Story and photography by Barbara Penny Angelakis
St. Augustine… a little town with a big history
Art can be defined as that which visually pleases the eye and enriches the spirit or conversely, torments the viewer into a soul searching inquiry. Or, it can extend beyond the physical representation to the abstract art of ideas, as in the art of hospitality that is extended with sincere warmth and good fellowship; or the artful presentation of a meal that teases the eye and fulfills its promise to your palate; or better yet, the art of fear, when shadowy images and moving objects purport to be supernatural manifestations. Regardless of your personal definition of art there is small town on the northeast coast of Florida that is not only the oldest in the country, 443 years to be exact, but also the home to one of the earliest organized artist communities in the nation. St. Augustine is a picture perfect, charming, historic, cultural and haunted city; in other words, something for everyone.
St. Augustine is a little town with a big history. Founded in 1565 by the Spanish, it boasts of being the first permanent European settlement in the new world and home to Ponce De Leon’s Fountain of Youth. Its rich Spanish colonial past, in combination with Native American influences, British rule, and finally United States ownership, makes for an artistically diverse and culturally unique mix.
Because of its diminutive size, St. Augustine’s Old Town is wonderful for walking and every turn provides an opportunity for exploration and adventure. However, to get your bearings start out by taking one of the charming sightseeing trains or horse drawn carriage tours. This will give you a good overview of the old city and its many places of historical and cultural interest and then, take off on your own. You can begin chronologically and work yourself up to the present or just follow where your feet lead you, in any event there is plenty to beguile and delight. I enjoyed a carriage ride that took us through the Old Town City Gate and along the cobblestone streets where our driver pointed out sights of interest including the oldest house in the city dating back to the 1650’s. We clippity-clopped through the Colonial Historic district and the central Plaza, which was the original Spanish core of the city, and along the waterfront past the massive Castillo de San Marcos, built by the Spanish to safeguard the harbor. In order to preserve historic continuity, city ordinance dictates that facades of all buildings in the historic area architecturally conform and color-wise adhere to a palette of paints available in 1740, giving the area a warm and muted look in the bright Florida sunshine.
While imposing architectural edifices and historical buildings dating back to the Colonial era abound, artistically St. Augustine really blossomed in the building boom initiated by financial wizard Henry Flagler at the turn of the 20th century. Henry Flagler along with John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews, made a fortune in oil. By the late 1890’s Florida was little more than marsh land when the then middle-aged Flagler, perhaps yearning after the elusive Fountain of Youth allegedly sought after by Ponce De Leon, but more likely seeking a financial opportunity, decided to open a luxury destination hotel for his rich and famous friends and name it after the famous explorer. His hotel was to be le nec plus ultra in comfort and luxury and aside from the difficulty in getting there the hotel was a stunning achievement. In order to make the trip to the fabled Ponce De Leon Hotel less stressful, Flagler built a railroad to transport his guests, the cream of high society, in the relative comfort they demanded. His extension of the Florida East Coast Railway all the way to Key West and the magnificent hotels he built along the way opened the state to development and secured both his fortune and his legacy.
To construct the Ponce De Leon Hotel, Flagler commanded an army of topnotch artists and craftsmen, some of them personal friends, including painter George Maynard, artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Thomas Alva Edison, who personally attended to lighting the hotel with his newest invention, the light bulb. Although Flagler was not known for his good humor or sparkling personality, he did have a talent for nuance and detail and his hands-on attention during construction greatly contributed to the magnificence of the structure. The natural and supernatural worlds were popular themes at the turn of the 20th century and the sun dial courtyard fountain is a perfect expression of that fashion which is repeated in detailing throughout the Spanish renaissance style building.
Today the elegant Ponce De Leon Hotel has been restored and transformed into Flagler College, a private liberal arts college, and generously opened for guided tours to the public. We enjoyed an impassioned tour by student Laura Mauldin, who imparted her obvious enthusiasm for the building and its artifacts with stories as well as facts, making for an informative and delightful visit.
Another of Flager’s palatial hotels in St. Augustine was the Hotel Alcazar. Slightly smaller but with the same Moorish design reminiscent of the castles of Seville, this hotel offered less costly accommodations and additionally, contained the amusements for his elegant Ponce De Leon Hotel guests. It had reading and game rooms, Turkish, Roman or Russian baths, bowling lanes and billiard tables and a large indoor swimming pool fed by artesian well water with a vaulted ceiling that could be cranked open to the sky. Legend has it that every New Years Eve at the stroke of midnight, a gentlemen in full dress top hat and tails, dove off one of the third floor balconies into the pool. Plays, musicals and concerts were performed on its grounds well attended by the locals as well as the hotels guests, but by the mid 1930’s the Golden Age had passed and the aging hotel was in dire need of restoration. Step in O.C. Lightner a wealthy Chicago publisher who was looking for a building to house his collection of art and artifacts. An avid collector, his eclectic collection ranged from buttons to objects d’art from the homes of the wealthy. While his contemporaries were looking toward the future, Lightner amassed a huge collection of treasures from the past. The history of the Hotel Alcazar and that of Otto C. Lightner, who turned the building into a museum are fascinating as is the collection itself, and no visit to St. Augustine would be complete without spending time at the Lightner Museum.
