Preview

Several figures stand out in the development of Florida into a world-class tourist destination, including Walt Disney and his predecessors, Addison Mizner, Carl Graham Fisher and Henry Bradley Plant. The earliest and arguably the most influential of Florida’s early developers, however, was Henry Morrison Flagler, who invented the concept of the Florida vacation as we know it today…When Flagler relocated to New York City in 1877, he gradually separated himself from the management of Standard Oil…

By the time Standard Oil was dissolved in 1911, Henry Flagler was an extraordinarily wealthy former founder and stockholder. His various interests in Florida had completely replaced his attachments to the Standard Oil Company…

One event that might have heightened his interest was the celebration of the landing of Ponce de Leon in March, 1885. He later recalled the difficulty of deciding on the design of the Hotel Ponce de Leon, “Here was St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. How to build a hotel to meet the requirements of nineteenth century America and have it in keeping with the character of the place – that was my hardest problem.”

Flagler went to McKim, Mead and White of New York, the leading architectural firm in the United States and hired two young architects: John M. Carrere and Thomas Hastings. The 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel opened on January 10, 1888 on a five-acre lot with Spanish Renaissance architecture. On opening day, Flagler’s invited guests arrived on the first plush vestibule train ever to arrive in St. Augustine. That evening, Mr. and Mrs. Flagler entertained the hotel’s architects, builders, artists and railroad executives. The first impression of the Ponce de Leon was of size, since the mammoth structure covered most of its five acre lot. The building was only four stories high but it was large and extensive. Inside the front gate was the beautifully landscaped 10,000 square foot interior court containing a large fountain with a grand entrance to the rotunda. The building’s design and ornamentation embodied the style of Spanish Renaissance architecture…

The success of the design of the Ponce de Leon is recorded by the noted Gilded Age author, Henry James in his 1907 book, The American Scene. James writes, “The Ponce de Leon, for that matter, comes as close as near producing, all by itself, the illusion of romance as a highly modern, a most cleverly-constructed and smoothly-administered great modern caravansery can come…and is, in all sorts of ways and in the highest sense of the word, the most ‘amusing’ of hotels.”