Monday, August 3, 2009

Prelude to Palm Beach

Looking north across the croquet court from William Rockefeller’s Indian Mound Cottage, the Jekyll Island Cub’s south elevation reflects the building’s design history from the Victorian era’s Queen Anne fortress-like turret to the early-20th-century attached multi-story members' apartments.
The Jekyll Island Club & Hotel Ponce de Leon
By Augustus Mayhew

With Palm Beach's presence firmly set as a 24-karat destination among the world’s Who’s Who, it seems improbable that the socially savvy could have ever cut loose anywhere else. Nonetheless, more than a century ago, years before Palm Beach became a rendezvous for cakewalks, cotillions and committee meetings, Gilded Age grandees settled into the exclusive Jekyll Island Club and St. Augustine’s fashionable Hotel Ponce de Leon.

After the Civil War, the first thing many wealthy Northerners fancied, who were not sailing down the Nile or wintering on the Mediterranean, was heading South for the winter. In the early 1880s, Thomas Carnegie purchased land on Cumberland Island along the south Georgia coast, eventually owning 90 percent of the island.

Thomas with Andrew Carnegie, age 16.
A few years later, just to the north of Carnegie's Cumberland Island, fifty-three members of New York’s Union Club and their friends acquired the 5700-acre Jekyll Island, opening in January 1888 what became known as the “world’s richest, most exclusive and most inaccessible enclave."

The following year, Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler opened the resplendent Hotel Ponce de Leon. Today, the Jekyll Island Club is a public hotel within a state park, the Ponce de Leon is a private college and Palm Beach prevails as an ultimate escape for platinum pleasures.

Fortunately, because the popularity of these bygone resorts was short-lived, they have retained much of their defining architectural fabric whereas much of Palm Beach's original charm has eroded, the legendary Royal Poinciana Hotel was supplanted with a shopping center and condominium, many of the magnificent estates were carved up into subdivisions, Royal Palm Way was lined with towering office buildings and the town's oceanside and lakefront have been dressed up with condominiums.

So, if you've had your yellow fever and malaria shots and packed your mosquito netting, join NYSD for a virtual look at life before Palm Beach, a visit to the Jekyll Island Club and then, two hours south, the Hotel Ponce de Leon, located in the heart of St. Augustine, the "Ancient City."

The Jekyll Island Club
Before the hotel and the villas come into view, the island's sensational towering oak canopies are as much a part of the island's original landscape as its historic architecture.
Built during the height of the Gilded Age's private club era, the Jekyll Island Club was formed by members of New York’s Union Club and their friends, who reportedly controlled as much as one-fifth of the country’s wealth, including William K. Vanderbilt, Pierre Lorillard, J. P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, Marshall Field and William Rockefeller.
A view from the river towards the dining room and veranda. After purchasing the island for $125,000 and incorporating it as a hunting and recreational club, the club hired Charles A. Alexander, a Chicago architect, and William Horace Shaler, a landscape architect, to design their private retreat. Ground was broken in mid-August 1886 and officially opened in January 1888.
Built in 1901, the multi-story southeast wing featured eight members' apartments on the first two floors, above them, the floor was reserved for guest rooms and staff quarters were assigned to the fourth floor.
The lobby retains the club's original intimate scale and details. Becoming a club member was never easy, as new members were either family members or close business associates. Never intended as an exclusive male preserve, the first woman became a member in 1893 and by the 1930s more than 25% of the members were women.
A view of the club's main staircase from the bar looking towards the dining room. J. P. Morgan Jr. was president during the 1930s. The Club operated from January-April from 1888 to 1942, later purchased by the State of Georgia and turned into a state park. The causeway to the island was completed in 1951. The state leased the facility to a hotel operator from the mid-1950s until the 1970s. It reopened in its present condition in 1986.
A view from the lobby overlooking the pool and the Jekyll River beyond. The veranda walks are as they were 120 years ago.
Pierre Lorillard with his dog. Mr. Lorillard traveled with his dogs and horses. His yacht towed an auxiliary two-story boat equipped with stables and kennels, thus arriving at Jekyll Island ready for the hunt.
At night, the hotel takes on a timeless aura. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978, the hotel's quiet ambience is enhanced by banning automobiles within the historic district.
The hotel's staff are top-knotch.
Several years ago my mother and I celebrated her 80th birthday in the hotel's dining room.
The mirror overmantel in the dining room reflects the rows of Ionic columns.
The dining room's fireplace is one of 93 fireplaces found in the main hotel buildings.
The Jekyll Island Cottages

