By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
The Casa Monica, one of the oldest hotels in the United States, 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, formerly an executive with Days Inns of America, 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. The renovation was completed in less than two years and opened in December 1999 under the original name of “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. Artist Tina Guarano Davis painted the Moorish-style woodwork in the hotel lobby. The Casa Monica sign on the Cordova Street side of the hotel covers over an earlier sign for the St. Johns County Courthouse. The huge flagpole on top of the hotel is actually a lightning rod.
Among the notable guests 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 visit to St. Augustine in 2001.
The Casa Monica Hotel is a member of Historic Hotels of America, an official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
About Stanley Turkel’s Books
- Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry (2009) During the thirty years prior to the Civil War, Americans built hotels larger and more ostentatious than any in the rest of the world. These hotels were inextricably intertwined with American culture and customs but were accessible to average citizens. As Jefferson Williamson wrote in "The American Hotel" (Knopf 1930), hotels were perhaps "the most distinctively American of all our institutions for they were nourished and brought to flower solely in American soil and borrowed practically nothing from abroad". My research into the lives of these sixteen great hoteliers reveals that none of them grew up in the hospitality business but became successful through their intense on-the-job experiences. Development of their hotels was stimulated by the confluence of the transcontinental railroad, the Interstate Highway System and the airplane. My investigation has uncovered remarkable and startling true stories about these pioneers, some of whom are well-known and others who are lost in the dustbin of history.
- Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York (2011) These thirty-two featured hotels have defied the passage of time for a variety of reasons, many explicable, some beyond explanation, all miraculous. My research into the histories of these hotels turned up fascinating stories, great architects, entrepreneurial developers, unpredictable guests, famous movie stars, writers, musicians, politicians and even the story of an all-women's hotel built in New York in 1903.
- Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (2013) All the eighty-six hotels featured in this book have unique and singular stories describing their creation, survival and revival. The book contains eighty-six antique postcard illustrations, foreword (by Joseph McInerney, President and CEO Emeritus of the American Hotel & Lodging Association), preface, introduction, bibliography and index. It was accepted by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute for promotion, distribution and sale.
- Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf (2014) Hotel Mavens tells the interesting stories of the following pioneers and the hotels they built and operated:
- Lucius Boomer, one of the most famous hoteliers of his time, was Chairman of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel Corporation.
- George C. Boldt who was the genius of the original Waldorf-Astoria. It was said of him that he made innkeeping a profession and, more than any man, was the creator of the modern American hotel.
- Oscar of the Waldorf was the superstar of his time and one of the stalwarts who managed both the original and the current Waldorf-Astoria.
Sam Roberts in the New York Times wrote: "Nostalgia for the city's caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel's Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf". The fact-filled book by Mr. Turkel, an industry consultant, explains, among other things, the history of the hyphen (recently excised) in the name of the Waldorf Astoria, which inspired a mid-block street and even a song.
- Great American Hoteliers Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry (2016) My latest book tells the fascinating and unpredictable stories of seventeen hotel pioneers who were (and are) important in the development of the hotel industry in the United States. These important and largely untold biographies include Stewart William Bainum (1920-2014), Curtis Leroy Carlson (1914-1999), Cecil Burke Day (1934-1978), Louis Jacob Dinkler (1864-1928), Eugene Chase Eppley (1884-1958), Roy C. Kelley (1905-1997), Arnold S. Kirkeby (1901-1962), Julius Manger (1868-1937), Robert R. Meyer (1882-1947), Albert Pick, Jr. (1895-1977), Jay Pritzker (1922-1999), Harris Rosen (1939), Ian Schrager (1946), Vernon B. Stouffer (1901-1974), William Cornelius Van Horne (1843-1915), Robert E. Woolley (1935) and Stephen Allen Wynn (1942).
All of these books can be ordered from the publisher by visiting www.stanleyturkel.com and clicking on the book’s title.
If You Need an Expert Hotel Witness:
For the past twenty-four years I have served as an expert witness in more than 40 hotel-related cases.
My extensive hotel operating experience is beneficial in cases involving:
- hurricane damage and/or business interruption cases
- slip and fall accidents
- wrongful deaths
- fire and carbon monoxide injuries
- franchise/franchisor disputes
- management contract disputes
I have been designated as the 2015 and 2014 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Don’t hesitate to call me on 917-628-8549 to discuss any potential litigation support assignments.