-
respondence file, 1906, St. Augustine Historical Society.
52. Henry M. Flagler to Ingraham, April 24, 1906, F E C Correspondence
file, 1906, St. Augustine Historical Society.
53. St. Augustine Tatler, January 27, 1898.
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FLAGLER'S MAGNIFICENT HOTEL PONCE DE LEON
mounted to unprecedented levels, the hotels were sometimes
forced to set up cots in hallways to accommodate guests. How-
ever, the great bulk of business was now from tourists passing
through St. Augustine enroute to some other place, and the
peak season had shrunken to a brief two or three week period
which did not justify the opening of other hotels. Moreover,
much of this new traffic bypassed the Ponce de Leon since many
of the new tourists were "cheap people" who could not afford
the hotel's five-dollar-a-day rates.54
Nevertheless, more prosperous times had returned to the
hotel, and Flagler, who had been busy for a decade in South
Florida, began about 1905 to spend more time in St. Augustine
where his Florida venture first began. He and Mary Lily Flagler,
his third wife, would spend each December and early January in
the Ponce de Leon, holding receptions and balls and presiding
over an annual Christmas party for the children of friends
around a giant Christmas tree in the rotunda of the hotel.55 St.
Augustinians who felt that Flagler had "soured" on their town
long ago were pleased to see their patron return.56 Flagler had
directed that upon his death he would be buried in the Memorial
Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine where his daughter, Jennie
Louise Benedict, was already entombed. Following his death in
Palm Beach in May 1913, Flagler's body was brought to the
Ponce de Leon in a special train, and was placed in the rotunda
while the people of St. Augustine paid last respects to their
town's greatest citizen.57
The winter season preceding Flagler's death had been one of
the Ponce de Leon's worst ever, as the renewed decline of the
hotel's fortunes reached low ebb. The outbreak of war in
Europe in August 1914, held more ominous portents for the
hotel's future. Plant superintendent J. A. McGuire after writing
to northern hotel managers asking what effect the war was hav-
54. McGuire to H. E. Bemis, January 29, 1908, 1907-1908 McGuire Letter-
book, Flagler College; St. Augustine Tatler, April 1, 1905; March 30,
55. St. Augustine Tatler, January 6, 1905; January 5, 19, 1907; January 4,
56. Ingraham to Henry M. Flagler, June 27, 1906, F E C Correspondence
file, 1906, St. Augustine Historical Society.
57. St. Augustine Evening Record, May 23, 1913; Frank Carleton, "A His-
tory of the Ponce de Leon Hotel from 1911-1920," 5-6, typed mss.,
24 FLORIDA HISTORICAL QUARTERLY
ing on their business, decided that "prospects for a successful
season do not look bright."58 Remarkably, contrary to McGuire's
fears, the war launched the Ponce de Leon on another succession
of good years. Travellers who usually went to Europe and the
Bahamas were now restricted to the continental United States,
and in 1917 the Ponce de Leon enjoyed its most prosperous sea-
son since 1893.59 American entry into the war and wartime re-
strictions on travel, which hurt stop-over resorts such as St.
Augustine more than Palm Beach or Miami, did seriously cut
into the Ponce de Leon's business in 1918, but the following year
northern vacationers began arriving in unprecedented volume.60
The Florida Boom of the 1920s was already beginning.
Although the boom was centered in South Florida, St. Augus-
tine experienced a rapid increase in building construction and
tourism. Life in the old city took on a gayer aspect. During the
winter season dances were held outdoors on Cordova Street, Mack
Sennett's bathing beauties graced the stage of the Jefferson
Theatre, a stock ticker machine was placed in the Ponce de Leon
so that visitors could keep up with the latest increases on Wall
Street, the Ku Klux Klan paraded around the town plaza, and
dare-devil pilot Doug Davis piloted his stunt plane between the
towers of the Ponce de Leon.61 John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his
three sons were guests in the hotel.62 The automobiles parked in
the streets around the Ponce de Leon indicated renewed vitality.
