History Hotel Ponce de Leon, St Augustine Florida

The Hotel Ponce de Leon (Flagler College since 1968), was the first of Florida's great winter luxury hotels and the flagship of Henry M. Flagler's railroad-hotel-land development empire in Florida. Henry Flagler made his fortune during the period immediately following the Civil War. He was one of John D. Rockefeller's two original partners and a founder of the Standard Oil Company in 1870. Standard Oil became the world's first and greatest oil monopoly. By the early 1880s, Flagler's interest in Standard Oil waned as the daily business became more routine, although he remained a vice-president until 1908 and a member of the Board of Directors until 1911. Flagler found a new challenge that became his second remarkable career, the development of the State of Florida. It was the last American frontier east of the mighty Mississippi.

Flagler built a railroad, the Florida East Coast Railway, that ultimately extended all the way down the Atlantic coast of Florida. It ran 522 miles from Jacksonville (just south of the Georgia state line) to Key West, the southernmost city in the United States, and took 27 years to complete the entire system. Along the way, Flagler established new towns, improved existing ones, built hotels, resorts, depots, schools, and churches, and established utility companies, newspapers, steamship lines, land development companies, and experimental farms. Flagler and his railroad linked vacationers to resorts, settlers to homesteads and new farmlands, and produce to market, and they were catalysts in the creation of modern Florida and its main industries, tourism, and agriculture. Flagler "financed this venture out of his own wealth, an act unprecedented in the annals of American history."

Flagler first visited Florida in the winter of 1877 with his ailing first wife, Mary. At the time, St. Augustine had a reputation as a warm winter seaside location for invalids. After Mary's death, Flagler visited St. Augustine again in the winters of 1882-1883 and 1883-1884. He noted "a wonderful change" in the accommodations and in the visitors, no longer predominantly invalids. Many years later he remembered: "But I liked the place and the climate, and it occurred to me very strongly that someone with sufficient means ought to provide accommodation for the class of people who are not sick, but who come here to enjoy the climate, have plenty of money, but could find no satisfactory way of spending it."

Florida had a population of just 140,000 on the eve of the Civil War, and was the last frontier east of the Mississippi when Flagler first arrived. The land belonged to Spain until 1821 and did not become a state until 1845. Florida's few towns included the ports of Pensacola, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Key West, the state's largest city. St. Augustine was established by the Spanish in 1565 and is the oldest permanent settlement in the United States.

Resort hotels in scenic, exotic locales provided Gilded Age Americans the opportunity to escape their urban environments. In the late 19th century, Florida was considered to be one of the most exotic regions of the United States, a forbidding land of swamps, mosquitoes, and alligators. Sportsmen, health seekers, and vacationers had just begun to visit a few areas of northeast Florida that could be reached by steamboat. Flagler, however, believed that Florida could become an American Riviera. With the addition of modern conveniences, the forbidding could be tamed into the picturesque. Moreover, the old Spanish city of St. Augustine's European ambiance could be enhanced and promoted as an Iberian-Moorish escape from urban-industrial American cities. A luxury hotel in Florida could be an ideal location for conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption.

In the winter and spring of 1885, Flagler began to develop plans for a winter resort hotel in St. Augustine that would transform the old city into the "Winter Newport." With the assistance of Dr. Andrew Anderson, a prominent local resident, and Franklin W. Smith, a winter resident from Boston, he gradually assembled a site that included marshlands west of the town's central plaza. Flagler hired Frederick W. Bruce, a local engineer, to survey the site and prepare the low-lying land for construction, and James A. McGuire and Joseph A. McDonald to build the new hotel. In 1884, McGuire and McDonald had built the Hotel San Marco, St. Augustine's new leading hotel that helped inspire Flagler to build a luxury hotel.

Transportation for Flagler's northern hotel guests was crucial to the success of his resort hotel. At that time, there were only a few short railroads in northern Florida and their tracks had different gauges that could not be interconnected. This was an inconvenience to travelers because it required them to change trains. Steamboats brought some tourists to Florida, but they were less reliable than railroads and reached only the coastal cities and the lower reaches of the St. John's River. In December 1885, Flagler bought an interest in the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Halifax River Railway, and subsequently was elected president of its board of directors. In 1888 he built a depot a short distance west of the Hotel Ponce de Leon when the railroad tracks were extended across the river to St. Augustine. Flagler bought several more existing railways in the area, and by the spring of 1889, his railroads provided service from Jacksonville to Daytona (90 miles). The improved transportation increased tourism dramatically, and the system was renamed the Florida East Coast Railway in 1889.

