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Guest Historian Series: Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Nobody Asked Me, But... No. 148;
Hotel History: Casa Monica Hotel (1888), St. Augustine, Florida*
By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
The Casa Monica is one of the oldest hotels in the United States and is a member of Historic Hotels of America. It was built by Franklin W. Smith, an idealistic reformer who made his fortune as a Boston hardware merchant. He was an early abolitionist, author and architectural enthusiast who proposed transforming Washington, D.C. into a "capital of beauty and cultural knowledge." He was a major founder of the YMCA and a supporter of the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln.
Henry M. Flagler sold Smith the land on which to build the Casa Monica Hotel in 1887. The Casa Monica is an impressive five-story structure with 100-foot towers on each end topped with tile roofs. There are unique architectural features such as turrets, balconies, parapets, ornate railings, cornices, arches, and battlements on the exterior. Smith utilized an experimental process for making concrete blocks using crushed coquina along with Portland cement. The hotel opened on January 1, 1888 with 138 rooms including 14 duplex suites with up to three bedrooms. The architectural style was Moorish Revival and Spanish Baroque Revival of which Smith was a pioneer promoter.
Four months later, Smith ran into financial difficulties and sold the hotel to Henry Flagler who changed the name to the Cordova Hotel. While the hotel flourished under Flagler's management, he built a bridge between the Cordova and merged it with his adjacent "enlarged and redecorated" Alcazar Hotel. Because of the Great Depression, the hotel closed in 1932 and in 1945 the bridge was torn down. In 1962, the St. John's County Commission purchased and renovated the Cordova Hotel for use as a county courthouse. In 1964, the lobby housed police dogs that were used against civil rights demonstrators during the mass campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King that resulted in the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
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, once Commissioner of Baseball.
In February 1997, Richard Kessler, who had previously been involved with the Days Inn chain before setting up his own Kessler Collection of lodgings, purchased the building from St. John's 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. The renovation was completed in less than two 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 on Cordova Street side of the hotel covers over an earlier sign for the St. Johns County Courthouse. State historic preservation official 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.
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.
*excerpted from my book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013)
About Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Stanley Turkel was designated as the 2014 and 2015 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History.
Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. Two of his hotel books have been promoted, distributed and sold by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry and Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi). A third hotel book (Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York) was called "passionate and informative" by The New York Times. His fourth hotel book was described by The New York Times: "Nostalgia for the City's caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel's...fact-filled...Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf."
Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi is available for purchase from the publisher by visiting bookstore.authorhouse.com.