We know them today as Flagler College and The Lightner Museum and The City of St. Augustine’s City Hall, but not so long ago these large structures housed some of America’s wealthiest vacationers! Henry Flagler radically changed St. Augustine’s future when he opened his Hotel Ponce de Leon on this day in 1888, and later, the neighboring Hotel Alcazar. Today we’re going to briefly explore the origins and evolution of these St. Augustine landmarks.
Both the Ponce and the Alcazar reflect Spanish Renaissance Revival architecture to blend in with the aesthetic of St. Augustine, and were designed by architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings of New York City. Flagler’s hotel commissions were the projects that kickstarted their renowned career, which would later include buildings such as the New York Public Library and the Cannon House and Russell Senate Office Buildings in Washington, DC.
Did you know that the Ponce was one of the first poured concrete buildings in the United States and was also one of the first buildings to have electricity? It featured design and decorative elements from many famous artists of the time, including stained glass panels and fixtures created by Louis Comfort Tiffany himself. Flagler wanted only the best for his hotels. The Ponce was built between 1885 and 1887, and opened on January 10, 1888. Around this time, Flagler decided to build another resort right across King Street, which he would name the Alcazar.
The Alcazar opened in 1889. It was slightly less expensive than the Ponce but had lots of amenities for guest enjoyment, like saunas, a casino, archery ranges, and the world’s largest swimming pool at the time! The Alcazar was very successful for many years, but as the Depression hit and South Florida became more developed, the hotel began to decline and eventually closed in 1932. The Ponce also suffered; however, it remained open.
It is at this point that Flagler’s two hotels take diverging paths. The Ponce was converted into training space and housing for the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. As for the Alcazar, it sat empty until 1947 when Otto Lightner purchased the building to house his massive collection of art, design, and novelty collectibles. This museum is now known as the Lightner Museum and it occupies the back half of the former hotel. You can now have lunch in the former swimming pool and see many of the features of the hotel when you visit their galleries!
After World War II ended, the Ponce became a hotel again, but it struggled. It finally shuttered its doors as a hotel in 1967. Henry Flagler’s great nephew Lawrence Lewis agreed to sell the building to a group from Mount Ida College to establish a women’s college, known today as Flagler College!
Both the Ponce and the Alcazar are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and continue to be major landmarks and tourist attractions for St. Augustine.
The University of Florida and Flagler College worked together from 2009 to 2012 to scan the Carrere and Hastings blueprints of the Ponce de Leon and Memorial Presbyterian Church through a National Parks Service grant. Many of these records are stored in Gainesville and can be viewed through the Carrere and Hastings Collection on the UF Digital Collections site!