Henry Flagler selected two architects in their twenties, John Merven Carrere (1858-1911) and Thomas Hastings (1860-1929), to design the Hotel Ponce de Leon. The two young architects had met in Paris as students at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, the period's most prestigious school of architecture. In 1883, both found work as draftsmen in the office of McKim, Mead and White in New York City. They formed their own firm in early 1885, at first leasing office space from McKim, Mead and White. Carrere had been born in Rio de Janiero of American parents and was educated in Europe. Hastings was from a well-to-do New York family, and his father, the Reverend Thomas S. Hastings, was pastor of the city's West Presbyterian Church. Henry Flagler was a member of the church and a close friend of Reverend Hastings. It is highly unlikely that such a large commission would have gone to a brand-new architectural firm absent the family connection between Flagler and Hastings. Thomas Hastings later explained that Flagler at first considered hiring the new firm only to prepare a general design of the building, but eventually decided to place them in full charge of the design and construction of the hotel complex.

Carrere and Hastings prepared carefully for this large project at the beginning of their careers. They conducted extensive interviews with hotel operators and others to educate themselves on the functional requirements of hotels. Additionally, they studied the climate and local building traditions of St. Augustine. Carrere and Hastings were determined to move away from the American tradition of constructing inexpensive, fire-prone hotels of wood and eager to apply the principles they had thoroughly absorbed at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

The design principles of the Ecole had a profound influence on the major works of American architects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notably on the leading firms of McKim, Mead and White and Carrere and Hastings. Education at the Ecole had three components: lectures, work in the atelier (studio) of a practicing architect, and a program of design competitions. In the late 1800s, the Ecole emphasized the following principles of design and composition:
• Clear and logical solutions to architectural problems.
• The need to focus on the most important aspects of the problem first, with details worked out later.
• The idea that the building floor plan was key to the overall architectural conception; all other aspects of a design should be derived from an appropriate placement of rooms and free-flowing circulation among them.
• Placing different building functions in clearly defined, separate spaces.
• Biaxial symmetry.
Although the Ecole preferred the use of ornamental details taken from a previous period of architecture (classical, Renaissance, Gothic, etc.), this was not at the core of the Ecole's system. The Ecole also was open to the use of modern materials, such as iron, glass, and concrete.

The Ecole's design principles are clearly evident in the Hotel Ponce de Leon. The hotel has a very strongly organized, symmetrical plan, featuring a central axis running straight through the complex from south to north, with several cross axes. The major functional components-hotel, dining room, and service space-reveal themselves as separate spaces on the exterior and are connected by subsidiary spaces that serve as links. On the interior, the low-ceilinged connecting spaces open into the lofty spaces of the octagonal Rotunda and the barrel-vaulted Dining Room. The centerpiece of the design is the Rotunda, where the main axis leading back to the Dining Room is crossed by another axis, leading to additional important public spaces of the hotel. Throughout, the scheme of circulation is clear and logically determined. In their first major commission, Carrere and Hastings established their reputation as masters of the plan, a reputation that stayed with the firm through its life. By contrast, McKim, Mead and White tended to place more emphasis on the facade composition.


A story told by Hastings illustrates both the importance of the plan and the meticulous care that the firm took with this commission. When local builders McGuire and McDonald first laid out the outline of the building on the site, they found that the plans appeared to be askew. Carrere traveled to St. Augustine and discovered that the builders had started from one corner of the building plan and surveyed around each wall, accumulating errors in measurement all the way. Carrere started over, setting up his survey equipment in the center of the building and running lines out from that point to demonstrate that the plans were accurate. Hastings later wrote that it was this demonstration that convinced Flagler that the young architects needed to supervise every aspect of the hotel's construction.

Carrere and Hastings consistently stated that the Hotel Ponce de Leon "is built in the style of the Spanish Renaissance, which was strongly influenced by the Moorish spirit."31 Hastings was familiar with Spanish architecture from his travels in Spain, and the partners consulted photographs of Spanish buildings available in McKim, Mead and White's extensive library. Architectural historian Richard Longstreth describes the hotel as "an especially brilliant synthesis of diverse sources," and mentions elements drawn from "Italian Romanesque; Moorish; and Italian, Spanish, and even French Renaissance architecture." Carrere and Hastings took pains to ensure that the hotel would not clash with the colonial Spanish buildings of St. Augustine. In addition to using crushed local coquina stone in the concrete aggregate, the architects borrowed the local tradition of projecting wooden balconies; the four "Mirador Rooms" at the corners of the building's front seem to have been inspired by the four corner "lookout towers" of the nearby Spanish fort, the Castillo de San Marcos. Whatever the exact sources of decorative elements, the Hotel Ponce de Leon is considerably more exuberant than almost all of the firm's later work, which drew largely from French architecture from the early Renaissance to the reign of Louis XVI.

