Visitors viewing St. Augustine for the first time are frequently astounded by the magnificent structures in the center of town. These former hotels now housing Flagler College, the City Hall complex and Lightner Museum form the nucleus of the Flagler-inspired buildings from St. Augustine’s Golden Era.
Henry M. Flagler’s name strikes less of a spark of recognition than that of his partner in the Standard Oil business, John D. Rockefeller. But his power was just as strong in the oil industry in the 1870s and 1880s, and he left a permanent mark on the state of Florida.
The New York born son of a Presbyterian minister, Flagler walked the path from poverty to wealth. Self-motivation and ambition led to his success as a partner in the Standard Oil Company.
The death of his wife in 1881 and changes in big business practices influenced him to seek new challenges. A honeymoon visit to St. Augustine with his second wife led to the formation of a friendship with Dr. Andrew Anderson, of this city, who inspired Flagler’s vision of the sleepy town as a winter playground for the rich.
In January of 1888, the grand Ponce de Leon Hotel opened for the first season, and its sister hotel across the street was well underway. With the purchase of the Casa Monica to the east, renamed the Cordova, Flagler’s triumvirate changed the ambiance of the little Spanish town forever.
As the hotels were modifying the skyline, Flagler was also developing a railroad, building churches, establishing a hospital, erecting commodious homes for his business officers and molding comfortable neighborhoods for his employees.
Within a few short years his dream of a ”winter Newport” faded and he, and the wealthy northern visitors, moved further south. He continued to develop the Florida East Coast Railroad down the peninsula, into and across the Florida Keys, creating hotels and communities along the way.
But even with his departure, Flagler’s Midas touch had transformed the city. His buildings and the outgrowths of his businesses remain an integral and significant part of the ancient city’s heritage.
Flagler died in 1913 at the age of 93, and is buried alongside his wife, daughter and granddaughter in a mausoleum in Memorial Presbyterian Church, here in the city that drew him to Florida.