Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, FL

The Hotel Ponce de Leon was a historic luxury hotel built by railroad magnate Henry Flagler in St. Augustine, Florida in 1887. The hotel was a Spanish Renaissance-style building that was named after the famed Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon who landed in Florida in 1513.

The 540-room hotel was the first of Flagler’s two grand hotels that he built in St. Augustine, the second being the Hotel Alcazar in 1889. Flagler also later purchased another local hotel, Hotel Casa Monica, in 1888 and changed its name to Hotel Cordova.

Flagler hired two young architects, John M. Carrere and Thomas Hastings, from the New York firm McKim, Mead and White to design the building.

When Flagler decided to build the hotel, he purchased five acres of land near the center of town that was a former orange grove and salt marsh belonging to Dr. Andrew Anderson, owner of the nearby Markland House.

To fill in the swampy wetland, Flagler purchased land at what is now the Fort Moses Historic State Park and dredged it to gather landfill material for his new hotel.

Construction began on the hotel on December 1, 1885, took two years to complete and cost $2.5 million. The hotel was completed in May of 1887 and was constructed out of poured concrete and locally quarried coquina.

The building features gray/brown concrete walls with salmon-colored brick window sills and a dark red clay tile roof. It is four stories high with two wings, a courtyard with an entry gate, square twin towers where the hotel’s large water tanks were stored, a rotunda, a lounge, grand parlor and a great dining hall.

Flagler College, former Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, FL
Flagler College, former Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, FL

The hotel’s decorator was Louis Comfort Tiffany of New York who designed the stained glass windows throughout the hotel. The ceiling murals in the lobby of the hotel were designed by Italian artist Virgilio Tojetti.

In 1887, the Edison Electric Company provided electricity for the building when it installed the world’s largest incandescent lighting plant at the hotel, which featured steam heat and 4,000 electric lights, making it one of the first electrified buildings in the country.

When the hotel was first built it originally only had communal bathrooms, which was the fashion at the time. In the early 20th century, the hotel was remodeled so that the rooms had their own semi-private bathrooms between each room and the grand parlor was converted into a library.

The hotel officially opened its doors to the public on January 10, 1888. In February, the hotel welcomed President Grover Cleveland and his wife Frances Folsom Cleveland. Unfortunately, a yellow fever outbreak in St. Augustine that year scared away a lot of the tourists.

Although Flagler hoped to turn St. Augustine into a winter resort for wealthy northerners and tourists trying to escape the cold winters of the northeast, the weather in St. Augustine didn’t always cooperate and one of the worst freezes in Florida history struck the city in December of 1894 and January of 1895, making it clear that northern Florida’s weather wasn’t as warm and sunny as that of the southern peninsula of Florida.

Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, Fl, circa 1895
Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, Fl, circa 1895

In 1899, Flagler started an art colony at the hotel and built seven art studios at the rear of the hotel. The colony attracted many up-and-coming American artists such as Martin Johnson Heade, Felix de Crano, Reynolds Beal, Charles Webster Hawthorne, Arthur Vidal Diehl, Albert Fuller Graves, Harry L. Hoffman, and Heinrich Pfeiffer.

In March of 1902, Mark Twain stayed at the hotel while en route to Miami where he was planning to take a cruise.

In October of 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt stayed at the hotel during its off season and had the entire hotel to himself. Flagler didn’t welcome the president himself though and instead sent his brother-in-law, William Rand Kenan Jr., from Palm Beach to meet him, possibly because Roosevelt was targeting Flagler’s Standard Oil company for legal action at the time (Jordan 2013.)

In the 1910s and 1920s, the number of visitors to the hotel, and to St. Augustine in general, started decline in part due to Flagler extending his East Coast Railroad further south into Florida, making it easier for vacationers to travel to warmer and more tropical locations than St. Augustine.

Around this time, scenes from the 1920 silent film, Stolen Moments, starring Rudolph Valentino, were filmed in St. Augustine and one scene was filmed at the courtyard of the hotel.

Courtyard, Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, Fl, circa 1900-1915
Courtyard, Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, Fl, circa 1900-1915

In 1923, President Warren G. Harding held an award ceremony at the hotel during which he presented a Harding Award to the Boy Scouts of America for successfully increasing their membership.

After the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, the Ponce de Leon was the only one of Flager’s three hotels in St. Augustine to survive the economic fallout.

