Ponce de Leon Hall, built in 1888 as a luxury hotel by Henry Flagler, is now the centerpiece of Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla.

- Daron Dean for VISIT FLORIDA

By Florence Beth Snyder

Most college students didn't grow up on a movie set, but those who did would feel right at home at Flagler College in St. Augustine.

Long before Flagler's flagship building, Ponce de Leon Hall, was the centerpiece of a picturesque liberal arts college, it was the setting for “Stolen Moments,” a steamy silent film classic starring matinee idol Rudolph Valentino.

Valentino is not the only celebrity whose spirit is felt at Flagler. Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Thornton Wilder, Somerset Maugham, Will Rogers, Gary Cooper, Edna Ferber and Babe Ruth all stayed at what was then the Ponce de Leon Hotel, an ultra-luxury resort built at the height of the Gilded Age by industrialist Henry Morrison Flagler and re-imagined by Flagler descendant Lawrence Lewis, Jr.

Lewis was studying to be an architect when World War II broke out. Four years and two Purple Hearts later, he returned home with a commitment to historic preservation. Looking to the distant future, he poured his heart and the family fortune into redesigning the 19-acre playground for the rich into a place of higher learning that opened its doors as Flagler College in 1968.

Flagler College students leave Ponce de Leon Hall for their commencement ceremony.

Flagler College students leave Ponce de Leon Hall for their commencement ceremony.

- Daron Dean for VISIT FLORIDA

About 60 percent of Flagler's 2,500 students come from Florida, and the rest from 40 other states and 45 foreign countries. They're never too busy to chat with tourists on campus for the inexpensive and very popular Historic Tours of Flagler.

The tours begin in Ponce Hall, which now serves as a women's dormitory, and is among the early works of John Carrére and Thomas Hastings. The pair would go on to achieve lasting fame as the architects of the New York Public Library and the House and Senate Office Buildings adjacent to the United States Capitol.

Considered a masterpiece of Spanish Renaissance architecture, Ponce Hall is one of the first major poured-in-place concrete buildings in the United States. The domed ceiling soars 68 feet above the lobby floor and is supported by eight ornate, hand-carved oak caryatids.

The dining room is home to the world's largest collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows. The Flagler Room, known in Flagler's day as "the Women's Grand Parlor,"  features dazzling Austrian crystal chandeliers; a clock containing the largest piece of intact white onyx in the western hemisphere; original hotel furniture and art; and personal photos and mementos of the Flagler family.

Thomas Edison himself provided the power for the Ponce, which was one of the world's first electrically powered buildings. The "Edison boilers" were located in a building now known as the Molly Wiley Art Building. In Flagler's day the space not occupied by the boilers was home to artists-in-residence invited by Flagler to live and maintain studios on the property. The artists mingled with and even gave lessons to hotel guests, some of whom became their patrons. Dozens of notable paintings were created in that era, and many remain on display at Flagler.

Today, the Wiley Building houses classroom space for fine art and graphic design students, as well as state-of-the-art studios. Visitors are always welcome to the Wiley galleries, where surprisingly sophisticated student work is on display.

The Crisp-Ellert Art Museum opened in 2007 and displays contemporary works by local, national and international artists.

Reservations are recommended for tours of The Solarium, which is open to the public only in the summer. It offers, hands down, the best view of one of the most breathtaking cities in Florida.

If you’re lucky enough to be living or vacationing within day-trip distance of St. Augustine, check back frequently with Flagler College’s award-winning online newspaper, The Gargoyle, and WFCF 88.5 FM, Radio with a Reason, because there’s always something new to do on or near campus, and the communications students who staff Flagler’s media are a reliable resource when planning your day-cation.

When you go…
Flagler College
74 King Street
St. Augustine, Fla., 32084