One of the things that makes coastal Florida in general and St. Augustine in particular so fascinating is the variety of different architectural time periods that are being represented. Old Spanish homes, devoid of decoration, seem to stand peacefully next to huge gothic hotels dripping with lush interior and stunning architectural detail. Without question, St. Augustine would certainly not be quite so beautiful without the massive Moorish-style buildings that seem to transport the unsuspecting tourist back to old Spain and to the time of the Muslim kings.
Henry Flagler, a man renowned for his deep pockets and his rich tastes, came to St. Augustine hoping to create an empire of his own. There were very few limits to what he could accomplish, and by the end of the 19th century, three lavish hotels had sprung up in St. Augustine. The Ponce de Leon Hotel, now known as Flagler College, is a liberal arts school in the heart of the downtown. The red terra-cotta roofs and ingenious towers, turrets and countless windows seem to have dropped down from Spain’s medieval Muslim kingdom of Granada or perhaps, further back in time, the courts of Morocco. There are very few architectural wonders that Flagler College does not have. Even if you’re not a student, you can walk around and have your camera at the ready to capture this unforgettable feat of engineering.
The Casa Monica Hotel is a beautiful white structure that has a long and venerable history. It is again being used as a hotel, as it was in the olden days, and for a price (which, granted, is a bit high) you can go back to a richly-appointed room after a full day of soaking up St. Augustine’s terrific history. Casa Monica was conceived in 1887 when Henry Flagler’s acquaintance, a man known as Franklin Smith, constructed the first version of Casa Monica. In 1888, St. Augustine witnessed the transaction of the hotel and all its furnishings to Henry Flagler; one has to wonder if this was planned from the beginning. The magnificent Moorish masterpiece soon became known as the “Cordova” and it was Flagler’s know-how that turned it into the work of St. Augustine art that it is today. In the 20th century, after years of lying unused as a hotel, Casa Monica staff renovated and updated the hotel.
Casa Monica’s hotel is worth mentioning if just for its return to Victorian elegance. The food choices are superb and range from American to Far East choices, and the architectural ambiance hearkens back to the days when Henry Flagler held high court over St. Augustine’s Victorian era. If you can afford to eat in Casa Monica’s dining rooms – and don’t be ashamed if you don’t have that much extra to spend, because most of us don’t! – you won’t be disappointed. The spirit of Henry Flagler would certainly be pleased with the elegant details that Casa Monica is nurturing.
Lightner Museum is one of St. Augustine’s most detailed museums, showcasing the collections of late owner Otto Lightner. More than just a simple museum that can be visited in the span of an hour, it would take days to properly appreciate the exhibits carefully laid out at Lightner Museum. The museum itself has had its share of ups and downs; it began as Hotel Alcazar in the late 1880s. Henry Flagler brought in some well-known men to make this upscale hotel a success. When the 1940s rolled around, the old building was purchased by Otto Lightner who turned the old Hotel Alcazar into the museum that would store his important collections. Plan to spend at least three hours here so you can fully appreciate the scope of the things you will be seeing.
Henry Flagler also had a part in the construction of many churches within the city. The church with perhaps the greatest amount of Flagler’s influence is Memorial Presbyterian, where his young daughter Jennie rests in peace. Officially dedicated in 1890, Memorial Presbyterian’s high gothic walls and huge dome put it in the same category as many of Europe’s great churches. Built in an Italian style and modeled after the great buildings of Venice, the dome is sometimes lit up at night and is a fantastic sight to behold as it towers above downtown St. Augustine. Check out the tall stained glass windows over the front entrance, and look out for renovations recently completed at Memorial Presbyterian.