In 1931, a 13-year-old John F. Kennedy stayed at the hotel with his family while en route to Palm Beach, Florida.

The hotel suffered a lull in tourism during WWII and underwent extensive repairs and renovations to modernize the building. During that time, from 1942 to 1945, the hotel was used by the U.S. Coast Guard as a recruit training depot, hosting 1,500 soldiers during their training period.

The large crowds returned in 1946 and 1947 but the pattern of decline soon returned and fewer and fewer guests returned each year.

In 1957, the American Institute of Architects celebrated its 100th anniversary by listing the 100 most important buildings in America and included the hotel on its list.

Grand parlor, Hotel Ponce de Leon, circa 1880-1897
Grand parlor, Hotel Ponce de Leon, circa 1880-1897

In the 1960s, the hotel struggled financially and there was talk about possibly closing and demolishing it. During the St. Augustine Movement, a local Civil Rights movement that took place in the city from 1963 to 1964, the hotel became the target of protestors who held demonstrations there demanding that the hotel desegregate (Clark 145.)

In March of 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson stayed at the hotel after he was invited to attend a banquet to launch the celebration of St. Augustine’s upcoming 400th birthday and he refused to take part in any segregated events during his stay in the city (ACCORD Freedom Trail.)

As a result, the hotel was temporarily desegregated to allow African-Americans to take part in an event with vice president in the ballroom. The hotel returned to being a segregated business after Johnson left the city.

In 1964, the owners of the hotel sponsored two episodes of the popular television show Route 66 and a scene from one of the episodes was filmed in the hotel’s dining hall.

In 1967, the hotel was saved from demolition when Flagler Systems sold the building to developers who planned to convert it into a women’s college. On April 5, 1967, the hotel held a final gala dinner dance.

The Hotel Ponce de Leon officially closed its doors in April of 1967. About 18 months later, Flagler College opened to the public and later become a coeducational college in 1970.

On May 6, 1975, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. A dedication ceremony was held that week, during which the college received a certificate of formal recognition from the National Register, and a historical marker was unveiled in front of the building.

In 1988, the college celebrated the hotel’s 100th anniversary by restoring the historic dining room.

On February 21, 2006, the hotel building became a U.S. National Historical Landmark.

Flagler College, former Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, FL
Flagler College, former Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, FL

In 2012, the Florida American Institute of Architects celebrated its 100th anniversary by listing the 100 most important buildings in the state and included the hotel on its list.

In 2013, the college celebrated the hotel’s 125th anniversary and restored the solarium as part of the celebration.

Although the hotel is no longer in business, visitors can still tour the building by taking one of Flagler College’s history tours.

Sources:
Clark, James. C. A History Lovers Guide to Florida. History Press, 2020.
Zacharias, James. “Ponce de Leon Hotel.” Museum of Arts & Sciences, moas.org/The-Ponce-de-Leon-Hotel-1-6744.html
“Hotel Ponce de Leon.” Flagler College, flagler.edu/about-flagler/history/hotel-ponce-de-leon/
“Florida Historic Places – Hotel Ponce de Leon.” National Park Service, nps.gov/nr/travel/geo-flor/26.htm
“Fort Moses Historic State Park.” Floridadep.gov, State of Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 20 April. 2016, floridadep.gov/sites/default/files/FMHSP_Approved_WithMaps_20160427.pdf
“President Warren G. Harding presenting the Harding Award to the Boy Scouts for increasing membership at the Hotel Ponce de Leon.” Falgler College Archives, digitalarchives.flagler.edu/digital/collection/p16830coll3/id/126/
Jordan, Douglas. “10 things you might not know about the Hotel Ponce de Leon.” The St. Augustine Record, 12 Jan. 2013, staugustine.com/story/news/local/2013/01/13/stub-277/16156388007/
“St. Augustine Civil Rights Movement.” ACCORD Freedom Trail, ACCORD Civil Rights Museum, accordfreedomtrail.org/movement2.html
“Old Ponce Hotel Again a Landmark.” St. Augustine Record, 9 Oct. 1975,
“Hotel Ponce de Leon.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form, National Park Service, 1 April. 1975, s3.amazonaws.com/NARAprodstorage/lz/electronic-records/rg-079/NPS_FL/75002067.pdf

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