But the automobile, symbol of American prosperity, proved to
be the ruin of the Ponce de Leon. Increasingly, tourists were
driving down U. S. 1, the "Sunshine Highway," past the sedate
resort palaces of a bygone era and seeking out the casual con-
venience of low-cost motor courts and the more lively activity in
places like Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The Ponce de
Leon began to run at an annual deficit beginning in 1924, while
the boom was yet in full swing, and it never reported a profit
58. McGuire to William MacAuliffe, August 17, 1914; McGuire to Ernest
Robinson, August 12, 1914, 1914 McGuire Letterbook, Flagler College.
59. "Annual Report, 1917."
60. Carleton, "A History of the Ponce de Leon Hotel from 1911-1920," 9-11;
"Annual Reports," 1918, 1919.
61. Groves, "The Ponce de Leon Hotel: 1920-1929," 4-9.
62. St. Augustine Evening Record, March 30, 1925.
63. "Annual Reports," 1924-1962.
FLAGLER'S MAGNIFICENT HOTEL PONCE DE LEON
The depression of the 1930s was a crushing blow to many of
the old hotels of Florida. The Alacazar was closed after the 1931
season, the Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach was torn down the
following year, and the Royal Palm in Miami had already been
demolished a few years earlier. Only three Flagler hotels sur-
vived: the Ponce de Leon, the Ormond in Ormond Beach, and
the Breakers in Palm Beach. In 1932 the nadir was reached. On
an average day only forty-one guests stayed in the Ponce de Leon,
a hotel with more than 400 rooms.64
The Florida East Coast Hotel Company minimized losses by
reducing staff, cutting salaries, and postponing all but the most
essential maintenance.65 Ponce de Leon plant superintendent
Joseph McAloon found his salary cut by forty per cent and saw
his maintenance force reduced to one Negro helper.66 Business
improved slightly later in the decade, dipping again with the
recession of 1937, but the Ponce de Leon continued to lose
money. The Breakers, rebuilt for the third time in 1926, main-
tained a substantial profit margin throughout the depression, and
helped keep the other hotels in the system open.
Despite its difficulties, the Ponce de Leon remained the social
center of St. Augustine and the place where important civic
functions were held. Its ornate dining hall was a favorite place to
celebrate New Year's Eve, and guests travelled long distances to
dine and dance there. The annual March of Dimes charity ball
was a main event, as were weekly bridge teas and Sunday night
concerts which were attended by the local citizens as well as
hotel patrons. With the outbreak of World War II in Europe,
the Ponce de Leon was used to stage benefits for financing British
With the entry of this country into the conflict in December
1941, Florida's major industry, tourism, was faced with collapse
because of restrictions on travel and sale of gasoline. The 1942
season was overshadowed by the events at Pearl Harbor, and the
Ponce de Leon stood virtually empty. Business and political
leaders petitioned Washington to do something to avert eco-
nomic disaster in Florida. These efforts resulted in the lease of
64. Ibid., 1932.
65. Ibid., 1932, 1933, 1934.
66. Interview with Joseph McAloon, St. Augustine, August 2, 1974.
67. Barbara Bordewisch, "A History of St. Augustine and the Ponce de Leon
Hotel During the War Years, 1940-1946," 6-7, typed mss., Flagler College.
26 FLORIDA HISTORICAL QUARTERLY
the Ponce de Leon to the Coast Guard for use as a training center
from September 1942, to June 1945. Other resort hotels in the
state were similarly utilized by the military.68 Two months after
being turned over to the Coast Guard there were 2,100 cadet
trainees stationed in the hotel, and the old building's plaster was
falling in great sheets because of the unusual activity.69 St.
Augustine vibrated with the tramp of marching feet, military
bands, and artillery practice.
The end of the war seemed to signal the return to prosperity.
