Cities in Europe are old. They may not be as old as some in the Middle East, but when you consider there are remnants of Roman settlements over 2,000 years old all over the place in Europe, still being occupied, you have have to consider these places old. But, of course, the US is part of the “new world” and so we have to be content with the relatively young St. Augustine, Florida, founded by the Spanish in 1565, as being the “oldest city in America”. The more precise description nowadays is the label “the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement within the borders of the continental United States” but, in the eyes of the tourist industry here, St. Augustine is still considered the oldest town in America and that’s the way it’s promoted.
Old City Gate
Inside the Castillo de San Marcos
Jay doing his Baron von Munchhausen impersonation in the town square.
Probably the most impressive buildings in St. Augustine are the Ponce de Leon Hotel and its sister hotel, the Alcazar, directly across the street. The Ponce de Leon is now the home of Flagler College, and was built in 1888 by oil and railroad tycoon, Henry Flagler. Flagler was no lightweight for his time and, along with John D. Rockefeller, was one of the partners who founded Standard Oil. By 1880, Flagler was 50, had become incredibly rich from the oil business and like wealthy people today, decided to spend time in Florida for the winter. Flagler’s wife, Mary, died the following year and two years later Henry married one of his wife’s nurses, Alice. Well, Henry wanted to spend his honeymoon in St. Augustine with his new bride and offered to buy the newly-completed Villa Zorayda on King Street from its owner, Franklin Smith. (source: Wikipedia)
Smith wouldn’t sell the building, but he encouraged Flagler to invest in Florida real estate. We’re not sure what hotel Henry and Alice stayed in for their honeymoon but it must have irked Flagler that he couldn’t get what he wanted from Smith so, in true tycoon style, Flagler decided to build his own building, the 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel. He wanted the hotel to be a resort designed as “an exclusive and opulent playground for the world’s most privileged elite”, according to the visitors’ brochure. To handle the overflow from the Ponce de Leon, he built the Alcazar hotel across the street, a place almost as grand. The Alcazar now houses a museum and the St. Augustine City Hall. Visitors are advised to leave their weapons at the door.
The Ponce de Leon is now home to Flagler College and has been restored to the tune of over $54 million. And, they don’t want any vagrants hanging around the sidewalk and sitting on the hedge. At the entrance to the college, there’s a very dignified statue of old Henry. We couldn’t help comparing it to the statue of Emil Faber in the movie, Animal House: “Knowledge is Good”. Maybe the Animal House producers were thinking of old Henry when they made the film.