We had spent a couple of days meandering around the European style town and even though the heat was stifling, we had found many ways to beat the summer heat. One day, while I got us lost, we chanced upon a magnificent building located close to the central historic core of the town. As it would turn out, we had found one of the most important buildings in the country.
As we walked through the gates into the courtyard of the massive edifice, I at once felt transported back in time. I was also instantly hit by a bevy of intricate detail, not from the gorgeous fauna gracing the entranceway, but by the fountains and archways of the old hotel itself.
I would soon learn that what is currently part of Flagler College, was the famous Ponce de Leon hotel, built in the late 19th century during the heyday of American robber barons and exquisite excess.
The hotel was built by the famous millionaire developer and Standard Oil co-founder Henry M. Flagler. Many books have been written about Mr. Flagler, but if you don’t know his story I heartily recommend learning more about his life. Simply put, he developed Florida.
The Spanish Renaissance style hotel was one of the first to be constructed already wired for electricity and oddly enough was the country’s first major poured-in-place concrete structure. What’s really remarkable though about the hotel is its amazing décor and of course its rich history.
The interior of the building looks just like I would imagine an old robber baron style grand hotel to have looked like. The interior was outfitted by Louis Comfort Tiffany and most of these elements are still in place. It is easy to imagine the rich and famous strolling through the lobby during their winter long retreat from the frozen north. Amongst some of the more notable guests were Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost.
Today the impressive hotel is the central building at Flagler College and I can’t imagine a finer building for a college student anywhere. So if you find yourself wandering around the strange and quirky town of St. Augustine, be sure to stop by the Ponce de Leon and experience for yourself the grandeur of a time long gone by.
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