Florida' Grand Hotels
From The Gilded Age
Part I: Henry M. Flagler's East Coast Hotels

Flagler’s Cordova Hotel is today’s Casa Monica, St. Augustine

The Breakers dining room offered tropical ambiance ca. 1920s

Bathers crowd the beach near the Breakers Hotel ca. 1920

A custard bowl with the Ponce de Leon emblem

The Ponce de Leon interior was lavishly furnished by Flagler

A decorative gift plate picturing the Ponce de Leon, early 1900s

Courtyard of the Alcazar Hotel

Gilded tourists relax on the Colonnade at the Royal Poinciana

A set of matching decorative plates show the Royal Palm at sunset in Miami

One of the famous alligator border postcards published by S. Langsdorf & Co. 1900-1910, featuring the Royal Palm Hotel in Miami

By: Wayne Ayers

Florida during the late 1800s was a paradise waiting to be discovered.

By the dawn of the 20th Century, the state would be transformed from a vast wilderness visited mainly by invalids and a few adventurous “excursionists” into a prime “grand tour” destination of the rich and famous.

Florida’s metamorphosis from America’s last frontier to vacation resort of the nation’s elite was accomplished by two visionary entrepreneurs, who set out in separate ventures but with a remarkably similar vision and mission.  The integrated transportation and accommodation networks built by Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant along Florida’s east and west coasts, respectively, in the late 19th Century established a tourism infrastructure that would carry forward to the 21st Century.

The legacy left by Flagler and Plant includes six restored grand hotel structures, each an architectural treasure, a network of railroads that continues to serve the state’s commercial transportation needs, and a fascinating array of antiques and memorabilia that promoted their enterprises.

A honeymoon visit by Henry Flagler and his new bride Ida Alice to the ancient city of St. Augustine during the brutal northern winter of 1883-1884 proved to be the catalyst for his grand venture.

The ancient city’s unique character and balmy climate left a deep impression on Flagler, and the couple made plans to return the following year.

Arriving for his 1885 visit, Flagler noted changes taking place that kindled his visionary spirit.  The opening of the San Marco Hotel gave the city a first-class hostelry, and a new rail transportation network provided greater accessibility for the well-heeled tourists that Flagler would look to accommodate.

Soon, Flagler was stirring with grandiose plans for a hotel of his own, which would surpass anything yet envisioned for the Florida frontier.

On December 1, 1885 Flagler began construction of his first and most grandiose hotel, the Ponce de Leon.  Two years later, on January 10, 1888, the hotel opened with a glittering three-day celebration that featured balls, dinners and parties… illuminated by thousands of electric lights.

Guests for the event arrived in first-class comfort on Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway.  Arrival of the first vestibule train on opening day signaled the city’s accessibility to gilded patrons who could now travel in style to reach the paradise resort Flagler had prepared for them.

Within two years, in time for the opening of the 1890 tourist season, Flagler would have completed his second St. Augustine hotel, the Spanish Renaissance Alcazar, and purchased a third, the Casa Monica, which he renamed Cordova.  The hotels surrounded a lushly landscaped plaza that provided guests with a tropical promenade to reach the popular recreation and entertainment complex which Flagler created in the Alcazar. 

The Flagler hotels, all within a block of one another near the heart of St. Augustine, became THE attraction in a city known for its abundance of venerable sights. 

But Flagler’s fascination with St. Augustine proved short-lived.  By the early 1890s, his vision and focus would shift to an even more lush paradise-waiting-to-be-discovered on Lake Worth, 250 miles to the south.

Over the years, as St. Augustine moved in and out of fashion as a tourist attraction, Flagler’s hotel properties would see usage changes.  Today, each has undergone splendid restoration and feature much to delight art and antiquity lovers. 

The Ponce de Leon is home to Flagler College.  Tours are hosted by college students who are able to point out the rich symbolism that accompanies the murals, carvings and other objects that adorn the facility.

The city’s highly rated Lightner Museum occupies the Alcazar across from the Ponce de Leon.  The museum features an extensive collection of Tiffany glass, antique mechanical music instruments, plus fine and decorative arts.  The famed Turkish and Russian baths have been restored (but are not in use), and the sunken swimming pool is surrounded by antique and craft dealers and a courtyard restaurant.

Ironically, the least successful of the hotel triumvirate, the Cordova, is the only one operating today as a hotel.  The four-diamond Casa Monica has earned a listing in Historic Hotels of America.

