Skilled workmen from the United States and Europe
labored to create the Ponce de Leon Hotel, beginning in 1885. The
hotel with its massive twin towers was constructed in Spanish
Renaissance style, with windows created by Louis Comfort Tiffany
and the interior 540 guest rooms designed by Bernard Maybeck. When
the Ponce de Leon opened on January 10, 1888, America’s
wealthy elite rushed to see the red-tiled roofs, magnificent
gardens, and lavish dining room. At night, the electrical lights
powered by the hotel’s generator created a glowing wonderland
that attracted visitors from far and wide. To help accommodate the
over-flow crowd from his main hotel, Flagler constructed the
Alcazar Hotel, featuring elaborate steam rooms, one of the largest
indoor swimming pools in the world, and a bowling alley. Flagler
bought Franklin W. Smith's Casa Monica Hotel, which was across the
street from the Ponce de Leon, and renamed it the Cordova. By 1889,
Flagler owned three of the country’s most impressive hotels.
Flagler also built a railroad bridge across the river, linking St.
Augustine all the way to New York.
In order to build his resort, Flagler funded the
construction of replacement churches for the ones he demolished
with his projects. He financed Grace Methodist Church and Memorial
Presbyterian Church, a modern hospital and the City Building. The
population of St. Augustine soon doubled, and improvements in
street paving, law enforcement, and fire protection had to be
expanded through increased taxes. Faced with the realities of an
economic depression and competition from other resorts, St.
Augustine saw fewer and fewer visitors. Although St.
Augustine’s Flagler Era had begun to fade as soon as the
trains began taking winter visitors to more southern destinations,
it permanently ended on May 20, 1913 when Henry Flagler died in
When fighting broke out in Europe in 1914, news
stories about the horrendous casualties on the Western Front seemed
unrelated to life in the Oldest City. With European resorts closed
by the fighting, St. Augustine soon received enough royalty and
millionaires to revive all of the attractions that had proved so
popular twenty years earlier. By mid-1917, the economic benefits of
the war paled in comparison to the loss of America lives. Young men
from St. Augustine were drafted or volunteered and the local
National Guard units were mobilized. After their arrival in France,
letters home described the terrible fighting and the people of St.
Augustine became vitally interested in the war that had once seemed
so far away. Many residents responded by buying Liberty Bonds,
contributing to Red Cross programs and coping with food shortages.
When the armistice final arrived, the St. Augustine Record reported
that the city “went wild with patriotic
In 1914, despite the distractions of “the War
to End All Wars,” St. Augustine embarked on an improvement
program that would be long-referred to as the “decade of
progress”. A huge fire that year destroyed much of the area
just north of the plaza, and the city began rebuilding after
replacing horse-drawn fire pumps with the very latest motorized
fire engines. In 1915, local leaders approved funding for the
paving of 64 miles of roadways throughout St. Johns County.
Inspired by the success of their road and the rapidly growing
number of automobiles on the roads, St. Augustine’s managers
embarked on their first promotional program designed to attract
automobile-owning families to the city and its beaches for a
summer-long vacation. A paving program for city streets was
conducted and gas street lamps illuminated the city's districts.
St. Augustine's fishing fleet continued to grow, and a new city ice
plant allowed the catch to be transported. Water and sewer systems
were upgraded, electricity came into widespread use and the
telephone system was expanded to include hotel rooms throughout St.
In 1925, developers D. P. Davis turned his
attention to St. Augustine and revealed his ambitious plans for
using the same dredging techniques he had mastered in Tampa to
develop the marshy swamp at the end of Anastasia Island – an
area clearly visible from downtown St. Augustine. Although Davis
Shores was a major failure in the 1920s, it was revived thirty
years later and now exists as one of the city’s most popular
residential areas. Davis’ project was also largely
responsible for the beautiful Bridge of Lions, completed in 1927 to
provide easy access between the downtown area and the upscale homes
that were expected to be built at Davis Shores.
During the Depression, St. Augustine's residents
simply decided to work together until better days arrived. Fishing
remained both a viable industry and a way to supplement the
family’s diet during hard times. Flagler’s Florida East
Coast Railroad continued to provide steady employment. With
coordination and support from local churches, various organizations
devoted to helping out during difficult times were quickly
organized. The main Visitor Information Center at the intersection
of Avenida Menendez and Castillo Drive was constructed as a civic
center as part of the Works Progress Administration – a
massive public works program designed to create jobs and make
improvements to American communities. The same program also
provided for significant improvements to the Government House.