The Lightner Museum, one of Florida’s most revered historic museums, offers a fascinating look at age when St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continuously occupied European-established city in the United States, also was one of America’s first and most opulent playgrounds for the obscenely rich.
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 museum’s contents in context, it’s helpful to understand the Gilded Age (1865-1901), 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 and led commensurately 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 Charles Dudley to ridicule them with the nickname.
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 there and in Palm Beach attracted wealthy New Englanders, who built lavish homes and filled them with objects now in permanent exhibit 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 1887-89, 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: the world’s largest indoor swimming pool.
Today, that ornate pool area constitutes 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. (keep this secret from your group until you arrive, then watch the reactions to the unique floor).
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 and tourists 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 on your next visit, 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.