By the mid-1890s, Flagler had extended his Florida East Coast Railway to Lake Worth.  Flagler chose Palm Beach, a desolate barrier island between the lake and the Atlantic Ocean, as the site of his most spectacular property, the Royal Poinciana.  Opened in 1894, the hotel became a magnet for the social elite and established Palm Beach as the premier location for the rich and famous.  A spur of the railroad delivered guests right to the hotel, a feature that Flagler and his west coast competitor Henry Plant would copy in their future undertakings.

The hotel’s immense size is reflected in the building materials used in its construction.  These included 1,400 kegs of nails, 5 million feet of lumber, 360,000 shingles, 4,000 barrels of lime, 500,000 bricks, 2,400 gallons of paint, 20 acres of plaster, 1,200 windows, and 1,800 doors.

The Royal Poinciana proved so popular that it was enlarged twice, doubling its size with each expansion.  By the early 20th Century, the hotel could tout a capacity to accommodate 2,000 guests, who were well looked after by nearly 1,700 employees.

Flagler also chose Palm Beach as the site of his first and only hotel located directly on the beach… the Palm Beach Inn.  The hotel was renamed The Breakers because of its location “down by the breakers.”  The Breakers offered a more relaxed, informal style from the Royal Poinciana and gained a devoted following despite its history of conflagration.  Not until fire destroyed the hotel for the third time in 1925 did its architects decide to abandon wood in favor of a fireproof concrete construction.

A palm walk for pedestrians and pine trail for wheeled vehicles connected the hotels, giving guests at the Royal Poinciana access to the beachfront and The Breakers patrons a promenade to alfresco afternoon tea at Coconut Grove.  Wheeled chairs powered by hotel employees provided most transportation, as Flagler allowed no motorized vehicles on his island.

The close of the gilded age also brought an end to the Royal Poinciana’s reign as queen of Florida’s elite resorts.  The hotel fell on hard times during the 1920s as its gilded patrons began to look on the large Victorian hotels as relics of a bygone era.  In 1934, the Royal Poinciana closed for good and was torn down.

The Breakers survived its three devastating fires, and its latest incarnation in 1925 as an Italian Renaissance palace has carried to the present day its reputation as the crème of resorts.

A visit to the hotel on Wednesday afternoons brings a real treat.  That’s when historian James Augustine Ponce, the consummate Mr. Breakers, gives his exclusive grand tour.

Henry Flagler’s transformation of the Sunshine State did not end at Palm Beach, however.  A series of disastrous freezes during the winter of 1894-95 and the proddings of Miami entrepreneur Julia Tuttle caused him to extend his railroad, and his vision, to the mouth of the Miami River. 

In January 1897, Flagler opened the five-story Royal Palm Hotel, with accommodations for 700 guests and a dining room seating 500 people, in the town of Miami, population 2,000.  The hotel would dominate Miami social life for more than two decades, as the city grew to world-class resort status itself, surrounding its most prominent feature.

Flagler owned several smaller hotel properties in other Florida locations, but his greatest contribution was bringing grand luxury accommodations along with rail transport to the state’s East Coast.  That accomplishment put Florida at the top of the grand tour for gilded travelers.

Today, Flagler’s legacy includes the four grand properties, each magnificently restored, along with a treasure trove of antiques, collectible items and memorabilia relating to the structures and the lifestyle surrounding them.  The larger and more patronized hotels – the Ponce de Leon, Royal Poinciana, and Royal Palm – have spawned the most items.  Decorative china, plates, tip trays, small vases and pitchers are relatively common. 

Less seen are items depicting The Breakers, particularly the early incarnations, and the Alcazar and Cordova/Casa Monica.  A rare serving dish from the Casa Monica was purchased by the author off of eBay.  Rarer still are items from Flagler’s less known hotels that he acquired.  A ceramic dish from the Hotel Ormond set off an intense eBay bidding contest, going for over $200.

Paper ephemera such as early promotional brochures, souvenir booklets, menus, etc. can be found at collectible shows and on-line sites.

About the author:
R. Wayne Ayers is the author of Florida’s Grand Hotels from the Gilded Age (Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America Series, 2005).  Ayers has also authored several Images of America titles related to Tampa Bay’s Gulf Beaches and has written a pictorial history of Indian Rocks Beach.  He is a reporter and feature writer for Tampa Bay Newspapers and serves on the board of directors of the Indian Rocks Historical Society and Museum.

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