January, 2014. St. Augustine, Florida. I Want to Go Back to College!

Posted on January 19, 2014

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…but only if I can go to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.

DSCN0254On second thought, I’d probably not pass a single class as I’d be too busy gazing out Tiffany windows and studying the unique Spanish Renaissance grandeur of this truly unique place.

Flagler College is located in the former Ponce de Leon Hotel built by Henry Flagler in 1886-88.  I’ve talked about Henry Flagler in another post, and anyway, all he did was write the check.

Architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, both in their early 20’s, were just starting their careers when Flagler gave them the commission to design a grand hotel worthy of the Northern social elite he wanted to attract to St. Augustine.   Surprisingly, according to our student guide, the Ponce was really their first major undertaking. The success of this near-first project catapulted them into architectural prominence, and they went on to design many major buildings in New York City and elsewhere .

DSCN0267Interestingly enough, Louis Comfort Tiffany was just establishing his career, too.

In 1882 President Chester Arthur refused to move into the White House until it had been redecorated. He commissioned Tiffany, who was just starting to make a name for himself in New York society for interior design work, to redo the state rooms.

What was good enough for the President was good enough for Flagler.

He hired Tiffany to design the interior of the Ponce, which came to include 75 stained glass windows, now the largest collection of Tiffany glass in the world, valued at more than $40 million dollars.  Many of these windows were located in the hotel dining room, which is now the student cafeteria! They are protected outside by Plexiglas panels and inside by banquettes, where I’m sure sitting is NOT allowed. Murals, gold leaf paintings and bas-relief figurines, along with allegorical elements and a lot of carved wood rounded out the interior design.

Bill takes a break in the Flagler cafeteria.

Bill takes a break in the Flagler cafeteria.

Our guide said none of the Tiffany windows have ever been broken – amazing. The chairs in the cafeteria are replicas of the originals once used in the hotel dining room, and the whole effect is, well, very un-college like.

The Ponce de Leon was built entirely of poured concrete and cost $2.5 million dollars. It was wired for electricity, the power source being DC generators supplied by Flagler’s friend, Thomas Edison.  For the most part, guests were not familiar with electricity, and many feared they would be electrocuted when flipping the switch. So, in typical Flagler fashion, Henry hired servants to lead guests to and from rooms to flip the switches, turning on lights ahead of them.

Water for the hotel was another problem. Flagler thought the sulphur-scented local water might be a bit off-putting to his northern elite guests, so two gigantic water towers were integrated into the building’s design. These were kept filled with water from a well drilled down 1440 feet – well below the aquifer providing water for the common folk of Florida. It took a full year to drill the well.

During World War II the hotel was used as a Coast Guard Training Center.  From 1942-45, thousands of young recruits received both boot and advanced training at what was certainly one of the most unusual training stations of WWII.

In 1963 the hotel was one of several St. Augustine sites involved in the civil rights movement, and in 1964 the city became a national stage for demonstrations, bringing Martin Luther King to town. On March 31, 1964, more than a hundred students from all-black Richard J. Murray High School marched downtown and sat-in at the elegant dining room of the Ponce de Leon Hotel.

A friend of mine was here in 1964 and said Castillo de San Marcos – a historic fort in town – was used to pen up some of the demonstrators until order could be restored.

In 1968 the hotel was turned into Flagler College. In 1976 the college embarked on an ambitious campaign to restore the Hotel and other Flagler-era campus buildings. In 1998 students created the Flagler’s Legacy Program, which provides guided tours of portions of the original hotel.DSCN0255 DSCN0256 DSCN0257 DSCN0258 DSCN0259 DSCN0260 DSCN0261 DSCN0262

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Posted in: Travel - Florida