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Historic Florida - Go find it it's still there.

Florida history trail
Sam North
Flagler City AdLots for sale

If you are going to Florida naturally you'll think of visiting Disneyworld, or Seaworld, St. Augustine Alligator World, Barnum and Bailey World, Universal Studios or even the underwater mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. Even if this list doesn't interest you, why not try Parrot Jungle or Cypress Gardens or the rival to St Augustine's attraction, Gator World in Orlando or watch something hurtle into space at Cape Canaveral. Still can't temp you? Excellent.

Then you might very well be the type of person who hates to be 'entertained' when on vacation and want to go to the real Florida. Come with me and let's give Mickey a miss. Weirdly enough, Florida actually provides one of the most cultural destinations in the USA outside of Boston and New York and in both cases in a warmer and more convenient package.

Modern Florida wasn't always thus. The State is a relatively new invention, not really aspiring to anything until after 1890 when Henry Flagler and Henry Plant rivalled each other for supremacy with their competing railroads on the East and West Coasts of Florida. When Flagler discovered St Augustine, the original Spanish settlement, he declared it to be a perfect winter holiday resort, but found nowhere to stay and the surroundings very swampy and infested. In a very short time he built the Ponce De Leon Hotel in the heart of the town - one of the most spectacular, durable and stylish hotels ever built.

Ponce De Leon Hotel

The building, now Flagler College, was the first major poured concrete construction, built to last centuries and in Mediterranean Spanish Renaissance style. The very best artists were brought in and no expense was spared. George Maynard painted the fine murals on the dramatic domed ceiling. Tiffany did the windows! The gardens were elegant and to spare anyone any trouble, private trains could be 'parked' in the sidings specially built for the convenience of hotel guests. The 'season,' January to early March attracted the very best of society and Florida as a 'destination' was begun. The Hotel Ponce De Leon built 1888 is now the excellent Flagler College. Great value for money and a wonderful friendly institution. Henry Plant, seeing the success of Flagler's hotel, responded by building the equally spectacular Tampa Bay Hotel in 1890, serviced by it's own railroad.

Tampa Bay The Hotel looks for all the world like a Russian fantasy building, a cross between the Kremlin and a huge Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Henry Plant didn't really go for any Spanish styles with his hotels. The Gulf coast was still looking for an identity. Competition between the two coasts had begun. It was not enough to build hotels. Alongside the hotels sprang cities and ports and although there was no particular ordinance for it, a Florida 'Mediterranean' style began to take hold. Perhaps only a veneer in many cases, but the idea that Florida would look 'different' to the rest of America began.

The railroads had already pushed south as far as Palm Beach when Miami became a city in 1886 (with a population of 512 people). It would not be far for the railroad to travel the sixty miles to this new and promising city. Florida would now become a cruise destination as well. Flagler, ever building, now topped himself with the amazing Royal Palm Hotel on Miami River (built for speed, it was in a more traditional American Hotel style rather than continuing with the Spanish theme). The brochures were all talking about the 'American Riviera'. The grand opening ball was held on New Year's Eve 1896.

The Astors and Vanderbilts, Sanford's were all guests of Henry Flagler to make sure of its success in society and immediately it opened that January of 1897 it was. The thrust south was encouraged by the terrible winter's of 1894 and 1895, where frost destroyed the orange crops as far south as West Palm Beach - coincidentally the site of Flagler's most ambitious hotel The Breakers, built right on the ocean.
The Breakers Interior

Flagler himself had moved on from St Augustine to his own mansion at Palm Beach just outside the frost region. Around him were also built the Royal Poinciana with 1,150 rooms and Colonel Bradley's Beach Club, the most exclusive gambling club in the US and Palm Beach was then to acquire it's somewhat exclusive reputation. Modern motor racing developed here on the beach and early flying feats were performed here. Whereas Miami became the popular resort, somehow Palm Beach remained uptown and insular. Nevertheless the presence of high society wintering in his hotels also help Flagler's other interests, selling real estate and city, seaside housing developments. In each of the resorts he founded, he built huge towns fed by his own publication the Florida East Coast Homeseeker. These were sold as investments and of course, refuge from the harsh northern winters.

To encourage visitors there was a ACL-FEC Hunting and Fishing Bureau inside the New York ticket office on West 45th street. As demand grew for Florida vacations and homes to purchase, key areas were developed along the Flagler railroad ( the motor vehicle not yet dictating where towns should be located). Daytona beach, Titusville, New Smyrna, Delray Beach, Jacksonville and as far west as Key West (1912) were all earmarked for development. With it, came a demand for employment and development of Florida's key resource, citrus products. Florida Orange juice was being touted all over the USA by the turn of the century and Florida seemed set to become one of the most prosperous regions in all the States. Art colonies grew up, schools and Universities were founded and the rich endowed them willingly for they were retiring to this new state and wanted the cultural life to follow them. The great hotels became the winter playgrounds for vacationers and behind them came the orchestras, restauranteurs, movie theatres, dancehalls, speakeasies as well as designers, artists, musicians. Almost anyone could have a better life down here and no one really needed a brochure to get them there. They couldn't get there fast enough.

Of course Florida was definitely not the place to be in the hot summer and the Florida economy often struggled in July to September prior to air-conditioning becoming widespread. By the 1920' s however, the State was in the grip a fantastic property boom. Cities like Sarasota were being sold in New York and Chicago to people who had no idea that it actually only existed on paper, or that just a few buildings were being constructed. Other places really did only exist on paper and were real estate scams that probably hurt a lot of people. Cities like Aladdin or Garden of Allah, outside Sarasota promoted glamorised versions of fabulous Meditterannean architecture no doubt inspired by a popular film in 1924 'Thief of Baghdad'. Its ads read 'Study the drawing - you can have a Home on Mecca Boulevard'. Lots were sold and resold many times, but no actual houses were ever built. The Marx brothers actually made a film based on the flim-flammery of Florida real-estate brokers called 'Coconuts'.

