By Hilda Mitrani
Flagler College, the former Hotel Ponce de Leon, is a St. Augustine architecture highlight. Its Ponce de Leon Hall was built by millionaire developer Henry M. Flagler and is a National Historic Landmark, the highest designation for a historic building.
In its day, this exclusive Florida resort was a pioneer in several areas. It was one of the first hotels to have electric wiring. Visitors were afraid of this invention, and the hotel manager had to dispatch two of the housekeeping staff to switch the lights on and off daily. The building was also constructed of poured concrete. Both of these were revolutionary features during that era.
The opulence here is hard to describe. In the Dining Hall, 79 Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows sparkle. Our multinational tour group was particularly charmed by the Spanish sayings painted into the ceiling frescos.
The fact that it was completed in under two years is hard to believe. During the twice daily tours of Flagler College architecture, visitors spend time in the Rotunda, where an 80-foot domed ceiling is partially supported by eight ornately carved oak caryatids. These are columns topped by robed women copied from the temple of Diana in Greece. Accompanying the spectacular paintings and elaborate carvings is an intricate mosaic floor.
The final stop of our tour was the Flagler Room, once the hotel's Grand Parlour. It has numerous Austrian crystal chandeliers (also created by Tiffany), spectacular wall panels and plaster carvings on the ceiling. One of the most striking features here is an onyx Thomas Edison clock, one of the first ever to be used in a public building. As our charming guide told us, it's correct twice daily.
At the Hotel Ponce de Leon, architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings created one of the finest examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture in St. Augustine. Today, it is a lovingly preserved dormitory for Flagler College, a private institution that is considered one of America’s best educational bargains.
Created and endowed by the land baron's third wife, Mary Lily Kenan, the Flagler College architecture certainly matches its current tag line, "Welcome to a Higher Standard."
Some of the lessons imparted here are simple and universal: Good design and classic beauty are enduring.
For more examples of architecture in St. Augustine, visit the amphitheatre at Anastasia State Park.