Old St. Augustine

There’s a Steven Wright joke about George Washington’s ax. ‘This is George Washington’s ax. At one point, the handle burned and was replaced, later the ax head was lost and replaced, but this is the ax that George himself used to chop down the cherry tree.’

St. Augustine is like that. It’s the oldest city, (over 400 years) but it’s been ransacked and burnt so repeatedly, that many of the picturesque streets of old houses and taverns, with some exceptions, are actually much younger replacements.

Warned about impossible parking, we signed up for an on-off trolley tour with the same trolley company we’d so enjoyed in Savannah. To be fair, the ‘trolleys’ here are actually articulated, open-sided, three-car, 70-foot-long affairs, which snake around tight corners surprisingly well. All three cars are wired for sound, so everyone can hear the driver, but asking questions doesn’t work, and no rapport is built between the driver and his somewhat passive audience.

William the trolley driver

In addition, at each of the 22 stops the driver must recite the same safety spiel ad nauseum about dismounting the trolley like backing down a ladder, keeping hands and legs in the trolley, no cell phone conversations, no smoking, no drinking, etc. etc., so not much time is left for in-depth story-telling, and the patter is rote and almost sing-song. Each driver we got was similarly afflicted.

The "Most beautiful street"

Historic St. Augustine is pretty small, and completely infested with tour trolleys and tour ‘trains’ with their loudspeakers, along with touring vans, and horse-drawn carriages: a tourist town with a history problem.

The gallery district

Bridge of Lions

Bridge of Lions open

St. George's Street (an old Spanish "mall")

St. George's Street (an old Spanish "mall"), again

Restaurants and shops

Speaking of history:

Ponce De Leon discovered the Fountain of Youth here in 1513.

The first Catholic mass in the new world was performed on the St Augustine waterfront. On the 400th anniversary of the event, Rome gave the city a monumental stainless steel cross to rival the St. Louis Arch in height.

Bay of Matanzas with cross at the right

The bay is named the Bay of Matanzas which roughly translates as the ‘massacred’ and there was a lot of that done in the name of the Church. Washashores from shipwrecks were asked if they were Catholic, and if they answered wrong, were allowed to perish. The Hugenots and other non-Catholics did not fare much better later on.

Castillo de San Marcos

A wooden fort, Castillo de San Marcos, was first built by the Spanish to defend the harbor. Later on, the British burnt it down and when it was rebuilt, it was with coquina, an ancient seabed aggregate of fossilized seashells, quarried for blocks that would be fire-resistant. The fort never fell to fire again. The few remnants of truly old buildings here are all made of this coquina: a concrete-like, soft-looking material that’s actually surprisingly tough and durable.

More recent history brought the money-men of the gilded age.  They had their way with the town, building grandiose watering holes for the very rich. They altered the status quo of St. Augustine and the locals objected to the change and ‘development’, but these rich entrepreneurs also brought paved streets, schools, and hospitals.

One wealthy eccentric built a tenth-scale ‘Alhambra’ with an innovative technique of poured concrete. He called his home the Villa Zorayda, and crammed it with exotic furnishings of Middle-eastern, Oriental, and Egyptian flavor. We had a self-guided audio tour which helped us sort through all the anachronisms, but we were left with the conclusion that too much money and obsession can create an architectural fantasy of staggering aberration.

The Ponce de Leon Hotel / Flagler College

Henry Flagler, John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil and mastermind of the Florida tourist industry, adopted the Zorayda’s poured concrete method and built the opulent Ponce de Leon Hotel with hot and cold running private baths for every room, and electricity installed by Thomas Edison, himself.

Flagler College courtyard

Flagler College rotunda

Flagler eventually built a railroad and a chain of eleven such hotels all the way down to Key West. As St. Augustine does get cold in the winter, the warmer locations he provided eventually drew the tourist business away from St. Auggie.

The crash of ’29 finally closed the hotels. Eventually, the Ponce de Leon Hotel became Flagler College, its original Tiffany windows still shedding their glorious light in the college dining room. (photography not allowed)

Across the way, Flagler built The Hotel Alcazar, which served as a casino to provide with the play and pampering (not gambling) his wealthy clientele required. To this end, the Alcazar offered a 120’ x 20’ swimming pool, Turkish, Russian, and steam baths, hydrotherapy, massage rooms, tennis courts, bicycle court, and two stories above, a ballroom overlooking the pool.

The Alcazar was reopened in 1947 by Lightner Museum of Hobbies. Lightner, a publisher of antiques and collector magazines, was himself an eclectic collector of curios, and other people’s collections. After filling one mansion in Chicago, then another for the overflow, he finally bought the somewhat derelict Alcazar, and refurbished it to house his entire collection.

The Lightner Museum courtyard

Lightner galleries

Dining and shopping "in the pool"

The steam bath and toasters

Stuffed birds, a shrunken head, sea-shells, mechanical music devices, Tiffany glass, match-boxes, World’s Fair Display pieces, buttons, Parian ware, Rookwood pottery, hair jewelry, toys: anything that caught his fancy, now fill room after room. It’s all visually intriguing.


At the scheduled 2:00 music room tour, a small but regal, woman of a certain age started up one of the elaborate music boxes, and then grabbed some of the gathered visitors, one after another, in a rollicking two-step. She captivated us all; especially the kids, alternating between owlish mock sternness with heavy pauses, and broad winks as she related marvelous personal asides about the music and customs of her own, long-ago youth. She’s a volunteer with an attitude, and the museum is so lucky to have her! She joked about writing a book and we hope she does.

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