Carrere and Hastings involved several artists in the decoration of the hotel and may have assigned some of the interior design to Bernard Maybeck, a young architect working for them. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), who had been known primarily as a painter, received his first major commission in glass when he was tapped to design the hotel's stained-glass windows. George Maynard (1843-1923), a well-known muralist who had worked with McKim, Mead and White and would later create murals for the Library of Congress, painted the dome of the Rotunda and portions of the Dining Room. An Italian-born artist, Virgilio Tojetti (1851-1901), painted canvases that were installed in the ceiling of the Grand Parlor. The noted New York furniture and design firm of Pottier & Stymus supplied furniture for the hotel.

Bernard Maybeck (1862-1957), who would go on to a long and distinguished architectural career in the San Francisco area, worked for Carrere and Hastings from 1886 to 1888. Maybeck and Hastings had been in the same atelier during their Ecole years, that of Louis-Jules Andre, and had even briefly roomed together. A few architectural historians have suggested that Maybeck had a role in the overall design of the Hotel Ponce de Leon, but his contributions seem to have been confined to the interior. As Longstreth notes, Maybeck did not join the firm until 1886, and it is well established that the basic design for the hotel was completed in 1885, with foundation work beginning in December of that year. Further, Carrere and Hastings would have wanted this, their first important commission, to be unmistakably their own work. Maybeck did supervise the construction of the hotel.

From 1885 to 1889, Carrere and Hastings spent almost all of their time working on the Hotel Ponce de Leon and Flagler's other St. Augustine projects. The firm designed the Alcazar Hotel (1886-1888), directly across the street from the Ponce de Leon, Grace Methodist Episcopal Church (1887), and Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church (1889-1890). Flagler again called on the firm to design two of his houses, Kirkside (1893) in St. Augustine and Whitehall (1901) in Palm Beach.

The tremendous public and professional acclaim for the Hotel Ponce de Leon immediately established Carrere and Hastings as a leading architectural firm. Shortly after the hotel opened for the first time, this account in New York's "Evening Post" was typical praise: "But, after all, the greatest wonder of St. Augustine is the Hotel Ponce de Leon, recently finished; without doubt the finest piece of hotel architecture in this country, probably the finest in the world." In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Carrere and Hastings and McKim, Mead, and White were the dominant U.S. architectural practices. From its founding through Hastings' death in 1929, the firm designed more than 600 buildings. Carrere and Hastings are best known today for their New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets; the firm won a competition to design the building in 1897. Construction began in 1902 and the library opened to the public on May 23, 1911. Other noteworthy commissions included the New (later Century) Theater in New York; the Standard Oil Building, New York; the House (now Cannon) Office Building in Washington, DC; the Senate (now Russell Senate) Office Building in Washington, DC; the approaches to the Manhattan Bridge, New York; 12 Carnegie libraries; and a company town for U.S. Steel in Duluth, Minnesota. The firm also designed dozens of residences for many of the period's corporate princes, including Harrimans, Pricks, Vanderbilts, and DuPonts. Both men were active in professional activities and associations. Carrere died in an automobile accident in 1911, while Hastings continued to receive acclaim and numerous professional awards. He was only the third American (after Richard Morris Hunt and Charles F. McKim) to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Institue of British Architects, awarded in 1922.

With the Hotel Ponce de Leon, Carrere and Hastings not only produced an exceptional work of architecture, they also reinvented the late 19th century concept of a hotel. "Using the Renaissance vocabulary, Carrere and Hastings retrieved, if only for a short time, the design of resort hotels from the hands of contractors and builders. Adding the 1891 Laurel-in-the Pines Hotel to their earlier successes, the firm lifted the building type out of wooden construction, epitomized by the clapboard Grand Hotel in Saratoga, New York and the shingle Hotel Thorndike at Jamestown, Rhode Island, and into the realm of serious aesthetic consideration. They proved that the results could be impressive, functional, and architecturally influential." In the years following its opening, the hotel became a prime winter destination for America's elite. Novelist Henry James pronounced the Ponce de Leon "highly modern, a most cleverly-constructed and smoothly administered great caravansary."

In addition to his more well-known business accomplishments, Henry Flagler was also a patron of the arts. He hired a number of artists to decorate his first hotel and purchased paintings by noted artists for exhibit at the Hotel Ponce de Leon as well. There were also a number of artists in residence at the Hotel. The building at the north end of the hotel complex, the Ponce de Leon Studios (now called the Artists' Studios), was specifically constructed to support St. Augustine's local art colony. Martin Johnson Heade, the senior artist in residence at the Hotel, occupied Studio No. 7 for a number of years. Flagler met Heade in St. Augustine in 1883, a meeting that may be responsible in part for Flagler's construction of the studio building. "More like ateliers or small salons than artists' garrets, these artists' studios were an integral part of the cultural life of the Ponce de Leon and provided a center for the growing artistic community of St. Augustine." A number of visiting artists used the studios in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Otto Henry Bacher, Charles Grafton Dana, F. Arthur Callender, George Seavey, Frank Shapleigh, Laura Woodward, and Marie a Becket.

