The mention of the words Standard Oil tends to bring to mind the straight-backed silhouette of a certain Rockefeller, but many Americans don’t realize his position at the oil corporation was actually co-founder. The other member of that exclusive managerial team was Henry Flagler. Though lesser known than his partner, Flagler too earned inestimable fortunes from his involvement in Standard Oil and chose to invest them in a remote, fantasied part of the country called Florida.
In the late 1870’s, his wife ailing and business self-perpetuating, Flagler took the advice of his family’s physicians and ventured south to Florida. Upon arrival, Flagler was enchanted by the warm climate and ceaseless sunshine but thoroughly disappointed by the lack of development in the state. At that time, Jacksonville, near the Georgia line, was the only accessible part of the state. Following his wife’s death in 1881, Flagler returned to Florida, this time as a honeymoon with his second wife. By this time, the state was slightly more developed, roads reaching as far southward as St. Augustine, but once again Flagler was disheartened by the shabby evolution of the city, the hotels and transportation veering far from his millionaire standards.
Instead of returning begrudgingly to the cold but modernized North, Flagler followed his intuition. The magnate’s mind had already led him to millions, and this time it led him to an architectural fantasy the likes of which the South had never seen.
Flagler set to work in transforming the barren but paradisiacal St. Augustine into the playground of his nouveau riche and Northern counterparts. Flagler befriended another hotel baron, Franklin W. Smith, whose own Villa Zorayda defined the luxury landscape in the small town. Flagler encouraged Smith to invest with him and build an empire together, beginning with his grand dream of the Ponce de Leon Hotel. Smith refused Flagler’s partnership but did offer to assist in training the crews he hired to build his hotel. It’s safe to bet that Smith never regretted his decision to watch from the sidelines as Flagler constructed his 540-room dream—and spent several times the estimate he originally proposed to Smith. Regardless of the price tag, Flagler proudly unveiled the Ponce de Leon Hotel in January of 1888. The magnificent structure immediately became the star of the Floridian vacation scene for wandering Yankees.
Encouraged by his early success, Flagler immediately expanded his Southern enterprises. Even as Ponce de Leon Hotel was opening, Flagler already had employees hard at work on a sister hotel, the Alcazar, across the street, as well as plans to purchase the nearby Casa Monica Hotel and rebrand it under the name The Cordova. And as his wealthy cronies began flocking to their new Southern respite, Flagler was combatting another problem as it developed. With an influx of tourists, Flagler found that he needed to provide transportation for newcomers. And so, like the innovative go-getter that he was, Flagler began developing the Florida East Coast Railroad. What began as a track to take visitors to his hotel empire was eventually extended by Flagler all the way down the coast of Florida.
Flagler didn’t just stop at hotels and railroads: entire communities rose at the wave of his hand. Churches, hospitals, grand homes for business officers, and entire neighborhoods for hotel employees—Flagler oversaw the construction of them all. With a touch like Midas, Flagler transformed St. Augustine from sleepy seaside town to booming tourist destination.
Flagler, distracted by his booming railroad company, followed the steam of his trains southward, leaving his newly developed city to fend for itself—which it did just fine. The resplendent edifices Flagler created for his affluent friends are today used for less polarizing purposes. No longer will you find ladies and gentlemen lounging in their best suits on marble verandas, but you will find a different, and more wholly American, crowd: students strolling along the walkways of Flagler College (the former Ponce de Leon), children gazing with awe at exhibits in the Lightner Museum (in the former Alcazar), and even simple Floridians going to pay their taxes at the City Hall Complex (also in the former Alcazar). So, although Flagler’s dreams of a tropical oasis for the rich did not last, the structures he built to house them did—and will continue to define the landscape of St. Augustine for years to come.
See More Photos of Flagler and Saint Augustine Here