Studios & Architecture

Planning and Painting in Paradise: The Art and Architecture of the Hotel Ponce de Leon

Henry Flagler, co-founder with John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, built his Spanish Renaissance Revival styled Hotel Ponce de Leon to cater to sophisticated and discerning Northerners and Europeans who expected the finest accommodations, conveniences, and entertainment.  Opened in 1888, the building gained immediate acclaim, providing a winter haven comparable in quality to the summer resorts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

The building was the first architectural commission for young New York architects John Merven Carrere and Thomas Hastings who went on to design more than 600 buildings including their most recognized work, the New York Public Library.  Assisting them were Bernard Maybeck and Emmanuel Masqueray with whom they attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts. In addition, the hotel interiors exhibited the works of some of the nation’s most preeminent artisans and craftsmen with whom the architects were familiar.  Interior design and decoration were the responsibilities of artists Louis Comfort Tiffany, Herman Schladermundt, Maitland Armstrong, George Willoughby Maynard and Virgilio Tojetti.  Complementing their efforts were works of art featured throughout the hotel, with most of the works exhibited in the Grand Parlor.

The Artist Studios stood as the northernmost building in the hotel complex.  The simply-designed, two-story, hipped roofed building housed seven salons for visiting artists on the upper floor.  A gallery ran along the north side of the building with the roof supported by palm tree trunks, adding to the tropical character of the building.  The gallery provided visitors’ access to each of the studios.

Each salon contained a corner fireplace with a tiled hearth, a large skylight set in the north facing angled roof, wood paneled wainscoting, and a supply closet covered in board and batten siding.  Windows trimmed with nautical rope and canvas fabric on the walls reinforced the hotel’s nautical theme.  A series of interior doors connected adjoining studios.

The artists hosted receptions in their studios on Friday evenings, a time for guests and patrons to admire their works and, hopefully for the artists, purchase a painting or two.  Artists included Frank Shapleigh, Charlotte Buell Coman, Marie a Becket, William Staples Drown, Felix de Crano and Marion Foster, among many others.  George Washington Seavey, brother of the hotel’s general manager Osborn Dunlap Seavey, also painted in one of the salons.

Artist Martin Johnson Heade had become enamored with St. Augustine in January 1883 upon his first visit to Florida and reported to Field and Stream, “‘I have wandered, in an unsatisfactory sort of way, nearly all over the State without finding a spot where I cared to stop until I reached St. Augustine, and that I find a fascinating, quaint old place,…’”  Heade was the most well-known of the Hotel artists and the first to receive national acclaim.

In 1886 Flagler commissioned large paintings for the Rotunda of his Hotel Ponce de Leon, The Great Florida Sunset and View from Fern-Tree Walk, Jamaica, Heade’s largest works.  Heade became one of the first two artists-in-residence in the Artist Studios building and received the favored west location with two windows overlooking the broad lawn.  Heade and his wife often hosted guests and fellow artists in his studio, and as a result, his studio No. 7 became one of the most favored of the city’s social scenes.

Heade painted Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth, c. 1885-1895. In 1986 the work was gifted to the National Gallery of Art.  In addition, his works are exhibited in the White House as well as numerous galleries and museums.  He, along with other artists, built on St. Augustine’s early reputation as an artist colony, establishing the city’s role nationally.  Absent Heade’s paintings, many of the Ponce artists’ works continue to hang in the former Hotel Ponce de Leon.

When Flagler College was founded in 1968, the hotel complex, along with the Artists’ Studios, transitioned to being used for classrooms and offices.  After a major adaptive use renovation in 2007, the Artists’ Studios and adjacent Edison Boiler Building became the Molly Wiley Art Building.  The award-winning project retained the important architectural features of the studios, including Heade’s No. 7.

In 2009 Flagler College and the University of Florida embarked on a collaborative project to conserve and digitize a group of more than 200 blueprints, diazotypes, and drawings created for the Hotel Ponce de Leon from the 1880s-1920s by the Beaux-Arts architecture firm of John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings.  This project was supported through a “Save America’s Treasures” grant administered by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Authors: Leslee Keys, Ph.D. Candidate, Instructor in History and Director of Community Outreach for Public History, Department of Humanities; Thomas Graham, Professor Emeritus

Sources:  Thomas Graham, The Awakening of St. Augustine (St. Augustine:  St. Augustine Historical Society, 1978), 194-95; Roberta Favis, Martin Johnson Heade in Florida.  (Gainesville:  University Presses of Florida, 2003), 56-57, 115; Leslee F. Keys, forthcoming dissertation on Preservation of the Hotel Ponce de Leon.

This exhibition was made possible with funds provided by the Dr. JoAnn Crisp-Ellert Fund from the Community Foundation in Jacksonville. 

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