Staying at the Ormond

New Year’s Day is a holiday in itself, but New Year’s Day 1888 was especially sweet for
Ormond Beach. That’s because it was opening day for the grand Ormond Hotel, a grand resort
for wealthy Northerners looking to escape the chilly winters back home.

Hotel Ormond - Ormond Beach (1900).

Hotel Ormond – Ormond Beach (1900).

The name “Ormond” had been associated with the area since James and Emanuel Ormond had
settled a 2,000-acre plantation called “Damietta” in the area during the late Spanish
colonial era. In the 1870s, a group of men from New Britain, Connecticut arrived to seek a
place for establishing a colony of workers from their business, the Corbin Lock Company. At
first they named the area after their hometown, but they decided to change the name to
something more reminiscient of local history. The first post office named Ormond appeared
in 1880, and by 1886 the settlement was a stop along the new St. Johns & Halifax Railroad.

The hotel did not perform well in its first two years, but its location and potential lured
the interest (and money) of developer Henry Flagler. He bought the hotel in 1890 and began
a major expansion project that added three wings, a swimming pool, a casino, a pavilion and
a pier extending out over the Halifax River. The hotel quickly became one of the star
attractions along Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway.

Excerpt of a map of the Florida East Coast Railway system featuring Ormond and the Ormond Hotel (1917).

Excerpt of a map of the Florida East Coast Railway system featuring Ormond and the Ormond Hotel (1917).

Like Flagler’s other hotels, the Ormond was a playground for those with enough money to
enjoy it. Activities included horseback riding, wooded excursion paths, bicycling (which
was then still quite new), sailing and fishing. When the automobile arrived on the scene,
the Ormond gained a new favorite activity: driving and racing along the packed sands of the
nearby beach.

Ranson E. Olds in his Olds Pirate racecar on Ormond Beach (circa 1896).

Ranson E. Olds in his Olds Pirate race car on Ormond Beach (circa 1896).

The Ormond enjoyed considerable popularity during the heyday of the Flagler hotels, playing host at various times to the Rockefellers, the Astors, the Vanderbilts and a number of other famous personalities. John D. Rockefeller liked the place so much he bought the house across the street in 1917 and spent the winters there until his death in 1937.

The hotel changed hands several times in the second half of the twentieth century. On November 24, 1980 the structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was destroyed in 1992 to make way for condominiums, but the original 21-foot wooden cupola is now displayed in Fortunato Park near the Halifax River.

The Ormond Hotel in 1982, surrounded by a growing Ormond Beach.

The Ormond Hotel in 1982, surrounded by a growing Ormond Beach community.

What historic structures are located in your Florida community? Search the Florida Photographic Collection to find images of them!

The "Shocking" Ponce de Leon Hotel

Some things never change, including the American taste for gadgetry and new technology. Today, we fiddle with tablets and powerful cell phones. Barely more than 100 years ago, electricity itself was the bauble of the day. As in our own era, businessmen of yesteryear used the latest technology to attract new customers, especially in the tourist industry. Henry Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine provides perhaps one of the most humorous examples of how people approach new innovations with a mixture of curiosity and uncertainty.

Ponce de Leon Hotel as seen from the nearby Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine (circa 1910s).

Ponce de Leon Hotel as seen from the nearby Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine (circa 1910s).

Flagler built the Ponce de Leon as part of a chain of hotels along his ever-growing Florida East Coast Railway, which was working its way down Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He hoped to induce the wealthy upper crust of northeastern tourists to come down and spend their winters in the mild splendor of the Sunshine State. To do this, the railway would have to be fast and efficient, and the hotels would have to be exquisite. Flagler commissioned New York architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings to design a veritable palace for his guests to enjoy. The architects sketched out a grand building in the Spanish Renaissance style, and construction began on the morning of December 1, 1885.

Dining room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1891).

Dining room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1891).

The site of the hotel was in itself an innovation. The area had been a marshy waste before Flagler’s engineers began preparing the ground for the foundation. Some observers feared the great Henry Flagler was bound to make a fool of himself by choosing such difficult terrain. Historian Sidney Walter Martin has written that someone once asked Flagler point-blank why he chose the relatively low-lying St. Augustine as the site for his grand palatial hotel. Flagler reputedly replied with a story. There had once been a good, loyal church member, Flagler said, who lived a very sober, pious life, until one day he decided to go off on a drunken spree, and he behaved very badly. When the man’s pastor questioned him about his behavior, he replied, ‘I’ve been giving all my days to the Lord hitherto, and now I’m taking one for myself.’ Flagler explained that in building the Ponce de Leon Hotel in such an unusually difficult location, he was doing much the same.

Parlor room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel (1891).

Parlor room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel (1891).

And once it was finished, who could blame him? The Ponce de Leon was truly a Spanish palace, with courts, nooks for reading and repose, tropical gardens, fountains, towers – everything necessary to impress even the most expensive and luxurious tastes. The hotel opened on January 10, 1888, with a total of 450 sleeping apartments of varying sizes and designs.

View of a fountain through an arch at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1930).

View of a fountain through an arch at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1930).

Two innovations in the new hotel were of particular curiosity to Flagler’s first customers. Each room was equipped with steam heat, which to many seemed an odd fit for a Florida hotel. The system would not see a great deal of use, of course, but imagine the satisfaction of the guests on the days when it was needed! The other novelty was the presence of electrical lights in every room. Many of Flagler’s guests were not yet acquainted with the concept of having electrical lights in their personal space, let alone being the ones to operate the switches. At first the hotel was forced to hire extra staff to turn the lights off and on for its guests, because they were afraid of being shocked!

Interior view of the Ponce de Leon Hotel at St. Augustine (1959).

Interior view of the Ponce de Leon Hotel at St. Augustine (1959).

Over time, the mystique of electric-lit bedrooms faded, but the hotel itself continued to impress. The Ponce de Leon was one of the few great hotels of its kind to survive the Great Depression. During World War II, the grand building was used as a training center for the Coast Guard. In 1968, it became the center of the newly established Flagler College. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and it became a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2006.

What is your favorite place to visit on Florida’s Atlantic Coast? Fernandina? Miami Beach? Cape Canaveral? We’d like to know. Leave us a comment below or share your Atlantic Coast favorites on our Facebook page.

Postcard depicting Flagler College, formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel (circa 1960s).

Postcard depicting Flagler College, formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel (circa 1960s).