Grand Hotels from Florida’s Gilded Age
Industrial tycoons and visionaries transformed Florida’s frontier into luxurious playgrounds for the rich.
If you build it, they will come. That’s precisely what happened with a handful of visionaries during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century and Florida’s land boom from 1920 to 1925. Men who contributed to the building of modern America, embarked on their own missions to draw the leisurely wealthy of the frozen north to exotic sub-tropical playgrounds in Florida.
During the late 19th century, while the wheels of industry turned and economic prosperity grew in northern states, Florida was still a backwater with some populated areas carved out of its mangroves and swampland. These visionaries saw Florida’s pristine beaches and balmy breezes as a golden opportunity to build tourist destinations for the rich and famous. Build it they did, and the tourists came.
Today, snowbirds continue their seasonal migration to Florida’s sunny shores. Some enjoy stays at grand hotels, iconic symbols of Florida’s past. They remind us of a more genteel time when railroads and tourism began to flourish. The groundwork laid, Florida transformed from a frontier to one of the nation’s top economies.
East Coast Visionary, Henry Morrison Flagler
What made Florida the go-to state for the rich and famous started with industrialist and railroad magnate, Henry Flagler. In 1878, he brought his new wife to Florida, spending the winter on St. Augustine’s sunny beaches. Like sirens to a sailor, Florida’s balmy breezes beckoned Flagler’s return in 1885. This time, he envisioned the wild Florida coast as a top tourist destination, a playground for the wealthy. He would build a railway system along Florida’s east coast to transport construction materials and tourists, a railway that eventually extended to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States.
Enjoying the historical character of St. Augustine, Flagler began to build the first of several Florida landmark hotels. He would build a hotel like none other in Florida, magnificent and luxurious. Flagler built the 540-room Hotel Ponce de Leon that opened in January of 1888 with a three-day celebration. Well-heeled patrons could travel in style aboard his Florida themed train cars and stay at his lavish resort; it became an instant hit. The Ponce de Leon was followed by th
Today, the Ponce de Leon serves as Flagler College, and the Alcazar houses the Lightner Museum and St. Augustine City Hall. The Casa Monica hotel still serves its original purpose and is one of the oldest hotels in the United States. One can enjoy its frescoes, tapestries, and fountains, and marvel at its Moorish Revival and Spanish Baroque Revival architectural style.
In 1894, Flagler opened his crown jewel, the Royal Poinciana, on Lake Worth in Palm Beach, making the location a magnet for the rich and famous. The opulent hotel was so successful it was enlarged twice to serve 2,000 guests comfortably. He then constructed a less formal oceanfront hotel, The Breakers, allowing beach access for Royal Poinciana guests. By the end of the gilded age, the Royal Poinciana fell into hard times and, during the Great Depression, was torn down.
The Breakers was expanded to accommodate guest requests for rooms “over by the breakers.” A virtual who’s who list of high society frequently stayed for many seasons. The hotel burned down three times during its history when finally, a decision was made to reconstruct using concrete instead of wood. The Breakers reopened in 1926 with its architecture modeled after the opulent Villa Medici in Rome, requiring 75 artisans from Italy to complete intricate paintings in the lobby and other public places. The Breakers popularity grew, drawing personalities like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, presidents, and European aristocracy. Today, The Breakers is a feast for the eyes and far grander than its predecessors, earning a world-class reputation for quality and service.
West Coast Genius, Henry Bradley Plant
The same time Flagler built his railroad on the east coast of Florida with a vision for drawing tourists to his grand hotels, another industrialist with transportation interest, Henry Plant, had the same idea for Florida’s west coast. He built and acquired several hotels, but it was the Tampa Bay Hotel he constructed from 1888 to 1891 that was his crowning achievement. A quarter-mile long and covering six acres, The Tampa Bay Hotel was the first in Florida to have an elevator, still in operation today. It also was first in Florida to have electric lights and telephones.
In its heyday from 1891 up to 1930, thousands of guests, including hundreds of celebrities, enjoyed staying at the exotic Moorish revival themed hotel. The Great Depression severely affected tourism and the hotel shut its doors in 1930. The Tampa Bay Hotel has since been revitalized to its original state and is now a part of the University of Tampa with one wing dedicated to the Henry B. Plant Museum.
Society Architect, Addison Mizner
As the Gilded Age ended, Florida’s land boom of the 1920s quickly took off, thanks to the transportation networks set up by Flagler and Plant. The explosive growth in Florida saw cheap land, a flourishing middle class, and better-paying jobs with benefits, among other things. The new era brought fresh architectural design blood to Florida.
Enter Addison Mizner, famed resort architect with his own Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival style. He came to Palm Beach, Florida, to convalesce from ill-health. He loved Florida’s semi-tropical climate so much that he made it his home. Mizner saw Palm Beach’s wooden architecture was better suited for northern climates and had his own ideas for improving structures using stone, tile, and stucco. Mizner’s Mediterranean Revival creations drew the attention of wealthy clients. His Florida style was unique with old-world elegance, which flew in the face of modern style at the time.
Having many commissions under his belt, he embarked on his most ambitious project, building the Boca Raton resort in 1925. However, the Florida land boom collapsed in 1925, and he decided to build a smaller 100-room hotel, The Cloister Inn, modeled after a Spanish castle. The hotel was an architectural and design marvel to which a critic asked, “What … could make forms of wood, or stone, or stucco so beautiful that they trouble the imagination?” The Cloister Inn opened in 1926 and has been renovated and expanded over the years and is now a wing of the Boca Raton Resort & Club, a premier destination and private club.
Miami, the Tourist Mecca
Also riding the crest of the Florida land boom were John McEntee Bowman and George Merrick. The two partnered in 1925 to build “a great hotel … which would not only serve as a hostelry to the crowds which were thronging to Coral Gables but also would serve as a center of sports and fashion.” Ten months later, the luxurious Miami Biltmore Hotel opened with its 315-foot medieval Seville inspired tower.
Celebrities became frequent guests; even Franklin D. Roosevelt had a temporary White House office set up when he visited. The 1926 hurricane nearly destroyed Miami and signaled the end of the Florida land boom. The hotel was undamaged and sheltered 2,000 survivors. The Biltmore saw many changes over the years until 1983, when the City of Coral Gables oversaw its full restoration as a grand hotel. In 1987, The Biltmore hotel reopened as a first-class hotel and resort destination.
A Renaissance in St. Pete
Another Florida land boom tycoon was Aymer Vinoy Laughner. He constructed the Vinoy Hotel in 1925, which took ten months to complete. Set on the bayfront area of downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, it overlooks the Vinoy Yacht Basin. A stunning hotel built in the Mediterranean Revival style, The Vinoy saw its share of the rich and famous over the years. But by the end of the 1960s, fell out of favor and into disrepair, and sat vacant for decades. In the early 1990s, The Vinoy was revived and renovated, earning AAA Four-Diamond status in 2005.
Header Photo of The Breakers Main Lobby. Courtesy of The Breakers Palm Beach.