In December 1906, John Carrere spoke to the New York Architectural League on the subject of "Hotels." Carrere was introduced by Richard Howland Hunt, president of the League and a son of Richard Morris Hunt, who noted that Carrere and Hastings "were the first architects to open the eyes of the country in regard to hotels . . . and that [the Ponce de Leon] was the first hotel in this country to be erected from a definite art standpoint." In his remarks, Carrere observed that "When you decorate a hotel so artistically that you get a man to go there for something else, other than to eat or sleep, you have accomplished a great deal for art."

The Hotel Ponce de Leon is also exceptionally important for its pioneering method of construction. It was the first large multistory building in the United States constructed of concrete, a building material choice that has been characterized as "startlingly innovative." An additional innovation was the use of coquina, a native sandstone that was crushed to provide the aggregate for the concrete mixture.

Carrere and Hastings' Beaux-Arts training made them partial to local materials and building traditions, but the pioneering formula with coquina and Portland (hydraulic) cement used to construct the Ponce de Leon was the innovation of Franklin W. Smith of Boston. Smith, a millionaire and an amateur architect, constructed his winter residence in St. Augustine of poured concrete with coquina and Portland cement in 1883. Henry Flagler was impressed by the Villa Zorayda (inspired by Spain's Alhambra), and discussed its construction and debated concrete formulas with Smith at length.

The initial concrete construction of the Ponce de Leon, which began November 30,1885, was supervised by Smith until January 1886 when Flagler and Smith had a parting of the ways. Smith then built his own hotel with Spanish and Moorish features, the Casa Monica, across King Street from the Ponce de Leon. He used a modified concrete formula with much less coquina than the formula for the Ponce de Leon, resulting in a finer material with a smoother texture that made the walls more uniform in color. Both the Casa Monica and the Ponce de Leon opened in January 1888, but Flagler bought the Casa Monica from Smith at the end of its first season (April 1888). Flagler also commissioned Carrere and Hastings to build a less formal hotel with a large entertainment complex across King Street from the Ponce de Leon. The Hotel Alcazar, which included steam baths, gymnasium, casino, swimming pool, and ballroom, opened in December 1888.

The Hotel Ponce de Leon enjoyed its greatest artistic and financial success in its earliest years. The rich and powerful of the United States did patronize it, as Henry Flagler had hoped. Early guests included presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley (when he was governor of Ohio), Theodore Roosevelt, and Warren G. Harding who visited in 1921 and 1922. By the mid-1890s, however, Flagler's railroad and hotel development had pushed south where the weather was warmer, and Palm Beach soon became the real "Winter Newport."

During the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, the Hotel Ponce de Leon enjoyed a few years of renewed prosperity, but the crash of the real estate bubble in 1926 signaled the end of an era for the Hotel Ponce de Leon. During the Great Depression it remained open, but only as a ghost of its former self. The Ponce's sister hotels, the Alcazar and Cordova, both closed and never reopened as hotels. During World War II, the Coast Guard took over the Ponce de Leon for use as a basic training camp. The hotel enjoyed a slight revival in the 1950s, but by then it had become an anachronism in Florida tourism. It closed in 1967 after the death of William R. Kenan, Jr., Flagler's brother-in-law and the last of the Flagler generation to pass away.

In 1968 the Hotel Ponce de Leon's main building reopened as the center of the new Flagler College campus. Students moved into former hotel guest rooms, and the artists' studios became classrooms. The college library was located first in the rooftop Solarium, and later in the Grand Parlor. At first very little was done to change the building because the fledgling college could not afford even modest renovations. In 1975, the college began to renovate the guest rooms-now dormitory rooms-one floor at a time over the summer breaks. The first major restoration project was the 1978 restoration of the roofs on the two towers, which had suffered from weather exposure. Renovation and restoration of the building accelerated after that. In 1988, the college celebrated the Hotel Ponce de Leon's 100th anniversary with festivities in the Grand Parlor and Dining Room, both recently restored to their former grandeur. Restoration projects are ongoing in the 21st century, with more than $25 million spent to date. The Hotel Ponce de Leon's adaptive use as Flagler College is a remarkable success that preserves the building itself, the spirit of the original hotel, and the memory and legacy of Henry Morrison Flagler.