Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel

Henry Flagler opened the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach on February 11, 1894 with only 17 guests. The paint was fresh, and the electric lighting was so new it was advertised as a unique amenity. Flagler had built this palace as a winter playground for America’s richest travelers, planting it right off the main line of his Florida East Coast Railway. If they so chose, his guests could conduct their private railway cars right up to the hotel’s entrance.

Royal Poinciana Hotel - Palm Beach (circa 1900).

Royal Poinciana Hotel – Palm Beach (circa 1900).

The 17 original guests must have had a good time, because Flagler expanded the hotel almost immediately after it was opened, increasing its capacity to 1,000 guests. The size of the structure was immense; the Royal Poinciana had over 3 miles of hallways. With the telephone still a rare luxury, hotel employees were obliged to carry messages between guest rooms and the front desk by bicycle. At one point the hotel was reputed to be the largest wooden structure in the world.

Porch of the Royal Poinciana (circa 1920s).

Porch of the Royal Poinciana (circa 1920s).

Flagler spared little if any expense entertaining his wealthy patrons. Guests could play golf, swim in the pool, or listen to the orchestra, which played every day in the hotel pavilion. Guides took those inclined to fish out into the Atlantic, sometimes bringing in dozens of mackerel in a single day’s catch.

Just in case some of the guests found all of this luxury a bit monotonous, the hotel staff occasionally planned special events. In one instance, pictured below, a parade of decorated boats was floated past the hotel for the amusement of its patrons.

A floating parade of decorated boats in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach (circa 1900).

A floating parade of decorated boats in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach (circa 1900).

To keep the sights, sounds, and smells of Palm Beach as clean as possible, the designers limited the presence of the railroad and automobiles. Also, hotel staff rarely used horses, mules, or other animals to transport supplies or people. The primary modes of transportation on Palm Beach for guests were bicycles and “wheelchairs,” pedi-cabs in our own parlance.

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A “wheelchair” or pedi-cab carrying guests in the vicinity of the Royal Poinciana Hotel (circa 1900).

Running such a complex operation as the Royal Poinciana Hotel naturally required a large and varied labor force. By the time the hotel was up and running Flagler had hired over a thousand workers. He built quarters for them across Lake Worth from the hotel in what is now called West Palm Beach. The employees used rowboats to get to and from work for each shift.

Plumbers and mechanics at the Royal Poinciana Hotel before it opened (1893).

Plumbers and mechanics at the Royal Poinciana Hotel before it opened (1893).

The Royal Poinciana commanded the high-end hospitality market in Palm Beach for a number of years, but even such a sprawling wilderness of luxury as this had its weaknesses. In 1925, the nearby Breakers Hotel burned and was rebuilt. Since it was newer and offered updated amenities, it drew many guests away from the Royal Poinciana. Furthermore, the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 badly damaged the north wing of the hotel, shifting part of it off its foundation. The arrival of the Great Depression in 1929 was the final blow. The Royal Poinciana Hotel closed in 1934, and was torn down within a year.

Aerial view of the Royal Poinciana Hotel during its final years (circa 1925).

Aerial view of the Royal Poinciana Hotel during its final years (circa 1925).

The Royal Poinciana Hotel is just one of Florida’s many historic hotels that have come and gone over the years. For more photos of the Royal Poinciana and other palatial buildings, search the Florida Photographic Collection.

 

 

Chautauqua in Florida

What do you do if it’s 1902 and you’re dying to know something about this Panama Canal everyone keeps talking about? Or maybe you want to hear some good music, something better than that small-town band you’ve heard a hundred times this year already. Maybe you’ve been wondering what it’s like on the other side of the Earth, or how electricity works, or the latest theories about those atom thingies.

Your options in 1902 would be limited. Most of our present-day methods for satisfying the desire for information and entertainment simply didn’t exist at that time. There was, however, an institution that aimed to bring the world to the public in the form of a traveling show. They called it “Chautauqua.”

Program sheet for the first annual session of the Florida Chautauqua at DeFuniak Springs (1885).

Program sheet for the first annual session of the Florida Chautauqua at DeFuniak Springs (1885).

Chautauqua was a nationwide adult education movement popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was named for the small town in western New York where the concept originated. Orators, musicians, actors, and other performers traveled around the country in circuits, putting on shows in large cities and small towns alike. They stayed from a few days to a few weeks depending on the gate receipts and the enthusiasm of the crowd.

The shows usually featured a combination of singing, orchestral music, lectures and “elocution,” comedy, and inspirational speeches. Sometimes the speakers would illustrate their talks with lantern slides, creating the closest experience to world travel many Chautauqua attendees would ever have. Local arrangement committees usually contracted with a Chautauqua management company to schedule the show, which would then be heavily advertised through newspapers and handbills.

A handbill describing the program for a chautauqua event at DeFuniak Springs (1885).

A handbill describing the program for a Chautauqua event at DeFuniak Springs (1885).

Traveling Chautauquas were generally held in large tents set up on the outskirts of town, but the institution became so popular in some Florida communities that local citizens raised funds to build permanent auditoriums for holding the events. Lakeland, Arcadia, Mt. Dora, and DeFuniak Springs are a few examples. As Chautauqua grew and the annual timing of the shows became more regular, families would come from miles around to camp and attend. Often a member of the traveling company would be in charge of devising activities for the children. Sometimes the children produced a show of their own to present to the adult audience toward the end of the Chautauqua series.

A chautauqua hall at Mount Dora, surrounded by the tents of families attending the show (circa 1886).

A Chautauqua hall at Mount Dora, surrounded by the tents of families attending the show (circa 1886).

Lakeland citizens gather around their new chautauqua auditorium. The building opened on November 6, 1912 with a capacity of about 1,700 (photo circa 1912).

Lakeland citizens gather around their new Chautauqua auditorium. The building opened on November 6, 1912 with a capacity of about 1,700 (photo circa 1912).

In a world without the Internet, television, or even radio, this sort of cultural experience was nothing short of thrilling for many participants. Particularly good orators sometimes gained the same sort of fame enjoyed by today’s movie and television stars. Even speeches themselves could gain immense popularity. Temple University founder Russell Conwell was well-known for an inspirational speech entitled “Acres of Diamonds.” He reputedly gave the speech over 6,100 times, mostly on the Chautauqua circuit.

A chautauqua chorus - Mt. Dora (1889).

A Chautauqua chorus – Mt. Dora (1889).

We still have lectures and live performances, of course, but we certainly don’t depend on them as our forebears once did. Most folks aren’t even familiar with the word “Chautauqua,” let alone its history as a way of connecting people with the world. One slight exception is the Florida Chautauqua in DeFuniak Springs, which still hosts periodic cultural events throughout the year.

Speaking of connections, Florida Memory is proud to be your gateway to the history and culture of the Sunshine State. What’s something you’ve learned on Florida Memory that you never knew before? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below or on Facebook!