Ancient City


And here’s the amazing thing: All the hotels are still there, mostly of a piece, communing with one another from their respective corners at the intersection of King and Cordova. But only the Casa Monica, shuttered in 1932, transformed into the city’s courthouse in 1962, and bought by Richard Kessler in 1997, is now a functioning hotel. Its exterior remains nearly as it was in Flagler’s day, although most of the balconies along one side were removed during its judicial phase, when the interior was gutted. Since there are few pictures of its original public spaces, today’s version is mostly an educated—and very persuasive—guess. The lobby evokes the past with hand-stenciled Spanish designs on rusticated beams, a tiled fountain as its centerpiece, and a few massive pieces of furniture. Even if there isn’t one original room in the place, that the Casa Monica survived its neglect as well as it did is a miracle.

And what about its sisters? The Ponce de León is now the appropriately named Plagier College, a private institution attended by only 1,700 or so students, who must daily be awed by their surroundings. During the school year you’re allowed only a peek. You can stroll the courtyard, home to shady palms and a fountain circled by giant ceramic frogs; you can enter the double-storied hallway and creep a bit up a wide staircase. But that’s it. At intersession the college offers more extensive tours.

The former Alcazar houses the Lightner Museum in one section and the City Hall in another. The museum’s founder, Otto C. Lightner, seems still to inhabit the place through his eccentric collections. Some, you have the feeling, he bought by the truckload (5,000 salt and pepper shakers, for example), but other pieces must have been closer to his heart. It all makes sense when you learn that Lightner was the founder and publisher in the 1920s of Hobbies Magazine , in which he insisted that everyone take up a hobby. The results of his zeal are spread over three mazelike floors of what was the sports area of the old Alcazar. Fascinating photos explain the original uses of rooms that now hold Tiffany windows or acres of cut glass. The emptied pool contains a café and the stalls of antiques dealers.

Once they ceased to be hotels, the buildings lived life on the edge until rescued through a variety of creative public and private solutions. Even in a place as worshipful of the past as St. Augustine, preservation remains a continuing struggle. One recent decision saved the turreted Bridge of Lions, a downtown landmark that looks far more venerable than its 73 years, after the Coast Guard proposed demolishing it to widen the river’s channel. Instead, renovation of the bridge will begin this year.

Then there is the campaign to recognize, as the town at present does not, a 1964 campaign led in St. Augustine by Dr. Martin Luther King. A generic 1950s waterfront motel has become an unlikely emblem of those tumultuous days; its owner achieved his moment of fame when a wire-service photo caught him pouring acid into the pool to disperse an integrated group of swimmers. Today a new owner plans to rebuild the place in Spanish Colonial style, replace the pool with a larger one, and commemorate the old pool with a plaque. Among those who had hoped to see the pool landmarked is Moses Floyd, director of St. Augustine’s soon-to-open National African-American Archives and Museum. “You have an authentic real thing,” he says, “where something actually happened.” That’s an argument that ought to resonate in the Ancient City.