January, 2014. St. Augustine, Florida. Victorian Opulence Enshrined

Posted on January 17, 2014

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Red TrolleyWell, what a morning THIS has been!  It’s cold today in St. Augustine, Florida, especially if you are rocketing through the city in an open-air trolley piloted by a kamikaze driver.

lightner museum

Lightner Museum, once the Alcazar Hotel

Our destination of choice today was the Lightner Museum, three floors of Victoriana splendor, or excess, depending on your viewpoint.

Housed in a former hotel built by Henry Flagler, it contains the collection of publisher Otto C. Lightner, a collector of collections who acquired most of his stuff from Chicago estates after the 1929 stock market crash. In other words, he was johnnie-on-the-spot when the rich folks suddenly realized they were poor folks.

But let’s back up a bit, back to Henry Flagler. Without him, St. Augustine would probably be a rather ho-hum place occupying an important place in American history, but located on the wrong end of Florida.

Flagler – a multi-millionaire industrialist –  made his first fortune in the grain business, then partnered with John D. Rockfeller to establish the Standard Oil Company, where he made a second fortune.

In the late 1870’s, Flagler and his first wife took their doctor’s advice and traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, for the winter. His wife died in 1881, and in 1883 Flagler married again and honeymooned in St. Augustine. The Flaglers found the city charming, but the hotel facilities were not at all up to their standards.

So, what does a rich man do – he tried to buy a hotel for his honeymoon, but the owner would not sell. We don’t know how the poor couple survived their trip, having to bunk with strangers under the same roof and rub elbows with the common cattle in the lobby, but apparently the experience didn’t keep them from becoming hooked on St. Augustine.

Flagler College

Flagler College, once the Ponce de Leon Hotel

Flagler returned to St. A in 1885 and began construction of the 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel, and he encouraged other Standard Oil executives to winter in his beloved city.  The Ponce de León Hotel, now part of Flagler College, opened on January 10, 1888 and was an instant success.

Flagler, ever the businessman, saw dollar signs in the potential of St. Augustine as a winter retreat for moneyed Northern industrialists.

He went on to build two more very luxurious hotels, including the Alcazar, which eventually became the Lightner Museum. The Alcazar wasn’t for sissies.  It was only open three months of the year, January through March, and you paid – up front – for the entire three months, whether or not you actually stayed the whole time. And it wasn’t cheap. According to our tour guide, $200.00 a week was the going rate, and this was when the ‘average’ man was earning about .75 a day.

Realizing the need for a better rail system to support his hotel ventures, Flagler purchased short line railroads to form the Florida East Coast Railway. In 1893 he began laying tracks to Palm Beach and Miami, insuring the state’s future as a playground for the rich and famous.

Flagler poured a lot of money into St. Augustine for civic projects. He built three churches and a new jail – because he did not want his guests at the Alcazar to have to endure the sights, sounds and smells of the old town jail, located next door.

The Alcazar Hotel closed in 1932, but was purchased by Mr. Lightner in 1948 to house his aforementioned eclectic collection of cut glass, porcelain, furniture, statuary, stained glass, and natural history specimens ranging from a stuffed lion to sea shells and arrowheads. The more mundane are included also – collections of buttons, cigar wrappers, Victorian clothing and silver make for the kind of museum experience you won’t soon forget.Lightner 2 Lightner 3 lightner 4 lightner 5

But as jaw-dropping as the collections are, they are out-shown by the structure itself.

And I’m sure that would make old Henry very happy.

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Posted in: Travel - Florida