History abounds in St. Augustine


Vickie Kelber 


A re-enactor offers a tour of the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the US, dating to the 1600s.

Living here in Paradise, it’s easy to confine my sphere of in state travel to Marco and Naples with the occasional jaunt to Ft. Myers, or at least to Estero for shopping. With that in mind, I have been trying to make an effort to see more of what Florida has to offer.

That is what led me to explore St. Augustine, a delightful place to visit for history buffs and shoppers alike. It can be a bit touristy with its various sightseeing vehicles including trollies, “trains,” and Segways, but the historic charm of the pedestrian only St. George Street more than makes up for those distractions.

St. Augustine boasts four and a half centuries of history; I can’t begin to do justice to that history in this short article. Founded by the Spanish in 1565, St. Augustine went under English control following the Seven Years War in 1763 and was loyal to the crown during the American Revolution. It, along with all of Florida, returned to Spanish rule following the Revolution. In 1821, control passed to the United States. St. Augustine played a role in what were known as the Seminole Wars and Chiefs Osceola and Coacoochee were imprisoned here. During the latter part of the 1800s, Indians from the mid and south west were also imprisoned in St. Augustine. During the Civil War, it was part of the Confederacy. St. Augustine has also been home to French Huguenots as well as Greek and Minorcan exiles from the failed New Smyrna colony.

The oldest wooden schoolhouse in the United States is located in St. Augustine. It dates to the early 1700s. PHOTOS BY VICKIE KELBER/COASTAL BREEZE NEWS

In the late 1800s, Henry Flagler, co founder of Standard Oil, decided to turn St. Augustine into a luxurious winter resort. He built two elegant hotels, the Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar, and purchased a third, the Cordova; more on the Ponce de Leon later. In the 1960’s, St. Augustine played a role in the Civil Rights movement as the scene of protests, violence against the protestors, and the arrests of the mother of the governor of Massachusetts, the wife of the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

St. Augustine claims to have more than 60 attractions to visit, ranging from the historical such as the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, the oldest wooden school house and the first mission in the United States, the Avero House/Saint Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine and the Lightner Museum in the former Alacazar Hotel to the more recent marvels found in Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.

The two sites I found most interesting were one of the oldest, the Castillo de San Marcos, and the more “modern” Flagler College.

The Castillo, whose construction began in 1672, is the oldest masonry fort in the US. Built of coquina, sedimentary rock comprised of ancient shells similar to limestone, it has served six different flags. Surrounded by a now dry moat, the star shaped fort is characterized by bastions at its four corners. Under the auspices of the National Park Service, there are guided tours offered on the hour. On the half hour for a period during the day, re enactors demonstrate the pageantry involved in firing the canon. A self guided walking tour brochure is available. And, remember, the National Park Service Senior Pass (previously known as the Golden Access or Golden Age Passport) is good here.

One of the many windows designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the Ponce de Leon Hotel.

Flagler College is housed in the former Ponce de Leon Hotel. Henry Flagler employed artists, professionals, and craftsmen from all over the world to design and construct his 540 room hotel in the style of Spanish Renaissance. Louis Comfort Tiffany designed the windows as well as much of the interior. In fact, it contains the largest collection of Tiffany windows in the world; many of which are in what is now the dining hall of the college. The building was wired for electricity with Thomas Edison, a friend of Flagler’s, supplying the generators to provide power.

The hotel was open only three months a year. Even if visitors wanted to stay just a few days, they had to pay for all three months, the equivalent at today’s rate of a quarter of a million dollars. During its heyday, women were not allowed near the front desk because it was believed that if they were witness to business transactions, they would lose their eyesight. This made it impossible for them to personally retrieve their jewels from the safe because it was located behind the desk; they had to rely on their husbands for this task.

The hotel was used as a Coast Guard Training Center during World War II and was the location of the first sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine during the 60s.

A horse drawn carriage pauses in front of the former Ponce de Leon Hotel, now owned by Flagler College.

In 1968, Flagler College took over the hotel and put much effort and funds into restoring the hotel to its original grandeur. The US News & World Report has identified Flagler as one of “America’s Best Regional Colleges.” It’s tuition is relatively low ($14,000) for a private college. To help offset costs, the college offers student led Legacy tours of what was the hotel. For a chance to see the opulence of a by gone era in all its golden splendor (and, yes, anything that looks gold in the hotel truly is gold) and help support the school, tour tickets can be purchased at the small gift shop in the former hotel or at the college’s main store on St. George St.

Restaurants and ice cream/sweet shoppes are plentiful. For a quick lunch while sight seeing or shopping, there are a few casual restaurants such as Florida Cracker Cafe on St. George St., with more options on the parallel Spanish and Cordova streets. If time is not an issue, head over to the waterfront near the marina for more scenic choices.

There are some distinctive shops along St. George St. and off on the side alleys and courtyards. Casa Rodriquez housed in a building dating to the 1700s at #52 has a great selection of jewelry, including some unique shell pendants. A real find was Market to Market #22 St. George St. featuring a wide selection of pottery from Spain, Mexico, and Portugal at fair prices. It’s almost impossible to visit there without buying something.

The former Alcazar Hotel built by Henry Flagler is now home to St. Augustine’s City Hall and the Lightner Museum.

St. Augustine is about a six hour drive from Marco Island. Accommodations, some of them waterfront, run the gamut from chain motels, historic hotels, and charming Bed and Breakfasts to full scale resorts. If visiting for just the day, there is a large for fee parking garage adjacent to the visitors center; just follow the signs. Be sure to stop at the visitor’s center for a tourist map of the city.

Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.

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