125th anniversary of Henry Flagler's Hotel Ponce de Leon celebrated
January 13, 2013 10:27 AM EST
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A cardboard cutout of Henry M. Flagler drew long lines of people Saturday who waited in the dining hall of Flagler College for a chance to get a picture of themselves with the oil tycoon.
“That is so neat,” said Theresa Lee, of Virginia, as she held pictures of herself, wearing a lace shawl and holding a white parasol, standing next to the black-and-white cutout.
Just 125 years earlier, the real Henry Flagler opened the same building as the Hotel Ponce de Leon, a luxury hotel and winter resort visited by the wealthiest of the wealthy, famous personalities and U.S. presidents.
On Saturday the college, the city and about 4,000 people turned out to celebrate Flagler, the hotel and the tourism boom he launched. After a ceremony saluting the 125th anniversary of the hotel’s opening, people walked through the entrance of now-Flagler College to tour the former hotel, learn about the man and pose for pictures with his cutout.
Inside, tour guides told tales of what life was like in the grand old hotel.
Finished in May 1887, the hotel featured electricity, more than 70 of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass windows and other priceless pieces of art.
Off the rotunda was the ladies’ parlor, where the women would spend their time listening to music and mingling as the men checked in, said guide Kalei Fowkes, a senior at Flagler.
“Ladies were actually not allowed at the check-in desk. It was forbidden,” she said.
The parlor is the most expensive room at the hotel and boasts Tiffany chandeliers and a clock made of the “largest piece of intact white onyx in the western hemisphere.”
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Men who stayed at the hotel and needed a shave could head down to the barbershop, where Flagler and other notables such as John D. Rockefeller probably went for a trim and got the best-of-the-best kind of treatment, said Scott Jackson, another tour guide and Flagler student.
“This was the hotel for the elite — you were rich, you were powerful, so you had to be very well taken care of,” Jackson said. “You were given the best business, the best service you possibly could.”
The barbershop is now an office, but the original mirrors and woodwork remain.
A billiard room reserved for the ladies was another interesting feature of the hotel, said Thomas Graham, professor emeritus of history at Flagler College, during a telephone interview.
“Billiards was regarded as not proper by some people in those days,” he said.
“This billiard room today is (Flagler College) President (William) Abare’s office.”
Daily life at the hotel was “pretty leisurely,” Graham said.
“A lot of people came down just to spend time sitting in the sun.” That time was spent in the courtyard. For entertainment, people took carriage rides, listened to concerts in the courtyard and the rotunda and played cards in the solarium.
Saturday’s anniversary ceremony started in grand fashion as a Florida East Coast Railway train brought notable figures including Henry Flagler, played by John Stavely, and Mayor Joe Boles, St, Augustine Alligator Farm owner David Drysdale and Abare to the stop near Palmer and West King streets. The four men made the rest of the trip in a horse-drawn carriage that delivered them to the crowd waiting outside the entrance of Flagler College.
Boles spoke to the crowd on the sunny and unseasonably warm day.
“As I squint out at you in the midst of this bright sun, let us be reminded why 125 years ago on Jan. 12, this opened because of that sun,” he said.
Boles read a proclamation from the City of St. Augustine and spoke about the “profound” influence Flagler had on the city and the state.
“If not for Mr. Henry Morrison Flagler 125 years ago, people would not be flocking to the state of Florida, the most visited state in the union.”
Flagler, the cofounder of Standard Oil Company, is considered the father of Florida’s tourism industry. He developed St. Augustine and much of the east coast of Florida, building resort hotels and the Florida East Coast Railway.
Stavely, who portrayed Flagler, dressed much like the statue of Flagler that stands outside of the entrance of the college. His speech, delivered in what he called the “bombastic” style of the day, used quotes from Flagler and stayed close to what the tycoon might have said if he had given a speech that day 125 years ago.
“ … I do wish to welcome you to the opening of this grand hotel in the year 18 and 88,” he said.
“My friends, I’m often asked, ‘Why St. Augustine? Why did you leave the board rooms of Standard Oil and leave the comforts of New York City to come to the Ancient City for a new venture?’ And I reply the same way. I say: Well, it just sort of happened. I happened to be in St. Augustine, and I happened to have some spare money to spend.”
Stavely, in character, talked about the challenges and expenses of building a hotel that the modern 19th century guest would enjoy while staying true to the town, and he gave credit for the final product to his architects, Thomas Hastings and John Carrere.
“I think they did a nice job, what do you say?” he asked, gesturing toward the building with his top hat.
“We are now going to open the doors and allow you inside this grand hotel,” Stavely said. “Thank you for coming, one and all.”
When Henry Flagler came to St. Augustine and stayed at the San Marco Hotel in 1885, he could see things were changing and he saw opportunity, Graham said. A railroad from Jacksonville to St. Augustine had been built in addition to the San Marco hotel.
“... he could see the guests coming to St. Augustine were no longer sick Yankees but were now becoming rich Yankees.
“He had accelerated a trend that had already started before him.”
The opening of the Hotel Ponce de Leon was much like Saturday’s ceremony, even down to the numbers. The Jacksonville News Herald reported at the time that 3,000 people attended the opening on Jan. 12, 1888.
“As the hotel was being built, local people kept saying, ‘We want to go inside and see what it looks like on the inside,’” Graham said.
Builders had been resistant to that, but eventually officials agreed to let the public in for a few hours on opening day. The local newspapers announced that there would be a general reception.
On that day, people from all sections of town and level in society got to see the hotel.
“Everybody came in,” Graham said. “It was the general populous from St. Augustine … Minorcans, and black people and poor people.” Flagler did not give a speech, but he was there with his wife, and there were bands that “struck up a tune” as the gates opened and people went inside.
“They did what people did today,” Graham said. “They wandered around and looked at the art and said, ‘Oh my, isn’t that wonderful.’”