Skip to main content

Season’s End

June 2024
2min read

Pedestrians stroll across a narrow, wooden bridge spanning the Halifax River to the Ormond Hotel, social center of Florida’s Ormond Beach in 1903 and for many years thereafter. Located on a thinly populated stretch of a barrier beach between the river and the Atlantic, on what one historian says was previously a “bearinfested wilderness,” the hotel opened in 1888. Among the first guests was the great society portraitist John Singer Sargent.

Two years later the indefatigable Florida hotel builder Henry Plagier bought the place, painted it his favored sunny yellow with white trim, and began a major expansion. To accommodate six hundred guests, Plagier added three wings, the last in 1905. The photograph at right shows the hotel very much as it appeared in that year, with the west wing, the final addition, facing the water and obscuring the original entry, to which the bridge in the old photo points like an arrow. The first new structure, the five-story north wing to the left, is easily recognizable in both views. The 1904 south wing, still topped by a belvedere, or roofed gallery, lost its square towers at the southmost corners in 1968, when East Granada Boulevard was widened. Visible to the right in the new picture, a concrete bridge has replaced not only the pleasant walkway but, unseen in the old photo, a narrow-gauge railroad span that allowed Flagler’s impressive guests to arrive virtually at the front door in their private Pullman cars.

Just as he planned, Flagler’s guests came in great numbers for the “season,” which ran from early January to late March. Vacationers found entertainments of every kind: golf, an annual medieval tournament, a private theater, and perhaps the greatest draw of all, automobile racing on the beach. That sport was born here when one of the hotel guests watched a bicycle race on the sands and noticed that the tires left almost no impression. He persuaded the hotel’s managers to sponsor an automobile race in 1903, giving Ormond Beach title as the “birthplace of speed.”

In 1903 a hotel guest thought up the sport of automobile racing on the hard-packed ands of the beach, making Ormond Beach the “birthplace of speed.”

Flagler kept moving down the coast, planting palatial hotels all the way to Palm Beach and Miami, and the Ormond began to lose patronage to those more reliably warm resorts. That was the start of a long, sad decline that brought the hotel—one of the largest surviving wooden structures in this country—to its final days as a vast, echoing retirement home, sheltering only seventy-nine residents by 1986, and empty in the years that followed.

In 1992 Christopher Doncsecz, a young Florida photographer, won a grant from a state preservation group to document the hotel in its last days. As a result, copies of drawings and historical papers, as well as Doncsecz’s meticulous photographs of the hotel, will be on deposit at the Historical American Buildings Survey in Washington. As for the Ormond, it came down a few months ago. “It’s just rubble now,” says Alice Strickland, a local author and historian. A chimney belonging to the hotel’s private power station remains, she reports, and a cupola was saved, with plans to plant the last relic of the Ormond on city-owned land. Except for that and Doncsecz’s photographic record, the Ormond’s season is finally over.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.