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Celebrating the Ponce

Sep 21, 2012
by Laura Smith

Flagler’s centerpiece, the Hotel Ponce de León, celebrates 125th anniversary next year

In May 1885, Standard Oil executive Henry M. Flagler, visiting from New York, stood in the parlor at Markland House, the home of his friend, Dr. Andrew Anderson. The two men looked out the window, across a marshy tract of land claimed by a roller-skating rink, a Methodist church, and a humble hotel — all three structures balanced on pilings to accommodate the tidal flow of Maria Sanchez Creek.

Flagler confirmed his decision: this was it. This soggy land, a half-mile west of the Matanzas Inlet and adjacent to colonial St. Augustine, would be the site of his newest venture — a resort hotel that would position St. Augustine as the American Riviera. Flagler turned to Anderson and laid out the plan: Buy the land. Fill the creek. Build the dream.

Like most things Henry Flagler undertook, the construction of the Hotel Ponce de León was an epic project — magnificent, elaborate and fast-paced. Within two years, the damp site was transformed into a luxury resort like the world had never seen. And the sleepy little city of St. Augustine would never be the same.

Today, the National Historic Landmark is the centerpiece of Flagler College. The building, which the college has spent millions of dollars restoring and renovating, will celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2013.

Plans are Cast
Flagler’s first order of business was to hire architects who could execute his vision. He chose Thomas Hastings, the 25-year-old son of Flagler’s minister, and John Carrère, Hastings’ 26-year-old partner. The two had previously worked on Flagler’s home on Long Island. Inspired by Hastings’ sketches from a recent trip to Spain, the two worked feverishly to create the drawings for the new hotel. Their final plans feature elements of the Spanish Renaissance embellished by Moorish and Medieval details.

Carrère and Hastings’ design is remarkable in its proportions and symmetry. The original hotel plans feature a central axis that links the various elements of the resort, including a semicircular entrance plaza and a large courtyard.

They represent the first major project of Carrère and Hastings, who would go on to design more than 600 structures, including the New York Public Library and Washington D.C.’s House and Senate office buildings.

If You Build It
Work on the hotel began on December 1, 1885. For the next 18 months, 700 workers teemed over the site. Labor was heavy, hot and dangerous. The intensity of the work sprung from what was actually one of the most innovative elements of the plans: the decision to build with cast concrete, a mixture of Portland cement, sand and locally-quarried coquina. In fact, the hotel was the first large multi-story building constructed of concrete in the United States.

When it was completed in May 1887, it was a true marvel. It was wired for electricity with a system designed by Thomas Edison and was one of the first interior-lit buildings in Florida. West of the Rotunda stood the stunning Grand Parlor, now the Flagler Room, with its Louis XIV décor, fluted Corinthian columns and ceiling paintings by Virgilio Tojetti. The Dining Room, with its spectacular Louis C. Tiffany windows, was a wonder décor. Muralist George W. Maynard, a leading American artist, contributed the exquisite murals that grace the both the Dining Room and the Rotunda.

On January 12, 1888, the Hotel Ponce de León opened its doors to guests. The grand structure would operate as a hotel for nearly eight decades and would welcome a host of notable guests, among them five U.S. Presidents.

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