Another not to be missed museum is the Villa Zorayda. Just reopened after a major restoration, this unique building was designed and built in 1883 by Bostonian Franklin W. Smith as his winter residence. Smith developed the use of a local material, coquina (shellstone) bonded with cement, to create this scaled down version of the famous Alhambra in Spain, and filled it with works of art amassed on his travels throughout Europe and the Orient. If the St. Augustine art scene only consisted of these three buildings it would be enough but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Flagler long a patron of the arts, sponsored an artist community to entertain his prosperous guests during their long stays at his hotels. Today, contemporary art galleries and craft studios line the streets surrounding the Plaza and we visited several. Notably, the workshop of potter Worley Faver whose family settled in St. Augustine in 1873 and whose love of the area and the art of pottery making expresses itself through his stunning work; and Dan Holiday, a leather craftsman who still makes bags and shoes by hand the old fashioned way; and artist Bill Puckett’s Aviles Street Gallery whose shop showcases local artists work. We also went to PASTA - Professional Artists of St. Augustine – and spoke to Marie De Costa, one of the exhibiting artists. During our exploration we were fortunate to meet and be guided by experts like Barry Westcott Myers, Jr. curator of the Lightner Museum and historian David Nolan, one of the foremost exponents on the Flagler era, and author of "The Houses of St. Augustine" published by Pineapple Press. Artists and craftspeople were eager to meet and greet, as were the long term resident ghosts. Ghosts?
St. Augustine has a reputation for ghostly hauntings thanks to a popular television series about supernatural investigation. There are any number of nightly tours to titillate the seeker of supernatural fantasy… or is it fact? We climbed aboard the “Ghosts & Gravestones” (www.ghostandgravestones.com) Trolley of the Doomed and was guided by an aberration in top hat and black cape through the creepy and bloody stories of madness and mayhem. As we passed by the old Presbyterian graveyard we were challenged to “take a picture of the lady in the white veil” that purports to hang around. Laughingly I stuck my digital camera through the fence and snapped a picture of the pitch black scene along with about a dozen other members of the group. Lo and behold, my picture appeared to capture a ghostly image hovering in front of a tomb. Thinking it was an anomaly, I took another shot and it showed the sarcophagus perfectly sans ghostly image. In quick succession I took another picture and again clearly captured the shadowing image but from a slightly different vantage point. Had it moved to escape the camera’s flash? Since I was the only one in the group that captured the image I leave it up to you, the viewer, to decide if I did indeed “take a picture of the lady in the white veil”.
Hotels and Bed & Breakfast accommodations as well as a wide range of restaurants dot the landscape of the Old Town and a listing can be obtained by contacting (www.Getaway4Florida.com). We enjoyed an outstanding dinner at Columbia Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Florida and a Hispanic gem in both décor and cuisine. The food was authentic Spanish kitchen and delicious, the sangria made at tableside from fresh citrus and sparkling wine, and the service efficient. The ambience was a photo opp if ever there was one. We stayed at the historic Casa Monica Hotel located in the center of the old town and within walking distance of all the attractions. Built by Franklin W. Smith in 1888 and contemporary to Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel - but no match for its opulence - Smith’s hotel was sold to Flagler within months after it was completed. Flagler renamed it Hotel Cordova and under his tutelage it thrived until the depression of 1929. Hotelier Richard C. Kessler of Orlando bought the building in 1997 and after extensive and costly rejuvenation the themed Spanish-Moorish style building reopened as the Casa Monica Hotel in December of 1999. (www.casamonica.com)
The Casa Monica justly deserves its AAA Four Diamond Hotel rating as much for the quality of its staff as for the unique nature of its design and luxuriousness of its appointments. Every inquiry was greeted with a smile and a chance encounter with a staff member was just an excuse to exchange a pleasantry. At every level of service from the newly appointed General Manager Tom Cherniavsky, to the bell hop that rushed to open the courtyard door leading to the Arabian Nights roof-top pool, there was a universal desire to be of assistance. A review of Casa Monica’s top-notch restaurant “95 Cordova” can be found in the Restaurants segment of this issue.
My recent trip to St. Augustine was to explore its historical roots and continuing tradition as an artist’s community. St. Augustine fulfilled its promise as an art destination regardless of how you define art.
For more on St. Augustine and its environs see story in Restaurant Notes.
© March 2008 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.