September 19, 2011
By Mary Jo Gibson
The Lightner Museum
St. Augustine, Florida
Today’s Museum Monday takes us to St. Augustine, Florida, for a virtual visit to the Lightner Museum, a suggestion from Pattie Smith.
The Lightner Museum first began as a hotel in the early days of the American Riviera. Henry Flagler, oil baron and railroad magnate of the gilded age, arrived in Florida on his honeymoon and was immediately charmed by the area. Looking to a second career after Standard Oil, Flagler purchased the Florida East Coast Railway and transported wealthy tourists to the new travel destinations of the southern states. Hiring architects Carrere and Hastings to construct a luxurious resort, the Hotel Alcazar is one of the earliest examples of a poured concrete structure in the United States, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Built in 1887, the hotel boasted a steam room, massage parlor, gymnasium, sulfur baths, and the world’s largest swimming pool. Architects Carrere and Hastings continued to design notable structures, including the New York Public Library and the US Senate office building. Henry Flagler passed away in 1913 after developing many hotels in Florida and extending his railroad to Key West. After years as an elegant resort, the depression took its toll and the Hotel Alcazar closed in 1932.
A collector of Victorian era antiquities, who visited the Ponce de Leon hotel while recovering from an illness, purchased the Alcazar in 1947. Otto Lightner, newspaper editor and publisher, had remained financially well off during the Great Depression as owner of “Hobbies,” one of the first antiques and collectibles magazines. Remembered for saying “Everyone should have a hobby,” he was fascinated with collecting. He started buying large homes and estates in the Chicago area to house his collections, eventually moving to St. Augustine in the 1940s, and with the purchase of the Alcazar Hotel, creating the ‘Smithsonian of the South’. Upon his death in 1950, he requested to be buried in the courtyard and is remembered as “America’s King of Hobbies.”
The Lightner Museum has three floors of exhibits; Victorian Science and Industry, Native American artifacts, taxidermy, a small Egyptian mummy, model steam engines, elaborate mechanized musical instruments dating from 1870 through 1920, and an extensive selection of 19th century cut glass.
The beautiful gardens and surrounding grounds add to the intimate charm of this hidden gem of a museum in Florida. A virtual tour of the collections and panorama tours of the music room, antique mall and exterior surroundings are available at the Lightner Museum website.
I hope you have enjoyed this week’s Museum Monday. A new Cabinet of Curiosities will be posted on Friday, and a physical visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio will be upcoming in October. If you have any great museums that have inspired your love of art and antiquities, please feel free to share them in the comments below.