From 1888 to 1928 club members built fourteen cottages on either side of the hotel to the north and south along the river and Old Plantation Road, designed in step with the club's prevailing aesthetic, simplicity. The early buildings were Victorian-inspired, Queen Anne, Beaux Arts and Shingle styles; later cottages were embellished with Italian Renaissance and Spanish styles. The architects were the nation’s best known; for the most part, their work remains nearly intact, among them, David Adler, Charles Alling Gifford, John Russell Pope, and Carrère and Hastings. In 1896, the Sans Souci, a complex of six apartments, was built for club members, among them, William Rockefeller, who also owned a cottage, and J. P. Morgan.

My cottage tour guide was John Hunter, director of the Jekyll Island Historic Museum, which what the entire area around the river that includes the hotel and cottages is called, who opened doors and turned on lights in places customarily closed and dark.
I met John Hunter, director of the Jekyll Island Historic District Museum, at his office in Villa Ospo, the John Russell Pope designed villa at the district's north end. Villa Ospo, fireplace mantle. The Jekyll Island Authority oversees the entire island and has its offices at Villa Ospo.
Designed in a Spanish-Italian eclectic style in 1927 by John Russell Pope, Villa Ospo was built for Walter Jennings of New York, club president from 1927 to 1933. Ospo was the first name given to Jekyll Island by the earliest Indian settlers.
In the United States, it often seems every historic area has a haunted house, historic preservation can be scary, and on Jekyll Island, Hollybourne Cottage enjoys that reputation. Built in 1890 facing the river by Charles Stewart Maurice, the house was owned by the only family to be associated with the Jekyll Island Club from its inception to its end in 1948. It was the only house built with island tabby and remains the only house yet to be renovated.
Hollybourne Cottage's once magnificent interior is undergoing a slow restoration, as state funds become available.
Located across from Hollyboure Cottage, Villa Marianna was built in 1928 by Frank Miller Gould.
Built in the Italian Renaissance style, c. 1904, Cherokee Cottage was built for Dr. & Mrs. G. F. Shrady of NYC by their son-in-law, Edwin Gould. It was believed to be designed by Carrere and Hastings who during the same period designed the nearby Goodyear Cottage.
In 1924 the Architectural Record described Crane Cottage as "the most expensive and elegant winter home ever built at Jekyll." Built in 1916 for Richard Teller Crane, Jr., the house was designed by Chicago architects David Adler and Henry C. Dangler.
Enjoying dinner in the Crane House, where the downstairs living areas are converted into dining rooms, are Dr. Mark Talley and his two sons, of Chattanooga.
In addition to the members' fourteen cottages and villas, the historic district includes the DuBignon Cottage. John Eugene DuBignon, along with his brother-in-law, Newton Finney, sold the island as a huntsman's paradise to the Union Club members and their friends. With his new fortune, Mr. DuBignon moved off the island and the cottage became the club superintendent's house.
Built in 1904 of Tidewater Red cypress shingles, Faith Chapel is a popular wedding tableaux. Inside Faith Chapel, a signed Louis C. Tiffany window.
Designed by Charles Alling Gifford and built in 1896, a six -apartment complex was known as Sans Souci.
Sans Souci also became known as the "House of Power."
First commissioned for Gordon McKay in 1892, Indian Mound Cottage was later sold to William Rockefeller, who expanded the house into a 25-room mansion.
When the State of Georgia took over Jekyll Island in 1947, Indian Mound Cottage was the first to be renovated. Sixty years later, it appears the day I visited, renovations are continuing.
Inside, the former Rockefeller Cottage was in the midst of a touch up.
Built facing the river and next door to Indian Mound, the Goodyear Cottage was built in for Frank Goodyear, a Buffalo, NY industrialist, by Carrére and Hastings. The Jekyll Island Arts Association is now housed in the building.
If weary of the architecture, there are a few other diversions.
Built in 1900 for Henry Kirke Porter, a locomotive manufacturer, Mistletoe Cottage was a Dutch Revival-style cottage.

The Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine
A view standing in the center of the hotel's rotunda, looking up into its decorative ornamental cupola. After Henry Flagler died in Palm Beach at Nautilus cottage on the grounds at The Breakers, he was brought to St. Augustine where he lay in state in the rotunda beneath the cupola.
However much the New York Evening Post hailed the Hotel Ponce de Leon in 1888 as "finest piece of hotel architecture in this country," it still seems hard to believe that St. Augustine, now for the most part a weekend tourist town, was ever regarded as the "Winter Newport." But then, Henry Flagler's flagship 450-room Spanish Renaissance resort was Florida's first luxury hotel where presidents, royalty and Social Register families checked-in for a season of palatial pleasures.

