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).

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine

Every Sunday, worshipers belonging to the oldest Catholic parish in the United States file into the St. Augustine Cathedral Basilica, where mass has been celebrated in some form or fashion for nearly 450 years. As timeless as this sturdy building may appear to the visitor, however, its history bears witness to many instances of warfare, disaster, and change that have shaped the city of St. Augustine.

This is an engraved, hand-colored map drawn by Baptista Boazio in 1589, depicts a raid on St. Augustine by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake. Boazio lived in London from about 1585 to 1603, illustrating accounts of English expeditions and campaigns.

This engraved, hand-colored map drawn by Baptista Boazio in 1589 depicts a raid on St. Augustine by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake. Boazio lived in London from about 1585 to 1603, illustrating accounts of English expeditions and campaigns.

In this zoomed portion of the Boazio map, notice the location of the parish church, marked "O" in the original and indicated with a green arrow.

In this zoomed portion of the Boazio map, notice the location of the parish church, marked “O” in the original and indicated with a green arrow.

St. Augustine was established in 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles. He had carried with his expedition four priests who immediately began preparing to minister to the Spaniards who would settle in the new outpost. The map above shows the location of the first parish church at the southeast corner of the old plaza.

Depiction of the first mass celebrated in St. Augustine on September 8, 1565. This painting, dated 1919, is an exact copy of the version that hung on the wall of the St. Augustine Cathedral for many years before the building burned in 1887.

Depiction of the first mass celebrated in St. Augustine on September 8, 1565. This painting, dated 1919, is an exact copy of the version that hung on the wall of the St. Augustine Cathedral for many years before the building burned in 1887.

In addition to serving as the principal port and administrative center of Spanish Florida, St. Augustine was also the headquarters of the Catholic Church’s effort to minister to the Native Americans living in the surrounding area. Two lines of Franciscan missions extended outward from the town, one heading west as far as Tallahassee, and another stretching into present-day South Georgia as far as St. Catherine’s Island.

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