Grand Buildings and Pirates in St. Augustine

View of Flagler College from across the street

I wanted to do one last post on St. Augustine because there are some pretty neat buildings I have not yet shared. St. Augustine is a lot about Spanish architecture and several buildings showcase this very well and definitely deserve a look. Perhaps the most well known is Flagler College, a place that would be great to attend just to be surrounded by such elegance. Built in 1887 by Henry Flagler the founder of Standard Oil, students live in a building designed to be an exclusive resort once known as the Ponce de Leon Hotel.

Entrance to Flagler College courtyard

It became a private liberal arts college in 1968 and today students actually give architectural tours of the building which I joined one morning. We toured the courtyard, lobby, dining room and Flagler Room which was formerly called the Grand Parlor. Below is a photo of the lobby and rotunda which has fancy carved woodwork, a mosaic tile floor, murals and a domed ceiling.

View of the lobby
Domed ceiling in the rotunda

The dining room was the most interesting as the design led me to feel I had been transported to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School. The heavy looking wooden chairs were hand carved with cherubs. Supposedly the seats were originally padded with Spanish moss but chiggers would bite the dining guests (yikes 😳), so Flager had the chairs stuffed instead with horse hair. The high ceilinged walls are adorned with many murals, but the most remarkable sight are the 79 original Louis Tiffany windows. Tiffany was given the task of designing the interior spaces in the hotel.

View of the dining room
Dining area with original Tiffany stained glass windows

The Flagler Room looked to me like a fancy ballroom with Austrian crystal chandeliers and a fire place with an original Thomas Edison clock inlaid into the largest piece of white onyx in the Western Hemisphere. Edison wired the hotel for electricity, one of the first buildings in the U.S. to have it. Hotel staff would turn the lights on and off in the rooms because guests were often afraid to flip the switches themselves.

Flagler Room
Original Thomas Edison clock

Across the street from the College, Mr. Flagler designed another former hotel built in 1888 called the “Alcazar.” The building closed during the depression and in 1948 it was purchased by Otto Lightner, a Chicago magazine publisher who converted it into a museum for his large collection of fine art. The building also now houses city government offices. There is so much to see and do in St. Augustine that I didn’t get around to touring this museum, but I did spend some time walking around the inner courtyard of the magnificent building which once held the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, now dry.

When I visited it was the 498th birthday of St. Augustine’s founder Pedro Menendez de Avila, so a wreath of fresh flowers had been placed in front of his statue.
The courtyard of the former Alcazar Hotel

I did take a tour of another grand building called the Villa Zorayda Museum which was built in 1883 as a winter residence for Franklin Webster Smith. In his design, he replicated the architectural details of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. The subsequent owner opened the building as a museum in 1933 with a collection of many historic pieces of furniture, antiques and art collected by both owners from around the world. The most well known piece is the sacred cat rug which is reported to be over 2400 years old and made from the hairs of ancient cats that roamed the Nile River.

Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the museum which was a shame as the interior was beautifully designed and made me feel like I had stepped inside a moorish castle. The tour involved using an audio wand that explained all the different exhibits as I walked the two floors of the building.

Entrance to the Villa Zorayda Museum

Ahoy Matey! I visited the first pirate museum of our travels here in St. Augustine. Although it is not housed in a grand building like the three others above, it had interesting displays and information and is reported to have one of the largest collections of pirate artifacts in the world. Historically, pirates were alleged to have hung out in St. Augustine and the Castillo de San Marcos fort located across the street from the museum.

The museum has information about famous pirates and the laws and punishments against piracy. There is a replica gun deck of a pirate ship and a variety of artifacts including gold and silver bars, gold coins owned by the pirate Blackbeard, sunken treasure, weapons and personal effects like Captain Kidd’s family bible. There are also interactive exhibits and animatronic pirates. Below is a photo of an original Jolly Roger flag, one of only two remaining pirate flags in the world. Although it is called “jolly,” the flag actually was designed to strike terror in the hearts of people.

The museum features the only known authentic pirate treasure chest that is 400 years old and made of metal. It was owned by Thomas Tew who made an enormous fortune raiding ships in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

Thomas Tew’s Chest

The treasure in the next photo is called the “Taj Mahal Sunken Treasure” as the son of the builder of this great mausoleum ordered these coins to be minted. Bound for the orient several hundred years ago, the ship was caught by a typhoon and sunk. The shipwreck was discovered in 1963 during an underwater movie scouting expedition and the coin clump removed.

I thought I would close with a photo of a quiet street in the old part of St. Augustine, a city that certainly captured my heart. In the next blog I journey back in time to our visit to Wakulla Springs State Park in Florida.

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