Sarasota advertised itself to would be punters with posters stating 'No Income Tax or Inheritance Taxes to pay in Florida'. Local promoters did invest. John and Mable Ringling built in the Mediterranean style and they also owned the Ringling Bank which encouraged investment by a new phenonema of 20th century America; the very mobile, car owning, credit-empowered middle classes. People keen to purchase not just a home, but a lifestyle and cities like Sarasota on the Gulf Coast were heavily advertised all over the USA and even in British magazines such as Country Life. They told people that they could buy into a fantasy life of tea dances and romance beside the bougainvillea.

El Verona Sarasota By now there was a consensus, Spanish architecture would dominate the landscape and some pretty spectacular buildings were going up in this style. Would be investors who came south to buy their lots would see the elegant and simple Atlantic Coast Line Passenger Station, (1925). The substantial Sarasota County Courthouse (completed 1927) and the stunning Hotel El Verona which inspired artists all over the USA, not to mention the never completed but ambitious Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Longboat key.

The El Verona was seriously ambitious. Inside the cavernous lobby and restaurants everything was aged to have the appearance of centuries of wear and floor and wall tiles from Mexico gave it a patina of authenticity and cool atmosphere that convinced many people to believe it was a relic of the Spanish Empire. Florida was being moulded into a Spanish country and might have become one but for the disastrous hurricane of 1926 that destroyed Miami.

It heralded a complete collapse of Florida as a popular 'investment' and many boom places were not only not built, but what was there, fell quickly into ruin. Suddenly, what had seemed like paradise on America's doorstep turned very sour indeed and Florida went into a long decline as far as property development was concerned, not generally retrieved until the late thirties. Miami was rebuilt and still attracted inward investment, and it slowly mushroomed as an all-year around retirement resort. Many of the wonderful Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive survived somehow and have been restored over the years. Even if investment could have been stimulated for the rest of the State, the depression saw to it that in Florida it took courage to invest. It would take a generation to forget the land and property price collapse on '26/27.

The Florida that developed during WW2 and after went in a modernist direction, but fortunately, some of what was built by the early State pioneers and visionaries has survived and still influences the way some domestic architecture has progressed. The Spanish look is still in vogue and appropriate to the weather. The City of Coral gables founded by George Merrick (1886-1942) is one such place. Built as a utopian ideal it ignored all the architectural influences of the North which dictated one could only build in the Midwest Prairie School of Architecture and went headlong into Mediterranean Revival, picture-book architecture. There were others of this kind. Miami Shores, Fort Lauderdales's Progresso community, Snell island in St. Petersburg. It was never particularly functional, more expressive architecture. The Mediterranean style flourished from the time Flagler built his Ponce De Leon hotel in St Augustine in 1888 to John Bindley's house (who owned Pittsburgh Steel) on Biscayne Bay in 1917 and later on in the 20's with the Everglades Club. The Moorish style we love now completely faded from vogue with the depression, to be replaced by art-deco and 'modern' styles.

The thirties saw the rise of art-deco and the 'moderne' style continued right through to the 1950's with big building booms in Miami and South Beach Miami in particular, with wonderful eclectic designs. The National Hotel on Collins Avenue typifies this and the Delano Hotel, 1685 Collins Avenue is a very colourful example. These things go in and out of vogue, but right now South Beach is one of the most interesting resort venues in the USA where the main attraction is the art-deco rows of hotels. It is lively and exciting and new buildings will all kinds of influences are going up.

Check this out at the bottom of Collins Avenue and 5th Street. To see just over a century of cultural and architectural development visit Miami this autumn and stay in fabulous places such as The National Hotel on Miami Beach, an art deco classic on 1677 Collins Avenue and take your time to visit these other wonderful places: The News Cafe on Ocean Boulevard, The Penguin Hotel on 14th for a genuine raw art deco hotel and great breakfast go to LINCOLN ROAD (16th Street) for great pan-asian food at PACIFIC TIME or across the way experence British food at BALLANS or go native at VAN DYKES, about the only place serving decent wine. Better yet, walk to the end and find the state of the art cinema with around 12 screens. (Look out for the flea market on weekends and some wierd and wonderful stuff on sale.

The Florida without a Mouse guide recommends: The Art Museum & The FIU School of Architecture University Park Campus PC 110 SW 107th St. Miami, Bass Museum of Art 2121 Park Avenue, Miami Wolfsonian & Florida International University 1001 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach. Miami Art Museum & Historical Museum 101 West Flagler Street, Miami Ambrosino Gallery Contemporary Art 3095 SW 39th Avenue, Miami

And a side trip: Visit the Ponce de Leon Hotel-St Augustine (now Flagler College) and stroll along St. George Street for the simple pleasure of tasting what Florida could have been like if it was still a colony of Spain. Go find Backstreet Coffee Bar. It's off Cordova somewhere. Best time to visit Florida is October - check for Hurricanes before you go.

Sam North Sam on South Beach before Hurricane Irene
© Sam North 2022 (updated from 2000)
Author of Another Place to Die: Endtime Chronicles and more
The Sam North Novels

See also Florida Hurricanes - Irene

Miami - The How and Why of this city

For current updates on hotels, weather, resorts, and all Florida info

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