February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
In mid-December of 1999, a grand hotel in St. Augustine, Florida, opened its doors for the first time since 1932. It was originally called the Casa Monica; then, with an early change of ownership, it became the Cordova. Now once again the Casa Monica, it has been renovated to the tune of millions of dollars by Richard Kessler, an entrepreneur who specializes in hotels with a history. Last winter, almost as soon as I came across a brochure promoting the sprawling Moorish fantasy of towers and battlements, I was on my way.
By coincidence, I arrived the night of the official ribbon cutting (the December opening, known in hotel parlance as a “soft opening,” had been in the way of a tryout). As my cab pulled up, I could see the entire downtown area aglow with the “million lights,” a winter tradition that began here during the Depression and started up again seven years ago. That night Casa Monica, lit as if for a Hollywood premiere, was the undisputed star, prompting the cabdriver to ask if he could please take my (wheeled) bag into the lobby just so he could get a look at the place. “The oldest hotel in the oldest city” was back in business.
The notion of St. Augustine as the nation’s oldest city has long been a selling point; the Ancient City Cab Company is but one present-day use of the theme. Local historians regularly feel the need to fend off other claimants like Jamestown (1607) or Plymouth Plantation (1620). Ponce de León’s failed attempt at colonization in the area led to his death in 1521, but the legend that he had discovered a fountain of youth there persisted through the decades. On September 8, 1565, the Spanish explorer and colonizer Don Pedro Menéndez de AvilÖs came ashore here to found a garrison that grew to become today’s city. “If there be settlers or corsairs of other nations not subject to us,” King Philip II told his emissary, “drive them out.” The Spanish held off English and French attackers for two centuries, and when the British gained St. Augustine in 1763, it was by treaty. They kept it for two decades and then ceded it back to Spain in a trade for Gibraltar and other territories. In 1821 Florida became a U.S. territory and in 1845 a state.
Of the first Spanish era, as it is called here, the only survivor is the Castillo de San Marcos, part of the National Park system and considered the best example of a Spanish colonial fortification in the continental United States. Constructed between 1672 and 1695 of coquina (a favored local building material made of hardened shell), the fort served as Spain’s northernmost outpost of empire. The Castillo has undergone much alteration, but wandering its ramparts you can still find, as did Ralph Waldo Emerson, who visited in 1827, “speaking to the eye a thousand things, of Spain, a thousand heavy histories.”
A few miles away lies the site of Fort Mose, chartered by the Spanish in 1738. At the beginning, black troops trained there in the defense of the city, and theirs was the first legally sanctioned settlement of free blacks in North America. Although the fort lasted only until 1763, and every visible trace of it is long gone, it has excited recent archeological interest, and an interpretive center is now planned for this extraordinary place.
By the time of Emerson’s observation, most other physical evidence in St. Augustine of the “heavy histories” of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain had been lost. And from the second Spanish era, 1784 to 1821, only about two dozen buildings stand today. The town’s charming streets, however many whiffs of Spain they give off, are in most cases imaginative nineteenth-century creations.
Nineteenth-century St. Augustine was no more than a sleepy backwater until its wakening by Henry Morrison Plagier, who made a fortune in Standard Oil. Plagier visited first in 1883 and found a mildly depressing health spa; he returned with a new outlook two years later, determined to make St. Augustine the Newport of the South.
To further his dream, Plagier hired John M. Carrère and Thomas Hastings, two young McKim, Mead and White architects at the start of their careers. He assigned them to build the Hotel Ponce de León, a block-long, block-wide, Spanish Renaissance confection with opulent interiors created by Bernard Maybeck and Louis Comfort Tiffany. The building owed everything to the past except in one respect: It was the first major structure in the United States built of poured concrete, which allowed for a larger and more fireproof edifice than wood frame.
The Ponce de León enjoyed a festive launch on January 10, 1888, and was followed soon after by the more modest Casa Monica. That hotel was renamed the Cordova after Plagier took it over from its builder, Franklin Smith. By Christmas 1888, the last piece fell into place, as Flagler’s smaller Hotel Alcazar opened. The Ponce de Leon may have been grander, but the Alcazar, planned as a shopping arcade with moderately priced rooms above, seemed cozier and, in time, proved even more popular. Its main attractions were a casino and a sports complex with heat rooms, steam rooms, and a gymnasium. From the third-floor gallery, which served as a ballroom, guests could look down on an enormous, columned swimming pool.
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.