Unknown Pleasures


The Art and Architecture of the Hotel Ponce de L

Exhibit runs Jan. 11-Feb. 22; an opening reception is held 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Jan. 12

Roberta Favis, Stetson University art history professor, discusses the collection 7 p.m. Feb. 5 in Crisp-Ellert Art Museum’s Flagler Room, Flagler College, 48 Sevilla St., St. A

819-6282, flagler.edu/crisp

Sometimes, the best friend an art lover can have may just be good old serendipity and even dumb luck.

On Jan. 11, the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum debuts a collection of rare architectural drawings and fine art pieces originally created more than a century ago. Many of these pieces haven’t been seen in as many years — some were nearly lost altogether.

“In 2004, an employee who works at both Flagler and the Hotel Ponce de Leon found them rolled up in the boiler room,” explains Crisp-Ellert Museum director Julie Dickover, of a veritable treasure trove of forgotten blueprints and drawings from the late 19th century. “They were in this big roll and someone was going to throw them away.”

Many of the items had been damaged by decades of exposure to humidity and rodents. Yet when they were dusted off and more closely inspected, museum staff realized that a visual arts gold mine had been saved from certain destruction. The pieces ranged from naturalist drawings to the hotel’s original blueprints, which had been created by the now-celebrated architectural pair of John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings. Railroad tycoon and land developer Henry Flagler hired the duo to design his luxury hotel, which opened in 1887. The project was the first notable collaboration for Carrère and Hastings, who most famously later went on to design the New York Public Library in the same Beaux-Arts, or neo-classical, style used for Flagler’s hotel.

The fact that this parcel of near-priceless historical and fine arts relics was nearly tossed away is indicative of Northeast Florida’s sometimes disposable sense of history, as well as a reminder of the rich cultural legacy that is literally right under our noses. “There’s very little that is really old in Florida,” Dickover believes, bemoaning the fact that much of our area’s newer development destroys, rather than preserves, what was already here. “And at 125 years old, the Hotel Ponce de Leon and the pieces from this show are downright ancient.”

The exhibit, “Planning and Painting in Paradise: The Art and Architecture of the Hotel Ponce de Leon,” features the newly discovered pieces as well as some on loan from collectors. “Paradise,” celebrating the storied hotel’s century-plus birthday, displays some of the local riches that might otherwise be taken for granted. The exhibit is the culmination of nearly a decade-long collaborative project between University of Florida Special Collections and Flagler College which attempts to conserve this group of more than 200 original blueprints, as well as drawings on silk and paper, and even diazotypes, a method of architectural print.

During its heyday, the hotel attracted such notable guests as Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Babe Ruth, who paid $5 a day or more to bask in the hotel’s opulent ambience. Yet most interesting, Flagler commissioned a suite of seven artists’ studios, spaces that were the equivalent of the Art Walk of the Gilded Age. “Every Friday they would have open studio,” explained Dickover, “and the guests were free to stroll through the hotel, look at artwork and speak with the resident artists.” The still life painter Martin Johnson Heade was perhaps the most famous in-house artist who stayed at the hotel. Yet “Paradise” concentrates on lesser-known artists and designers: Charlotte Buell Coman, Otto Henry Bacher, Frank Shapleigh, Felix de Crano and Maria A’Becket.

During the time spent documenting and investigating the exhibit, Dickover was quite pleased to discover that many female artists had been invited to live and work in the studios, a then-progressive gesture that she had hoped to acknowledge with this collection. “But other than the two we have featured [Coman and A’Becket], it was really difficult to find any information about them and even more difficult to find their work.” The collection features one room devoted to fine art pieces and another that highlights the design elements of the hotel’s past. “We actually are showing high-definition copies of the blueprints, since the originals are already so fragile and susceptible to fading.”

Dickover admits that she knew little of the hotel’s history; she was fascinated by what she uncovered and learned from the experience. “The fact that Henry Flagler had hired all of these artists, designers, artisans and craftsmen to make the hotel his artistic masterpiece really created an environment that made this place [St. Augustine] an artistic and cultural nexus. And in hindsight, I think he was successful at doing just that.”

Dan Brow