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).

Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel

Henry Flagler opened the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach on February 11, 1894 with only 17 guests. The paint was fresh, and the electric lighting was so new it was advertised as a unique amenity. Flagler had built this palace as a winter playground for America’s richest travelers, planting it right off the main line of his Florida East Coast Railway. If they so chose, his guests could conduct their private railway cars right up to the hotel’s entrance.

Royal Poinciana Hotel - Palm Beach (circa 1900).

Royal Poinciana Hotel – Palm Beach (circa 1900).

The 17 original guests must have had a good time, because Flagler expanded the hotel almost immediately after it was opened, increasing its capacity to 1,000 guests. The size of the structure was immense; the Royal Poinciana had over 3 miles of hallways. With the telephone still a rare luxury, hotel employees were obliged to carry messages between guest rooms and the front desk by bicycle. At one point the hotel was reputed to be the largest wooden structure in the world.

Porch of the Royal Poinciana (circa 1920s).

Porch of the Royal Poinciana (circa 1920s).

Flagler spared little if any expense entertaining his wealthy patrons. Guests could play golf, swim in the pool, or listen to the orchestra, which played every day in the hotel pavilion. Guides took those inclined to fish out into the Atlantic, sometimes bringing in dozens of mackerel in a single day’s catch.

Just in case some of the guests found all of this luxury a bit monotonous, the hotel staff occasionally planned special events. In one instance, pictured below, a parade of decorated boats was floated past the hotel for the amusement of its patrons.

A floating parade of decorated boats in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach (circa 1900).

A floating parade of decorated boats in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach (circa 1900).

To keep the sights, sounds, and smells of Palm Beach as clean as possible, the designers limited the presence of the railroad and automobiles. Also, hotel staff rarely used horses, mules, or other animals to transport supplies or people. The primary modes of transportation on Palm Beach for guests were bicycles and “wheelchairs,” pedi-cabs in our own parlance.

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A “wheelchair” or pedi-cab carrying guests in the vicinity of the Royal Poinciana Hotel (circa 1900).

Running such a complex operation as the Royal Poinciana Hotel naturally required a large and varied labor force. By the time the hotel was up and running Flagler had hired over a thousand workers. He built quarters for them across Lake Worth from the hotel in what is now called West Palm Beach. The employees used rowboats to get to and from work for each shift.

Plumbers and mechanics at the Royal Poinciana Hotel before it opened (1893).

Plumbers and mechanics at the Royal Poinciana Hotel before it opened (1893).

The Royal Poinciana commanded the high-end hospitality market in Palm Beach for a number of years, but even such a sprawling wilderness of luxury as this had its weaknesses. In 1925, the nearby Breakers Hotel burned and was rebuilt. Since it was newer and offered updated amenities, it drew many guests away from the Royal Poinciana. Furthermore, the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 badly damaged the north wing of the hotel, shifting part of it off its foundation. The arrival of the Great Depression in 1929 was the final blow. The Royal Poinciana Hotel closed in 1934, and was torn down within a year.

Aerial view of the Royal Poinciana Hotel during its final years (circa 1925).

Aerial view of the Royal Poinciana Hotel during its final years (circa 1925).

The Royal Poinciana Hotel is just one of Florida’s many historic hotels that have come and gone over the years. For more photos of the Royal Poinciana and other palatial buildings, search the Florida Photographic Collection.

 

 

First Train to Key West (January 22, 1912)

On this date in 1912 the first passenger train arrived in Key West, marking the completion of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad from Jacksonville to the Southernmost City.

Detail from Rand McNally’s 1912 map of Florida showing Flagler’s East Coast Railroad through southeastern Florida and the Florida Keys

Detail from Rand McNally’s 1912 map of Florida showing Flagler’s East Coast Railroad through southeastern Florida and the Florida Keys

Awaiting the train…

Awaiting the train…

Greeting the train…

Greeting the train…

Henry M. Flagler disembarking the first passenger train to Key West

Henry M. Flagler disembarking the first passenger train to Key West

Parade celebrating the arrival of the East Coast Railroad in Key West

Parade celebrating the arrival of the East Coast Railroad in Key West