The Ponce de Leon underwent extensive repairs and moderniza-
tion, and attracted large crowds in 1946 and 1947 that rekindled
memories of earlier days.70 Then the former pattern of decline
resumed; each year fewer and fewer guests returned. State govern-
ment surveys pointed with precision to the reasons why: only
eight of every 100 tourists remained in northeast Florida; only
thirteen of every 100 sought accommodations in hotels. Most
visitors travelled in cars, and many came in the summer months
when the Ponce de Leon was closed.71 Realizing the changed
pattern of tourism, the Flagler interests opened the Ponce de
Leon Motor Lodge on U. S. 1 north of St. Augustine in 1958.
The way was now prepared for the closing and possible destruc-
tion of the venerable Hotel Ponce de Leon.
The square in downtown St. Augustine bordered by the
Ponce de Leon, Alcazar, and Cordova hotel buildings had be-
come, in the opinion of many, a blighted eyesore. The Cordova
building contained shops and stores on its street level, but its
upper floors had been empty since the 1930s. The Alcazar had
remained closed from 1932 until 1947, when it was purchased by
O. C. Lightner of Chicago for use as a museum of hobbies. How-
ever, Lightner utilized only a few of the hotel's rooms and did
little to maintain the building.72
While many other American cities had resorted to dynamite
and wrecking crews to solve similar problems, St. Augustine's
68. Charlton W. Tebeau, A History of Florida (Coral Gables, 1971), 416-17;
"Annual Report, 1942," iv; "Annual Report, 1945," iv.
69. Interview with Joseph McAloon, St. Augustine, August 2, 1974.
70. "Annual Report, 1946," ii; "Annual Report, 1947," ii.
71. Florida Development Commission, Tourist Studies in Florida, 1958 (Tal-
lahassee, 1959), 6, 8; 1967 Florida Tourist Study (Tallahassee, 1968 [?]),
table 1, chart 2.
72. St. Augustine Record, June 6, 9, 27, 1947; Jacksonville Florida Times-
Union and Jacksonville Journal, August 22, 1971.
"# E r1
Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church
Funeral of Henry M. Flagler
FLAGLER'S MAGNIFICENT HOTEL PONCE DE LEON
civic leaders responded with creative solutions to preserve and
utilize the historic buildings. In 1961 the St. Johns County Com-
mission appointed a committee to explore the possibilities of
turning the Cordova into a courthouse. Although it was realized
that conversion of the building would require extensive interior
reconstruction, the Cordova was subsequently purchased from
the Florida East Coast Hotel Company, completely renovated,
and reopened in 1968 as the County Courthouse.73 Two months
before the completion of the Cordova renovation the St. Augus-
tine City Commission decided to remodel the Alcazar as a city
building. This work was completed in January 1972. The Light-
ner Museum was reopened in August 1974, having been relocat-
ed in the section of the Casino formerly occupied by the baths.74
The fate of the Ponce de Leon itself was publicly announced
on January 18, 1967, when Flagler Systems President Lawrence
Lewis told a group of civic leaders assembled in the great dining
hall that extensive studies had shown that it was no longer
feasible to continue operation of the hotel. Therefore, he de-
clared, the building had been sold and would be converted into
a college for women. News of the hotel's closing brought a not-
able upsurge of visitors who wished to spend one more weekend
in the famous hostelry before the end. In April 1967, the Hotel
Ponce de Leon closed its doors for the last time after eighty
Eighteen months later Flagler College began registering its first
students. Since that time it has become a fully-accredited, co-
educational college with degree programs in the liberal arts, business,
and education. In 1975 the Hotel Ponce de Leon was placed on the Na-
tional Register of Historic Places. The college has invested several
millions of dollars in a major restoration and preservation program.
The success of Flagler College augers well for the future of the great
building whose walls were built to last through the centuries.
73. St. Augustine Record, May 29, 1968.
74. Ibid., June 27, 1947; March 13, 1968; January 18, 1972.
75. Ibid., January 18, 1972; St. Augustine Sunday Record & Times-Union,
April 2, 1967.