Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine, FL

The Alcazar Hotel was a historic hotel built by railroad magnate Henry Flagler in St. Augustine, Florida in 1889. The hotel is a Spanish Renaissance building with elements of Italian Renaissance and Moorish design and was named Alcazar because it is the Arabic word for castle or palace.

The hotel was the second of Flagler’s two grand hotels that he built in St. Augustine, the first being the Hotel Ponce de Leon in 1888. Flagler also bought the Hotel Casa Monica in 1888 and changed the name to Hotel Cordova.

Flagler hired the Carrere and Hastings architecture firm to design the Alcazar. Construction began on the building in 1887, took two years to complete and cost a total of $1 million.

The building is four stories high and is 250 feet by 450 feet in size which is about one city block wide and three city blocks deep.

The hotel is constructed out of poured concrete and the outer walls are made of coquina. At the time, it was one of the first buildings in the country constructed out of poured concrete.

The exterior of the building features Corinthian and Ionic columns, terra cotta detailing and a red tiled roof. It also features large arched windows on the first floor and twin towers crowned with elaborate belvederes of terra-cotta and red brick.

Alcazar Hotel, St Augustine, Florida
Alcazar Hotel, St. Augustine, Florida

When the building was first constructed, the south section of the building contained Turkish and Russian baths, a cold plunge pool, and Swedish massage rooms and a gym.

Adjacent to the baths was the casino and the indoor swimming pool, which was believed to be the largest indoor swimming pool in the country, and was surrounded by three-story arches and covered by a glass roof that could be opened.

The swimming pool was 120 feet long by 50 feet wide and was supplied with artesian water from a well on the property that was believed to have medicinal properties and gave off a distinct sulphur odor.

Alcazar Hotel, swimming pool, circa 1897
Alcazar Hotel, swimming pool, circa 1897

The upper balcony of the casino featured an entertainment space for dances and other events. Tennis courts were located at the rear of the building.

At the center of the hotel was a courtyard with a reflecting pool, crossed by a rustic wooden bridge.

Alcazar Hotel, bridge, St Augustine, Fl
Alcazar Hotel, courtyard bridge, St Augustine, Fl

The building was originally designed to have an ellipse of shops that was intended to create a decorative facade to the front of the building. For reasons not clear, the shops were never built which left the front of the building with a stark, fortress-like appearance.

A possible reason for the change in plans is that when the hotel was being built during the summer of 1888, a yellow fever epidemic swept Florida and the city of St. Augustine imposed a strict quarantine to protect it from outside world. It is possible this quarantine slowed down work on the hotel and led the architects to eliminate some features of the design that were not essential (Graham 44.)

When the hotel first opened on December 25, 1888, it had 300 guest rooms. It was the fashion at the time that each room did not have its own private bathroom. The hotel was later remodeled and the number of guest rooms was reduced to 170 each with their own private bathroom. In 1891, a fourth story was added to the building with 40 new rooms.

Alcazar Hotel, 75 King Street, St. Augustine, St. Johns County, FL
Alcazar Hotel, 75 King Street, St. Augustine, St. Johns County, FL

Although Flagler’s Ponce de Leon hotel across the street was marketed as a luxurious family-friendly hotel, the Alcazar Hotel was known as a place for travelers of more modest means who were interested in exploring certain vices like gambling and prostitutes, according to Ann Colby in her book Wicked St. Augustine.

Colby explained in an interview with the St. Augustine Record that the Alcazar’s fourth floor was designated the single resident occupant area of the hotel and these rooms were often rented out by the hour to men seeking to hire a prostitute (Willott 2021.)

Colby went on to explain that if a male guest wanted a prostitute he would simply tell the bellhop what he wanted and the bellhop would call the appropriate madame who would then send over the prostitute. The financial arrangements would be made through the bellhop.

In 1897, the cafe was expanded into the south loggia of the hotel’s central courtyard by enclosing the spaces under the arches with wood and glass partitions to create more space for the cafe.

In 1902, a concrete-walled dining room was constructed on the rear of the building at its southeast corner. In order to build the addition, a section of the east portico between the hotel and the casino was demolished as well as the small glassed-in patio room.

In 1903, the Alcazar Hotel and the Cordova Hotel merged to become the Alcazar Annex after a bridge was built across Cordova Street to connect the two hotels. This rendered the Cordova an overflow annex of the Alcazar rather than its own independent hotel.

In September of 1918, the hotel temporarily closed due to a severe labor shortage caused by the military draft and the mass migration of more than 500,000 African Americans to northern cities in pursuit of work on the railroad and industrial plants (Wynn 2014.)

The hotel closed down permanently in the 1930s due to the economic fallout caused by the Great Depression. The building remained vacant until Otto C. Lightner purchased the hotel from Flagler’s company, the Florida East Coast Hotel Company, on July 7, 1947 and spent $150,000 renovating the building, which included removing the bridge to the Cordova Hotel and placing a wooden floor over the swimming pool.

Lightner then opened the building as a hobby museum featuring his extensive collection of Victorian memorabilia later that year.

In 1969, the voters of St. Augustine voted in favor of renovating the building to also house the city municipal offices. The smokestack and utilities building were demolished, the enclosed walkway over the west loggia between the hotel and the casino was removed as was the large dining room that had been constructed in 1902. A new roof was put over the building and new windows were installed throughout the building.

The parlor became the city commission meeting room while the rest of the first floor was used as municipal office space. The police department relocated to the second floor of the building’s east side.

In 1971, the Alcazar Hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

After remodeling, the building was dedicated as St. Augustine City Hall on April 27, 1973 and the Lightner Museum reopened to the public on August 12, 1974.

In June of 1978, preservation work was conducted on the building, known as the Alczar Hotel Restoration Project, to replace the 120 terra cotta spires on the 24 chimney tops.

On November 6, 1978, the State Historic Preservation Office applied for federal assistance from the Department of the Interior for $95,000 for the Alcazar Hotel Restoration Project which was estimated to take about 28 months to complete.

In 2014, the building underwent renovations to replace the membrane roofs with a barrel tile roof at a cost of $350,000 which was provided by Florida’s State Department.

Sources:
Bowen, Beth Rogero. St. Augustine Roaring Twenties. St. Augustine Historical Society, 2012.
Wynn, Nick. On This Day in Florida History. Arcadia Publishing, 2014
Graham, Thomas. Flagler’s St. Augustine Hotels. Pineapple Press, 2003
Colby, Ann. Wicked St. Augustine. Arcadia Publishing Incorporated, 2020
“Alcazar Hotel / City Hall Marker.” University of North Florida, digitalcommons.unf.edu/historical_architecture_main/2927/
“Alcazar Hotel / City Hall.” The Historical Marker Database, hmdb.org/m.asp?m=115580
“Alcazar Hotel.” Lightner Musuem, lightnermuseum.org/history-alcazar/
Willott, Peter. “’Wicked St. Augustine’ Details the Oldest Profession in Florida’s Oldest City.” St. Augustine Record, 10 Oct. 2021, staugustine.com/story/news/history/2021/10/10/st-augustine-history-wicked-st-augustine-chronicles-brothels-speakeasies-casinos-ann-colby/6055741001/
“Fiscal Year 2014-2015 Restoration of Historic Properties Special Category Projects List as Approved and Ranked by the Florida Historical Commission.” Florida Department of State, Florida Historical Commission, 2014, files.floridados.gov/media/30920/2014-2015_pinkbook_final.pdf
National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form, United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, amazonaws.com/NARAprodstorage/lz/electronic-records/rg-079/NPS_FL/71001013.pdf

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