Construction began in 1885 and three years later when the hotel opened, its fledgling architects, John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, were credited with revolutionizing hotel construction and design, having formulated a resort from a purely artistic point of view. Built for $2.5 million with coquina concrete walls, salmon bricks and terracotta detailing, Flagler hired McGuire and McDonald, as contractors, Louis C. Tiffany, then known as a painter, to oversee the interiors and design the stained glass windows in the Dining Room and Rotunda, decorative artist George Maynard to grace the walls with murals and frescoes; Virgillo Tojetti to paint the Dining Room and Grand Parlor ceilings and the interior design firm of Pottier and Stymus to supply the furnishings.
A c. 1885 sketch for the Hotel Ponce de Leon by Carrere and Hastings.
A c. 1886 construction photo of the hotel showing the dining room's semi-circular east elevation. The hotel’s construction and interior were supervised by architect Bernard Maybeck who worked for Carrere and Hastings.
The Hotel Ponce de Leon, c. 1900.
Seen here in 2009, the Hotel Ponce de Leon has been known as Flagler College since 1968.
Henry Flagler was Carrere and Hastings first major client; the Hotel Ponce de Leon, the firm's first major commission.
Standing guard at the entrance, Henry Flagler's statue.
The hotel dining room, as it looked and as it pretty much looks today. The oval-shaped multi-story room fitted with Tiffany glass clerestory windows featured a musician's gallery. Because it is now the college's student dining room, I was ushered out by a security guard when I attempted to take a photo of the dining room today.
The 150-foot square courtyard features a frog-and-turtle fountain with a geometric mosaic centerpiece shaped like a sword. The hotel's northwest tower adds to the hotel's picturesque quality.
The Parlor featured elaborate ceiling plasterwork of interwoven medallions.
Tiffany windows, located above east lobby stairs. When I attempted to photograph the windows from a few steps higher, I was removed by a security guard. Tiffany windows, located above west lobby stairs.
Designed with an ornamental non-structural cupola, the lobby's four-story Rotunda was the crossing point between the hotel's private and public spaces. While the hotel was powered by electricity, initially the rotunda was lit by a gas beacon in a cupola lantern shone through a glass panel. The lobby's lion's head electric lights were added in 1893. Set amidst the four stages of Spanish exploration , Maynard's female figures were painted and gilded representing the four elements crowned with a decorative gold-and-white dome in the Louis XVI style.
Muralist George Maynard depicted an artistic history of Spanish exploration on the lobby ceiling.
Iron-rod supports were hidden within the eight carved oak caryatids; their design credited to Thomas Hastings who said he was inspired by Spanish dancers. The courtyard is a showcase for elaborated terracotta artworks.
A lobby statue lamp, one of 4,100 electric lights powered by four of the hotel's Edison dynamos engineered and installed by Thomas Edison's manufacturing company.
For all of Palm Beach's luxuries and privileges, its exclusiveness, larger-than-life personalities, and grandest houses, it has lost the sense of place that is still expressed among the ensemble of buildings that make up the Jekyll Island Club's historic district. Certainly, when Flagler placed the Royal Poinciana Hotel along the lakefront, he traced the Jekyll Island Club's similar riverfront footprint. But, while Palm Beach opted to replace its unique history, the Jekyll Island Club remains virtually untouched from when Union Club members first arrived on the island. And, thanks to Henry Flagler's perseverance and his selection of craftsmen, his St. Augustine hotel's artistry is unrivalled more than a century later, even by today's Palm Beach standards where with almost all the money in the world there is still hardly a building comparable to the consummate aesthetic that endures at the Hotel Ponce de Leon.
Floor mosaic. The welcome mat remains in place in the lobby at Henry Flagler's Hotel Ponce de Leon.
If you go:

The Jekyll Island Club Hotel, 371 Riverview Drive, Jekyll Island, GA 31527. 800-535-9547, 912-635-2600.

The Hotel Ponce de Leon, Flagler College, 74 King Street, St. Augustine, FL, 32085. 904-829-6481. Flagler College is National Historical Landmark. Open daily between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew; Historic photographs courtesy of Library of Congress.

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