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The Final Piece of the Ponce

Oct 4, 2012
by Carrie Pack Chowske, '00

College plans restoration of the Hotel Ponce de Leon’s solarium

It was once a grand, sunlit gathering space for Ponce de Leon hotel guests. In the college’s early days it served as a one-of-a-kind library and occasional classroom.

Now it’s been closed off for nearly 40 years and with its locked doors and stacks of old furniture, has become the subject of speculation by many Flagler students over the years. But now the Solarium is getting a second chance as the college plans to start renovations of the gorgeous domed area above the Rotunda.

The mysterious fourth floor 
Few remember the days when the college’s Solarium was open for student use. In fact, it was used as the library in only the earliest days of the college before it was closed due to safety concerns.

When alumna Linda (Hall) Mignon, ’71, was a theatre arts major in the early 70s, she had a class with Tom Rahner under the Solarium’s soaring dome.

Mignon recalled Rahner telling his class to lie down on the floor and pick a spot on the ceiling. He then told them to stare at that spot and not to think about anything.

“I think I held out for 30 seconds,” Mignon said.

It took a recent trip to the Solarium for Mignon to remember even having been up there. She barely remembered the fourth floor at all.

In those days, just a handful of classes were held in the area, and the Gargoyle — the student newspaper — had its office down a narrow corridor on the east wing off the solarium. But its main use was the library — until it had to be closed for lack of a proper fire escape route.

Flagler College President William T. Abare Jr. remembers moving the books from the Solarium to what is today the Flagler Room.

“We formed a human chain to move the books,” he said. “Each book in the library was handed down individually. We didn’t use carts to move them en masse.” Once the books were relocated, the Solarium was closed off.

Over the years, the Solarium and its winding east corridor have become almost legend in Flagler College lore. By the time Kirk Damato, ‘01, was arts and entertainment editor for the Gargoyle in 2001, it was too tantalizing to pass up. He managed to tag along with some friends on a rare “authorized” trip to the fourth floor for a bit of exploring.

“Oh, of course, the forbidden floor was a place I’d always wanted to see,” he said. “I remember it being a lot more open than one would expect.”

When he found an old bulletin board in what used to be the Gargoyle office, he carved his name and the date into the aging cork. But much like Mignon, he barely remembers being in the Solarium. The board, which has since been relocated to the Gargoyle office in the Proctor Library, still bears his name.

“I absolutely didn’t remember carving my name on that bulletin board,” he said. “I was pretty shocked, actually, to see it.”

Henry Flagler’s vision, reinvented
Once renovations are complete, the Solarium and its surrounding rooftop terraces won’t be so mysterious, but the views will be striking.

The domed Solarium rises above the St. Augustine skyline as the centerpiece of Ponce de Leon Hall – today a National Historic Landmark. When Henry Flagler built his Gilded Age hotel in the nation’s oldest city in 1888, it served as a winter haven for the nation’s elite. The Solarium was one of many gathering places inside the hotel, but this one provided unparalleled, panoramic views of the city, and that will be a focal point of the renovation.

The space will be restored to much of its previous grandeur, along with some modern conveniences. The idea is for limited special events to be hosted there, along with the accompanying east and west terraces. Rooms to the east of the dome will also be given a new life.

Because of the historic nature of the structure, plans for its renovation and ultimate use are still tentative. But Abare says he hopes to host special events in the area once it’s complete.

The Solarium itself is quite different from the other parts of the former hotel. The large floor-to-ceiling windows on all four sides allow light to pour in. The center of the room is flanked with eight square columns, supporting vaulted walls, leading to a ribbed, wooden ceiling.

The design of the Solarium both encloses the space, bathing visitors with light and warmth, and, simultaneously, invites their exploration of the large roof terraces outside.

Board of Trustees member Delores Lastinger and her husband, Allen, have already committed a $500,000 challenge gift to the project.

The Lastingers have long been committed to historic preservation through philanthropy. Delores called the project a perfect fit because of her and Allen’s interest in Florida and St. Augustine history.

“It has been, and will once again become, one of the many jewels of the original Ponce de Leon,” she said.

The college has already matched the first $100,000 of the Lastinger’s donation and will match the full amount. This gift helped to kick off a full-fledged campaign to raise money for the Solarium renovation.

“The Solarium and fourth floor are the last major spaces of Ponce de Leon Hall to be restored and would truly be the crowning achievement in preserving Flagler’s heritage,” said F. Mark Whittaker, vice president of Institutional Advancement.

Celebrating the Ponce 
The restoration is scheduled to be complete by 2013, just in time for a year-long celebration of the 125th anniversary of the opening of the Hotel Ponce de Leon.

The college has kicked off a major fundraising campaign to help advance the restoration efforts.

Naming opportunities in the Solarium range from $10,000 to $500,000, each of which can be pledged over a period of five years.

Visit for more information or call (904) 819-6437.

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