The Largest Wooden Structure in the World!

The HRP (Hotel Royal Poinciana), circa 1900. The main entrance to the hotel was here on the west side facing the lake. This picture was taken from the south end of the hotel, renowned for the colorful gardens that gave winter visitors a respite from the frozen north. Henry Flagler's "Whitehall,' completed a year or so after this picture was taken stands just behind where the photographer stood. Click to enlarge! (Library of Congress photo)

There were 1,150 guest rooms. The main dining room could feed 1600 guests at one time. With seven miles of corridor running throughout six stories, the Hotel Royal Poinciana was the largest wooden structure in the world. The wealthiest rich and famous flocked to Henry Morrison Flagler's "Newport of the South" to make the Royal Poinciana their Winter home. Thousands of local citizens were employed to keep the hotel operating. Both Palm Beach and West Palm Beach owne their existence to Flagler's vision.

The mammoth Hotel Royal Poinciana opened in 1894 and stood on the shore of Lake Worth for just over forty years. It survived major hurricanes and the 1925 fire that destroyed the Breakers and Palm Beach hotels. But it couldn't recover from the economic bust that started with the market crash of 1929 or the changing tastes of the times.

In a sense, the Poinciana became one more victim of the 1925 fire when the new Breakers Hotel reopened less than a year later. The aging Poinciana was no match for this new masterpiece of Italian Renaissance style that was not only "fireproof" but offered a bathroom in every guest room. The end came fast for the Hotel Royal Poinciana. 

Just a decade after the Breakers reopened the last pieces of the hotel were hauled away. More than 500 homes and at least one church were built from the scrap. 
We know more about Titanic than the Poinciana! (con't)


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.


How The Other Half Bathes-1915

The same group of people seated in the foreground can also be seen here, posing amid the souvenirs at Gus' Baths. The adults are dressed in the same outfits while the two younger people have switched to bathing suits. Note that, for the young girl, proper swimming attire included a bulky cap and a heavy wool bathing dress. She's actually wearing MORE clothes than in the earlier picture!

At least four of the men in the photo are wearing identical suits so they are likely rentals (from Gus' Baths.)

The members of this party were staying at the Palm Beach Hotel which might explain why they weren't enjoying the facilities that Flagler's Breakers hotel provided a mile or so to the north.


Dining Room - The One That got Away

This picture, the only true color photograph of the main Dining Room that I've ever seen, was offered for sale on eBay a few years ago. Foolishly, I didn't buy it. But I did grab this lo-res copy.

The Memorial Presbyterian Church on Olive Avenue in West Palm Beach, was built entirely from the bricks of the hotel after it was demolished in 1936. It appears that much of the woodwork, windows and ornamentation came from the hotel as well.

Historians Debi Murray and Richard Marconi note that the floor of the church came from the ballroom. The dining room doubled as a ballroom when the events required more space than the octagonal ballroom could provide. 

The long dining room carpet has been rolled up to make way for the waltz.

Welcome to the The Hotel Palm Beach!

The Hotel Palm Beach stood on the spot where the Biltmore (originally the Alba Hotel ) stands today. The popular hostelry met its demise in 1925 when cinders from the Breakers fire set it alight and burned it to the ground. The first three pictures were taken in 1915. The last one was taken in 1900- shortly after it opened.

Looking north from an adjacent pier in front of the hotel. Note the flags flapping on the "Skylark." 

Turning the camera a few degrees to the northeast- bicycles and bicycle chairs line the lake trail in front of the hotel. 

Guests were provided with this card to help with planning their daily activities. At the time these pictures were taken the only wheeled vehicles allowed on Palm Beach were the trains, mule trolley, bicycle chairs and bicycles.    

A small building just out of view on the left hosted several shops including one that offered "Scientific Palmistry and Astrology." The three people gathered near the sign appear to be shop/hotel staff. The lady in the bicycle chair holds a cluster of coconuts.

The hotel, ca 1900. At the time most of the houses and hotels were situated on the more desirable lake side. The Breakers, on the ocean (and hence its name) served only to accommodate the overflow from the lakeside hotels.

You Are Here

West Palm Beach and Palm Beach in 1907- The Hotels Royal Poinciana and Breakers dominate the upper right quadrant. Just north of the Poinciana is the Hotel Palm Beach. The Jungle Trail is at the bottom. Much of the lagoon just west of the Jungle Trail was filled in and developed later.

I believe Alligator Joe's Alligator Farm was based in the lagoon at the end of the Jungle trail- not where it is labeled on the map. Alligator Joe's attraction later became The Everglades Club.  Download the map for better details.


"Welcome to Our Ocean"

Gus' Baths (later the Lido Pools) was a saltwater pool complex located on the ocean at the east end of Worth Avenue. A Danish immigrant, Gus Jordahn, opened the business in 1910- this picture was snapped in 1915- one of the earliest in existence.  According to M.M. Cloutier, swimmers payed daily, weekly or monthly dues for use of the pools, picnic facilities and access to the ocean via a tunnel. Jordahn later added a 920 foot pier. Cloutier has an excellent write-up here.

Ohio tourists on their Winter holiday pose amid the conch shells (five cents each,) sea fans, coral and cloth pennants featuring Gus' famous "Welcome to Our Ocean" slogan. This picture has it all- smartly attired vacationers, a sullen pre-teen dutifully holding on to one end of the pennant and a man who is probably a lifeguard- one of Gus' fabled "Cowboys of the Sea"- in attendance.

Mystery Shirt and The Boys of Winter

In this photo, taken in 1915, the bicycle chair operator is wearing a hotel uniform complete with cap badge.

What's intriguing about the picture are the letters on his shirt
There appears to be the letters "R, P (or R,) E and an A" affixed to the front.

 Is it an athletic jersey?  Do the letters denote a team?

During the season, both the Royal Poinciana and Breakers Hotel fielded teams as entertainment for the guests. The diamond was located in between the hotels where the golf course is now. Players, most of whom played in the Negro League held other jobs inside the hotels. The team photo, taken in 1906 comes from the NLBPA website.

This picture, from an online auction, was taken a year after the mystery photo, a player, front row- second from the left, wears the RP uniform. Some players are wearing undershirts (the games were played in the Winter, after all!)

The Breakers team in 1915. All of these guys played in the Negro League during the regular season. More info and identity information here.

I want to believe that our guy is in one of these team photos. Unfortunately, they are too lo-res to zoom in and study.

One last tidbit from the Historical society of Palm Beach County:
During the 1920s and ‘30s, The Breakers hotel and the Royal Poinciana (until it closed) continued their tradition of hiring baseball players from the Negro Leagues to entertain their guests. The players also worked in the hotels as waiters and busboys. Several times a week, the two teams would play well-attended games on the diamond at County Road and what is now Royal Poinciana Way. 


Ghost in the Garden

A nice view of the hotel taken in 1915 from deep inside the garden. The main entrance to the hotel is just out of the frame to the left. The garden appears to be deserted except for one ghostly apparition . Zoom in to find it!

This picture is from an album I recently purchased. Stay tuned for some new, rare scenes! How about those hand-written captions!