Airway to Heaven

You can find historic photos in the most surprising places. I scour online archives all over the country and occasionally get lucky. In particular, I look out for photo albums that belonged to wealthy turn-of-the-century travelers. Touring the Flagler route down Florida's east coast (and on to Nassau or Havana) was a popular Winter trip for the few people who could afford to do it. A stay in Palm Beach would have been one of the highlights of the trip.

I struck gold in California several times. My latest discoveries were buried deep in among the 158,000+ pictures archived online  (search "Palm Beach") by the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

The Big Fish passenger airliner is well known among local history circles. I've only seen a couple of pictures until now. The SDAS Museum has some particularly important pictures, rich in detail,  of this little slice of local history.

In the early part of the 19th century the west side of the intra-coastal waterway in West Palm Beach was the site of several seaplane ports stretching from the north bridge (to Palm Beach) to just south of Palm Beach Lakes Blvd.

 Original caption: "Co-pilot Baldwin with ""Big Fish"" flying boat (1921 or 1922.)" 
This 12-passenger Curtis flying boat, the Big Fish, offered round trip flights to Havana. With so much money and power concentrated in one time and place, Palm Beach was a magnet for fledgling aviators looking to show off their wares or sell round trip flights to Cuba- the world's first inter-continental commercial flight service.

The Big Fish prepares for flight. The dock was located just south of where the Palm Beach Yacht Club now stands. Historian Augustus Mayhew has the full story here.

Lost in the shuffle is a rare and pretty wonderful set of three pictures. It appears that the photographer's attention was pulled away from the planes and drawn to a group of people to the north of the seaplanes.

Original Caption: "Boat docks." 
 But look closer- across the water is the Hotel Palm Beach. We can confirm that it's a scene taken in early West Palm Beach next to the seaplane port. Neighboring photos in the San Diego collection confirm the picture was taken in 1921 or 1922. The hotel was lost in the Breakers fire of 1925. Now zoom in on the four figures standing waist deep in the water dressed in white.

We are witnessing a baptism.

Original caption: " Crowd of people on the shore." 
The photographer swiveled around and snapped a picture a picture of the well-dressed congregation standing along the seawall beneath a lush stand of swaying  coconut palms. Robed figures stand in the water.

 Click pictures to enlarge. The pictures are rich in details- a wonderful little slice of life in West Palm Beach in the early 1920's.


Go Left at the Main Stairs

A look at the public restrooms at Flagler College gives loads of insight into how the Poinciana looked. The "go left..." reference in the title refers to the Men's Room at the Royal Poinciana Hotel.

The Men's Restroom just off the rotunda of Flagler College. The mirrors and fixtures
 are new but the marble walls, sinks and tile floors are original.

Modern urinals with original marble walls, separations and tile floors.

The toilet stalls are intact. The doors might not be the originals but all
 the framing appears to be.  The toilets are modern but the
 overhead water tanks (top left and right) to the originals are still there.

A page from a booklet published just after the Poinciana opened shows the hotel's
 plumbing supplier. Note the overhead water tanks and handy pull chains.

A closer look at the ad: the sink at the right matches the sinks of the Ponce De Leon (top photo.) 
The claw foot bath tub was the standard of the day. The style of the commode is different. 
This is probably pretty close- if not exactly how the bathrooms at the Poinciana looked.

The placement of the bathroom fixtures 
in rooms 251 and 253 at the Poinciana:
The bathtubs are at the top of the room. 
The toilet is right next to the sink. A door
separated the two rooms which could
be converted into a suite.


The Two Sisters

 I've gotten to know the layout of the Hotel Royal Poinciana so well that I often find myself mentally walking through the corridors trying to get a feel for the place. But I'm obsessed with the details- trying to get the colors of the walls and floors just right.

There are clues scattered everywhere. We know that the hotel's theme was one of eternal spring- most of the furnishings were white wicker and rattan. The straw mats that adorned so many of the rooms and hallways were green. Potted palms and plants were in abundance throughout the hotel giving the northern visitor a splendid contrast to the frost-bitten cities they left behind.

The Palm Grill. The skylight ceiling gave guests a chance to dine in the sun or under the stars.
Still- in my imagination I tend to move too quickly down the long hallways (certainly there were transoms over the doors of the guestrooms- and how tall were the doors?) My mental tours are frustrating and filled with blank spots and I'm always floating for some reason.

