WHEN FLA­GLER MET FLORIDA

Mil­lion­aire’s le­gacy con­tin­u­ing to as­tound, hol­i­days are ex­tra spe­cial

RSWLiving - - Contents - BY THOMAS O’GRADY JR.

Mil­lion­aire’s le­gacy con­tin­u­ing to as­tound, hol­i­days are ex­tra spe­cial

Juan Ponce de León may have es­tab­lished the old­est city in Amer­ica, but oil and rail­road baron Henry Fla­gler built it, and then some. The names of Amer­ica’s early in­dus­trial ty­coons come eas­ily to peo­ple’s minds: Rock­e­feller, Van­der­bilt, Ford, Carnegie, Morgan, to cite a few. Men­tion Fla­gler and most peo­ple say, “Who?” But ask a Florid­ian and they’ll tell you about a city, a county, a beach, a col­lege, mu­se­ums, hos­pi­tals, build­ings and more than a hun­dred streets, park­ways and boule­vards from St. Au­gus­tine to Key West. When Henry Fla­gler de­cided he liked Florida, he went all in. In the late 1800s Fla­gler teamed up with John D. Rock­e­feller to form Stan­dard Oil, and Henry’s for­tune flowed like the gas and oil he sold. Shiver­ing in his New York home (de­spite free heat), Henry was ready for a warmer cli­mate and new ad­ven­tures. A hon­ey­moon in St. Au­gus­tine be­came the start of his love af­fair with Florida.

The re­sult? The still op­er­a­tional Florida East Coast Rail­way― train ser­vice that ran the length of the state, with viaducts span­ning the wa­ters all the way to Key West. Along the route, ho­tels, busi­nesses and com­mu­ni­ties sprang up. His ad­ven­tur­ous spirit left a trail through­out Florida, but his most en­dur­ing mark was left in St. Au­gus­tine, where he first fell in love.

Fla­gler in 1888 opened his first pub­lic ac­com­mo­da­tions, the grand Ponce de León Ho­tel, a mag­nif­i­cent dis­play of Span­ish Re­nais­sance Re­vival ar­chi­tec­ture. With elec­tric­ity by Thomas Edi­son―one of the first ho­tels in the coun­try to have it―and stained-glass win­dows by Louis Com­fort Tif­fany, Fla­gler’s ho­tel branded St. Au­gus­tine with a unique guise that is its face to this day. The for­mer Ponce de León Ho­tel, now hous­ing Fla­gler Col­lege, draws the eye of ap­proach­ing trav­el­ers from across the Bridge of Lions, with its high tow­ers and mul­ti­ple bal­conies. Across the street, the for­mer Ho­tel Al­cazar, also built by Fla­gler, re­veals more of his panache, match­ing the Ponce de León Ho­tel's su­perb ar­chi­tec­ture. It now houses the city's Light­ner Mu­seum.

Tours of both build­ings re­veal in­cred­i­ble de­tail in ar­chi­tec­ture and in­ge­nu­ity. Out­side the for­mer Ponce de León Ho­tel, terra-cotta tile and co­quina con­crete rise up and around, en­cir­cling vis­i­tors like a warm em­brace as they pon­der a col­or­ful and de­cep­tive foun­tain in the gar­den en­try­way. In­side, Fla­gler Col­lege stu­dents take lunch in a din­ing room shaped to en­hance acous­tics, where small or­ches­tras once kept ho­tel guests en­ter­tained. The ro­tunda walls boast price­less Tif­fany stained glass, arc­ing like kalei­do­scopes around the room. A soar­ing front lobby dome sup­ported by hand-carved pil­lars re­veals costly gold-leaf sculp­ture and sym­bolic paint­ings. In the palmed and man­i­cured in­te­rior court­yard of the Ho­tel Al­cazar, gi­ant koi, viewed from an arched stone bridge, wan­der aim­lessly through a

small pond. Three sprawl­ing floors in­side of­fer paint­ings, blown and stained glass, a unique col­lec­tion of pianos, sculp­ture and more, in a ho­tel that once boasted of hav­ing the world’s largest in­door pool, which is now a restau­rant.

And St. Au­gus­tine hasn’t for­got­ten Henry Fla­gler. The early de­but of elec­tric­ity he brought to his ho­tels is wildly em­braced by the city, with beads of lights trim­ming the spires and rooflines of th­ese unique build­ings. Nights of Lights start­ing in Novem­ber is an all-out ef­fort to mul­ti­ply the ef­fect by light­ing the town and its struc­tures in ev­ery pos­si­ble way. Strings of lights wrap the

Fla­gler’s ho­tel branded St. Au­gus­tine with a unique guise that is its face to this day.

trunks of old palms and drape from tree­top to tree­top. Horse car­riages and multi-car trams twin­kle as they snake through the nar­row streets, bathing their riders in the glow of up-lighted struc­tures and spot­lighted fa­cades. Shops and restau­rants cre­ate mag­i­cal back­yard fan­tasies of lu­mi­nes­cence. Even the river sparkles in re­flec­tion of the city’s ef­forts.

Henry Fla­gler in 1913 died in Palm Beach. He was 83. The man called the Fa­ther of Mi­ami was brought back to his beloved St. Au­gus­tine by train, with mourn­ers pep­pered along the route to pay their re­spects, ap­pro­pri­ately so. He is buried at a city chapel next to a daugh­ter, grand­daugh­ter and his first wife.

Florida owes a great debt to Henry Fla­gler, one he would have no in­ter­est in col­lect­ing. He came to a place of wilder­ness and wet­lands and left it greatly en­hanced. The money and ef­fort he brought to en­rich the Sun­shine State was al­ways a heart­felt ef­fort on his part as much as an in­vest­ment in com­merce.

One could say the mag­i­cal city of St. Au­gus­tine is his spe­cial gift to Florida.

Thomas O’Grady Jr. is an au­thor and free­lance writer liv­ing in Palm Coast, Florida.

Nights of Lights start­ing in Novem­ber is an all-out ef­fort to mul­ti­ply the ef­fect by light­ing the town.

( Clock­wise from up­per left) Charm­ing shops line St. Au­gus­tine streets and pedes­trian- friendly walk­ways. Henry Fla­gler's statue wel­comes what is to­day Fla­gler Col­lege. The school's gor­geous en­try­way dome soars nearly 70 feet. The city's Light­ner Mu­seum is in the for­mer Ho­tel Al­cazar built by Fla­gler in 1888.

The for­mer Ho­tel Al­cazar ( above) is aglow dur­ing St. Au­gus­tine’s Nights of Lights. The mod­ern­ized Span­ish Re­nais­sance Re­vival lux­ury ho­tel was pur­chased by wealthy news­pa­per ex­ec­u­tive Otto Light­ner and stocked in the 1940s with his art col­lec­tion. Light­ner's trea­sures and the re­named build­ing be­came the city's in 1950. And St. Au­gus­tine hasn’t for­got­ten Henry Fla­gler.

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