|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.
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
|The veranda walks are as they were 120 years ago.|
|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.
|Villa Ospo, fireplace mantle. The Jekyll Island Authority oversees the entire island and has its offices at Villa Ospo.|
|Built in 1904 of Tidewater Red cypress shingles, Faith Chapel is a popular wedding tableaux.||Inside Faith Chapel, a signed Louis C. Tiffany window.|
|If weary of the architecture, there are a few other diversions.|
|The Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine|
|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.
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|