Lightner Museum, one of Florida's most revered historic St. Augustine museums, offers a perfect day getaway while you enjoy your vacation at Bluegreen's Grande Villas at World Golf Village. Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European established city in the U.S. Don't overlook The Lightner Museum when touring this fascinating city.
Located across from the entrance to Flagler College and next to the historic Casa Monica Hotel, The Lightner Museum is housed in what was originally the Hotel Alcazar. Its three floors are filled with relics of the Gilded Age, including costumes, furnishings, beautiful pieces of cut glass, works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, mechanical musical instruments and other Victoriana.
To put the Florida museum's contents into context, it's helpful to understand the Gilded Age. Spanning 1865-1901, the Gilded Age refers to the period in American history in which the modern industrial complex rose to power. National transportation and communication systems were created, and the concept of American corporations came into being and soon dominated the system, transforming business forever.
Industrialists Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Mellow, John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Henry Flagler became incredibly wealthy and powerful during this time, leading enormously extravagant lifestyles. To be fair, they also provided America with some of her most precious treasures, including vast national parks, libraries and more, but the ostentatious nature of their lifestyle prompted Mark Twain and co-author Charles Dudley to ridicule them by coining the term "Gilded Age" in an 1873 book.
Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil, used his influence, money and power to shape the east coast of Florida, including St. Augustine. The "American Riviera" he fashioned in St. Augustine and Palm Beach attracted wealthy New Englanders, who built lavish homes and filled them with the type of objects found in the Lightner Museum.
The building itself is the former Hotel Alcazar, part of Flagler's massive architectural undertaking, which included Flagler University. The tycoon had the hotel built in 1887-1889, along with the Ponce de Leon Hotel across the street (now Casa Monica), to accommodate early tourists to Florida. The Hotel Alcazar boasted an amazing feature: it held the world's largest indoor swimming pool.
Today, that pool compromises the café at the Lightner Museum. It's fun to take friends or family there, and watch their puzzlement at the floor with the strange slope to it. (Guard the secret of the building's past until you arrive, if you want to watch this scenario unfold).
After several decades as a winter resort, the Hotel Alcazar closed in 1932; Chicagoan Otto Lightner purchased it a dozen years later to house his collection of objects from the Gilded Age. After opening the museum, he donated it to the city of St. Augustine for it to be enjoyed by locals, tourists and Bluegreen vacationers from all over. The building's open courtyard is beautiful.
On the first floor, you'll find a Victorian village with tiny shops; a Victorian Science and Industry Room; and the Music Room, which offers demonstrations of its mechanical instruments throughout the day.
If beautiful cut glass intrigues you, head for the second floor, where the beautiful work of Louis Comfort Tiffany is showcased in a studio. The third floor holds many works of fine art – including paintings and sculpture - as well as furniture. One extraordinary piece was commissioned by the Kind of Holland in the early 1800s.
While you tour the Lightner museum in historic St. Augustine during your next Bluegreen vacation, it will be up to you to decide if you find the contents gorgeous – as Flagler and his friends did – or garish, as Twain did. No matter what you conclude, the Lightner is a fun way to pass a little time. Café Alcazar also serves a nice lunch, and it will probably be the only time you ever eat a lovely meal inside a swimming pool.