On a recent trip to St. Augustine I headed over to Flagler College- the magnificent building that was originally Henry Flagler's Hotel Ponce De Leon. The hotel was completed in 1888. Flagler spared no expense; the rotunda features breath-taking murals and the dining room houses one of the largest collections of Tiffany glass in the world.

Tiffany glass in the dining room.

Today, only a few parts of the hotel are open to tourists; most of the building is restricted to students and staff. Even parents aren't allowed upstairs to the students rooms.

As I entered the rotunda I happened to wander into a clutch of prominent architectural historians who were in town for a convention. Since I was wearing a sportcoat (I looked like one of them) I attached myself to the group and got a better-than-average tour of the place that included a peek at the original men's bar and the dining room. I/they were so important that the President of College came out to greet us and tell us all about the newly-completed restoration of the building.

While I stood listening, the stairway off the rotunda that led to the dining room caught my eye- I followed the stairs to the second floor balcony that surrounded the rotunda. There were arched entries to the wings of the hotel- leading to guestrooms. A balustrade surrounded the entire octagon of the rotunda. At the top of the first flight of steps (eleven to be exact) was the entrance to the dining room.

On the ground floor-to the right was the the front desk- now the office of the security guards. At the beginning of the hallway were the elevators. Two large doors -closed and not open to the public- led to the original east wing of the hotel. Opposite of that wing- going west, a long hallway led to the the original parlors- public areas for the guests to lounge and mingle.

Suddenly, I had the feeling that I'd been there before. Of course I HAD toured Flagler College before; at least two or three times. But this time I came to the realization that I was standing in a nearly dead-replica of  the Hotel Royal Poinciana. The scale and layout were basically the same. The first flight of eleven steps of both hotels led to large open rooms; dining for the Ponce; the men's lounge and Palm Room (used for dances and special events) and upstairs ballroom for the Poinciana.

The Ponce is magnificently ornate. The Poinciana was built in the much more severe Colonial style. But it became clear to me that Flagler's architects, McGuire and McDonald,took the original blueprints to the Ponce and modified them to to accomodate the larger size Flager desired for his Palm Beach operations.

Equally important are the original details still present at the Ponce. In the Men's restroom off the Rotunda, the brass fixtures, floor tile, marble counters and even the toilet tanks are still intact. (look for details and photos in an upcoming post.)

Hopefully an original guestroom door with transom still exists somewhere in the building. If Flagler used the same suppliers for both hotels, important pieces of the puzzle will fall in place.

Flagler College (Hotel Ponce De Leon) seen from the east. The round building is the dining room. The dining room windows are Tiffany glass. The hotel closed in the 60's and reopened as the college in 1968.

The original floor plan of the Ponce with some revisions made in 1924. The main entrance is through the courtyard just to the left of the lounge. Note the octagon surrounded the "lounge" tag. at the right are the eleven steps leading to the dining room. Note the similarities in the floor plans at the bottom of this page. 

Looking from the main entrance into the rotundas of the Poinciana (left ca. 1900) and Ponce one can immediately see the similarities between the two hotels. Click image to enlarge.

The stairwells of the hotels- note the eleven steps of the first flight. Click to enlarge.

(Left) Ca. 1896, a large potted palm obscures the entry to the Mens Lounge and  Palm Room of the Poinciana. Directly upstairs, a hall led to the ball room. The downstairs entry of the Ponce leads to the magnificent dining room. Click to enlarge.

Standing in the rotunda(s) and turning to the right; the elevators of both hotels are on the left side of the hallway. The two large doors at the Ponce lead to college staff offices today. Click to enlarge.

Bicycle Built for Three, 1908

Hotel guest pose for a picture in front of the piazza in 1908. They appear
 to be  heading south towards Whitehall, the Jungle Trail and Alligator Joe's.


1920 Floor Plan

The center portion of the first floor of the hotel as it appeared in 1920. Most of the public areas are here. Look for the front desk, the main dining room, the Garden Grill, the Rotunda, follow the path from the men's toilet to the bar (outlined in brown in octagonal ballroom,) the hallway featuring windows to the "5th avenue stores," the children's dining room, newsstand and barber.

Green areas are the outside. Ochre are the porch/verandas.  Lots of details here - click to enlarge!

The art is based on floor plans from the Historical Society of Palm Beach County and Sanborn Fire  Insurance maps.

Unless otherwise noted- photos and artwork are the property of the Pat Crowley and may not be reproduced without my consent.