Casa Monica Hotel: A Gilded Age Survivor

Today, we are checking-into the past at the Casa Monica Hotel. The Moorish and Spanish Baroque Revival structure – located at 95 Cordova Street – first opened its doors to guests in 1888. Unlike the neighboring Flagler-era hotels, this building still operates as a hotel today – making it one of the oldest hotels in the country. Let us shine up on the many chapters in this Gilded Age survivor’s story.

  • 1887: Hotel Casa Monica

    From the start, Villa Zorayda-owner Franklin Smith shared Henry Flagler’s dream of transforming St. Augustine into a resort town, but Smith found himself unable to financially commit to such a large scheme. Instead, Flagler helped Smith purchase land at the intersection of Cordova and King Streets. This site included the Sunnyside House, a 30-room hotel built in 1876. Not content with the small structure, Smith moves it down the street and immediately set to work on designing a new one in 1887 (without any further assistance from Flagler).

    Franklin Smith purposely designed the Hotel Casa Monica to appear as if it evolved over time. (UFDC)

    On New Year’s Day 1888, Smith opened Hotel Casa Monica. In just four months, Smith found the whole enterprise in serious financial trouble, so he reached out to Flagler for relief. The railroad magnate subsequently purchased the entire facility from Smith for a sum $325,000. This included “all fixtures, furnishings, silver, hardware, linen, bedding, parlor, hall, dining room, and kitchen furnishings and all other chattels.”

  • 1888: Cordova Hotel

    Flagler undertook extensive reworking of the eccentrically-decorated interior and reopened the establishment under the name “Cordova Hotel” in 1888. For the better part of the next three decades, the establishment hosted all sorts of exciting fairs, galas, and charity events.

    Local businesses rented space in the Casa Monica Hotel’s ground floor.
  • 1902: Alcazar Annex

    Seeing such success in his hotels, Flagler connected the Cordova Hotel to the Hotel Alcazar via a bridge in 1902. Uniting the two ventures together into one business, the building soon became known as the “Alcazar Annex.”

    You can spot the connecting bridge in this 1924 floor plan for the Hotel Alcazar. (UFDC)

    The hotels continued to operate after Flagler’s death in 1913, but the Hotel Alcazar became a victim of the Great Depression. Closing in 1932, the Alcazar Annex itself then fell into a state of dilapidation, with much of its historical architecture deteriorated. The bridge over Cordova Street was torn down in 1945.

    The building has fared worse than its peers in that the street level now presents an unharmonious succession of individual commercial shop fronts and the interior is a mere shell.

    “The Historic American Building Survey Photo-Data Book Information” by National Park Service Eastern Office Division of Design and Construction St. Augustine Field Office, August 1961 (UFDC)
  • 1962: St. Johns County Courthouse

    On February 13, 1962, the St. Johns County Commission voted to purchase the Hotel Casa Monica from the Florida East Coast Hotel Company. The property cost $250,000 at that time. The renovations to restore the ailing structure took nearly six years to complete, finally opening as the St. Johns County Courthouse in May of 1968. The former-hotel continued to serve the community for the next three decades.

    A rendering of the Casa Monica Hotel that appeared in the St. Augustine Record on April 9, 1961. (UFDC)
  • 1997: Casa Monica Hotel

    In February 1997, Richard Kessler—who previously worked with the Days Inn hotel chain—started setting up his own brand of lodgings called the “Kessler Collection.” Falling in love with the building’s gorgeous historical architecture, Kessler purchased the entire building from the St. Johns County government for $1.2 million. Over the next two years, he transformed the structure back into a hotel under its original name – the Casa Monica Hotel.

    Join Richard Kessler has he provides a video tour of the Casa Monica Resort & Spa. (Youtube)

Today, you can stay at Smith’s hotel, which now operates as the Casa Monica Resort & Spa. To find more historic hotels, visit the Historic Hotels of America: National Trust for Historic Preservation at www.historichotels.org.

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