// by Kara Pound
A lot was going on in the mid-1960s that helped save the Ponce de Leon Hotel from destruction. In 1963, Florida celebrated its 450th Anniversary. In 1965, the City of St. Augustine turned 400 years old. And in 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act was passed to help protect historical and archaeological sites and structures around the country.
This, as it turns out, was all very good news for the opulent hotel building that railroad magnate Henry Flagler built in 1888 as a winter playground for wealthy Northerners vacationing in the Sunshine State. The Ponce was also the first project completed by New York City architects John Carrère and Thomas Hastings.
“Essentially, you had a building that was a former Gilded Age hotel in an era when no one wanted Gilded Age hotels,” says Dr. Leslee Keys, director of historic preservation and special unitiatives and assistant professor of history at Flagler College. “Post-World War II, everybody wanted Holiday Inns; drive your car right up to the parking area and stay somewhere modern, contemporary, clean and sleek.”
Flagler’s great nephew, Lawrence Lewis Jr., was put in charge of the family’s holdings and saw the writing on the wall. While the building was a grand architectural gem, the hotel operation was struggling. Lewis was on vacation in Palm Beach when he met members of the Carlson family, who worked in higher education and had previously established Mount Ida College near Boston.
Lewis and the Carlsons decided that Florida was in need of an all-female college and the Ponce de Leon Hotel would be a fine home—with its 40 decorative brick chimneys, 79 Louis Tiffany stained glass windows and electricity plant designed by Thomas Edison.
“They announced in early 1967 that the Ponce would become the headquarters for the new Flagler College,” says Keys. “They did a final spring gala to close down the resort season in April of 1967, which was also a scholarship benefit for the new female students who would be coming, and opened the doors to the college in the fall of 1968.”
The transition from Spanish Renaissance-style luxury hotel to liberal arts college was one of little fanfare and minimal construction. Students lived in the hotel rooms with the same furnishing, curtains and wallpaper that wealthy guests once enjoyed. They were even offered maid service at an additional cost.
“Some of the faculty lived in the building, as well,” says Keys, who authored the 2015 book, Hotel Ponce de Leon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Flagler’s Gilded Age Palace. “Classes were held there or at Markland House. The dining hall was the dining hall. The library was the solarium. They basically went in and occupied the space that had been occupied otherwise.”
The original student body was comprised of approximately 160 young women. Dr. Beverly Copeland Carmichael, who attended from 1968 to 1972 and earned a Bachelor of Art in Physical Education, was among them.
“Most classes were very small, between 10 and 12 students,” Carmichael remembers. “Everyone knew one another—students, faculty and staff. There were seven classrooms and one lecture hall. We had plenty of space in our rooms, unlike dorm rooms at other colleges. However, the hotel was run-down and we called it ‘shabby chic.’”
Carmichael, who went on to earn masters and doctoral degrees in education from George Washington University, has since returned to St. Augustine and Flagler College where she serves as the school’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement.
“I love being back,” she says. “The transformation is remarkable. We’ve gone from 160 students to 2,500 and two buildings to 32. The historic buildings have been beautifully restored to their original elegance and the campus is also beautifully landscaped now. We even have a parking garage.”
Anyone who lives in St. Augustine or visits the Nation’s Oldest City often has no doubt noticed a steady growth of the Flagler College campus with the former Hotel Ponce de Leon as the anchor. Once a lavish resort that saw the likes of author Sinclair Lewis, actor Will Rogers and presidents Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and William McKinley, the institution has become regarded as a top destination in the Southeast for higher education.
“It’s hard to separate Flagler College from the Hotel Ponce de Leon,” says Keys. “There are so many people who love the building and the building wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the fact that it worked as a college.”