Casa Monica Hotel

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The Casa Monica Hotel, renamed the Cordova Hotel by Flagler in 1889, c. 1891

The Casa Monica Hotel is a historic hotel located in St. Augustine, Florida, in the United States. The Casa Monica Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in the United States and is a member of the "Historic Hotels of America" National Trust.

History[edit]

The hotel was opened in 1888 by Franklin W. Smith, a notable Victorian architecture enthusiast and social reformer who earned a place in Florida history for interesting Henry Flagler in investing in the state. The construction material was poured concrete, of which Franklin Smith was a leading experimenter. The original exterior finish was natural, leaving horizontal pour marks visible, and matching other grand Flagler era structures in downtown St. Augustine. Unfortunately, the exterior was altered by covering with a modern material (stucco) in the 1960s. The architectural style was Moorish Revival and Spanish Baroque Revival, in which Smith was also a pioneer promoter. His own winter home, Villa Zorayda, just a block to the west, was the first Moorish Revival building in the Ancient City. The hotel's Sun Parlor was the most notable interior room, but it was gutted after the hotel closed. Its details were unfortunately later demolished and have yet to be restored.

Soon after completing the hotel, Smith ran into financial difficulties and sold the hotel, including all fixtures, furnishings, linen, and all other chattel, for $325,000-USD to oil and railroad tycoon Henry Flagler. Upon purchasing the hotel, Henry Flagler renamed the Casa Monica the Cordova Hotel. Flagler, a founder, with John D. Rockefeller, of the Standard Oil Company, already owned two hotels in St. Augustine, the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College) and the Hotel Alcazar (now City Hall and the Lightner Museum). From 1888 to 1902, the hotel featured parties, balls, fairs and charity events.

The famous travel agency "Ask Mr. Foster" had its headquarters in the hotel. It was started by Ward G. Foster of St. Augustine, became a national business, and was owned for a time in the 20th century by Peter Ueberroth, one time Commissioner of Baseball. The building once featured an historic marker as the birthplace of the agency, but it has been removed in recent years.

In 1902, a short bridge was constructed over Cordova Street that connected the second floors of the Cordova Hotel and the Hotel Alcazar. At the completion of the bridge, the Cordova Hotel was again renamed, this time to Alcazar Annex. In 1903, the Alcazar and Alcazar Annex were considered one hotel and advertised as "enlarged and redecorated". In 1932, the conjoined parts of the hotel were closed due to the great depression. In 1945, the bridge between the Annex portion and the Alcazar Hotel was removed.

Entrance to the Casa Monica Hotel

Latter 20th century[edit]

In February 1962, St. Johns County Commission voted to purchase the former Casa Monica Hotel for $250,000 USD for use as the St. Johns County Courthouse. In 1964 the lobby of the then-vacant hotel was used to house police dogs that were used against civil rights demonstrators during St. Augustine's greatest modern historic event: the mass campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King and Dr. Robert Hayling that led directly to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dr. King went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize a few months later. The renovation took over 6 years to complete. It was finally dedicated as a courthouse in May 1968, and filled that role until the 1990s, housing government offices and archives as well as courtrooms. A notable feature of the courthouse were murals by the artist Hugo Ohlms, whose distinctive work was also featured in the nearby Catholic Cathedral and at the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge (another civil rights landmark, where the arrest of Mrs. Peabody, the 72 year old mother of the governor of Massachusetts, while trying to be served in a racially integrated group, made national headlines in 1964). The Ohlms murals were removed when the courthouse was remodeled into its second incarnation as a hotel. Also removed were the stained glass scales of justice that had been in the quatrefoil window over the main door.

Renovation[edit]

In February 1997, Richard Kessler, who had previously been involved with the Days Inn chain, then set up his own Kessler Collection of lodgings, purchased the building from St. Johns County for $1.2 million and began to remodel the building to once again become a hotel. The county Tax Collector's office and Property Appraiser's office were given until 1998 to relocate, so workers had to avoid a section of the building for several months.[1] The renovation was completed in less than 2 years and opened in December 1999 under the original name of the "Casa Monica Hotel" (the name came from Saint Monica, the North African mother of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, for whom the Ancient City is named). Richard Kessler and architect Howard W. Davis decided to keep the historic Moorish Revival style of the hotel. Tina Guarano Davis painted the Moorish-style woodwork in the hotel lobby. The Casa Monica sign on the Cordova Street side of the hotel covers over an earlier sign for the St. Johns County Courthouse. State historic preservation officials told them to preserve the courthouse sign, so they covered it over rather than removing it. The huge flagpole on top of the hotel is actually a lightning rod.

Present day[edit]

Today the Casa Monica Hotel operates as part of the Kessler Collection headquartered in Orlando, FL and is the only hotel in St. Augustine to be given AAA's Four-Diamond award and is a member of the Preferred Hotels organization.

Notable guests[edit]

Among the notable guests and speakers in the hotel since it reopened have been Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-apartheid crusader, and Rev. C. T. Vivian, civil rights leader and co-worker with Martin Luther King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as the King and Queen of Spain during their lightning 2001 visit to St. Augustine. There was a brief stir in 2004 when it was reported that former Beatle Ringo Starr was staying at the hotel and playing at local nightclubs and bars, but the man proved to be an impostor.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Treen, Dana: "Tax breaks may help in hotel restoration" Florida Times-Union, November 12, 1997

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 29°53′30″N 81°18′49″W / 29.891681°N 81.31373°W / 29.891681; -81.31373