In early February of 1891, shortly before the grand opening of his lavish Tampa Bay Hotel, Henry Plant received an affable, jokingly naïve telegram from Henry Flagler, the well-known railroad magnate who already owned three successful resort hotels in St. Augustine. “Friend Plant,” the wire read, “where is this place I’ve heard about called Tampa?” In turn, Plant sent a brief but confident reply: “Friend Flagler, just follow the crowds.”
In the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, American tourists were only beginning to discover Florida, and it was Flagler and Plant who shaped, to a large degree, the experiences and the expectations of these travelers. In building and buying more than twenty resort properties, the two men, both of whom had made their fortunes through the rail and freight industries, became amicable rivals in the burgeoning field of leisure travel. In her first book, Susan Braden, an assistant professor of art history at Auburn University, discusses these hotels, reading the buildings as documents in the history of taste and relating them to their broader cultural contexts. Built around solid archival research and featuring a generally happy balance of analysis and anecdote, The Architecture of Leisure: The Florida Resort Hotels of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant is a pleasant volume that describes the dawn of one of America’s largest industries. Nevertheless the book could be strengthened, or extended, in several ways.
Braden’s book is divided into two parts. The first five chapters offer an overview of relevant aspects of Gilded Age culture and of the leisure industry, commenting, for example, on conspicuous consumption and on the organization of major hotels of the era. The next five discuss, in order of construction or acquisition, the individual hotels in the Flagler and Plant chains. This structure makes good logical sense but leads to a certain degree of redundancy, which is only amplified through unnecessary repetition of information. (We learn, for instance, about amenities such as golf courses on page 37 and then see the same subject raised anew, in equally broad terms, on pages 49, 97, and 114—only to find it mentioned again in part 2 in relation to specific hotels that featured such amenities.) Organizing a discussion of more than a dozen subjects is a tricky endeavor in the best of circumstances, but a slightly greater attention to the trajectory of her argument could have reduced such repetitions and increased the force of her claims.
That said, both halves of the book do offer rewarding angles. In the opening section, her comments on the racial composition of hotel staffs in the period are interesting, and her descriptions of the lavish menus of the period are generally entertaining. Braden wisely emphasizes the rather unfamiliar contours of Gilded Age Florida (whose largest city, in 1880, was Key West, with only 9,900 souls), and her analysis of the ways in which early Floridian hotel plans attempted to respond to the demands of both climate and tourist is quite helpful. In certain cases—say, in her references to the prices of rooms at the top hotels—a lack of comparison data weakens the force of her figures; on the other hand, in at least one case—her overview of architectural styles popular in the late nineteenth century—her efforts at contextualization result in little more than a glorified glossary. For the most part, however, the first half of the book successfully outlines some of the primary assumptions and forces that shaped hotel culture in Gilded Age America.
The second half of the book focuses on the specific buildings. Although many of them have been studied before and few survive today, they remain truly wonderful subjects. From Flagler’s grandiose Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, which featured seashell-shaped doorknobs and studios for the use of visiting artists, to Plant’s majestic Tampa Bay Hotel, a vast Islamic Revival structure, the hotels aimed at a scale and a level of comfort that was often breathtaking. These were structures that dominated, formally and economically, the communities in which they stood; Flagler’s Royal Palm, in fact, furnished the young city of Miami with electricity in its earliest years, and Plant was able to win concessions of lower taxes and a specially built bridge from a Tampa government thrilled by the possibility of a local luxury hotel. In each case, Braden clearly outlines the history of the structure and then, using archival photographs and in certain cases (but why, one wonders, not in every case?) ground plans, capably leads the reader through its primary spaces.
One of Braden’s most basic interests lies in relating what she terms “contextually meaningful architectural styles” to the buildings’ settings and intended functions. At times, this seems eminently reasonable: Spanish details at the Ponce de Leon, for instance, neatly echoed the Iberian heritage of its namesake and its hometown of St. Augustine, as well as its marine details reiterated its coastal location. In other cases, though, Braden argues for a more associative appropriateness that does not always seem entirely convincing. Thus, in treating the Swiss detailing of Plant’s Hotel Belleview, on the exceptionally flat Gulf Coast, she writes that the style evoked Alpine vistas and fresh mountain air and concludes that the physical details “suited the hotel’s visually striking setting adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico” (13). Maybe, but only if we admit that the styles were not, in fact, very exact in their intended references: Alpine vistas, after all, are hardly common in Florida.
What is common in Florida, of course, is the water and the sun. Curiously, though, these two famed Floridian constants and all of their related rituals go largely unmentioned here. Braden does note that the hotels offered fishing and hunting trips; she also points out, fairly, that some guests may never have left the lavish hotels. But the placement of most of these hotels near the coast strongly implies an aquatic interest, and even those buildings that were not directly on the beach accommodated those visitors in search of sand and surf; the Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach, for example, featured a trolley that led from hotel to ocean. In fact, although Braden never discusses the allure of the beach in the Gilded Age, at least two of her primary sources clearly mention swimming in the ocean. In a study that works quite hard to describe the cultural context of both hotels and patrons, Braden’s virtual silence regarding the ocean and the sun is curious and perhaps a bit misleading; one wishes for a history that would link architecture and environment as firmly as the hotels themselves did.
But if Braden’s specific readings of the evidence are not always entirely compelling or seem at times abbreviated, there is no question that this is a responsibly researched book. Drawing on published memoirs, promotional literature, relevant contemporary fiction, and recent scholarship, Braden is able to approach these buildings in some detail. At points this can be very effective, as when she turns to the diary of Fannie Clemons, a seventeen-year-old who briefly visited Flagler’s Long Key Fishing Camp in 1909. Braden is also quite good at using her sources to relate broad changes in popular taste to the marketing of the Flagler and Plant hotels. In one especially engaging segment, she shows that promotional literature for Plant’s Islamic Revivalist Tampa Bay Hotel began to play down its more exotic aspects as the more sober Colonial Revivalism became an increasingly fashionable idiom. In a few cases, perhaps, the biased nature of some of her sources shows through a bit too clearly; for example, her improbably absolute claim that “when Plant decided to extend his railroad into an area and to build or back a certain hotel there, that area or community benefited enormously” (38) feels like the enthusiastic language of a trade journal. But a bit of optimistic hyperbole, in relation to these hotels, is probably understandable; these are structures that drew much of their force from excess and surprise.
At the same time, they also worked toward something new: a basic consistency and autonomy that anticipated later corporate strategies. Flagler’s hotels were sometimes painted in the same yellow, green, and white color scheme as his railway cars, offering those who rode on one of his trains to one of his structures a general sense of aesthetic coherence or familiarity. Braden notes that this consistency created, in effect, an early chain, but later examples—say, Ray Kroc’s San Diego Padres, whose jerseys bore the colors of McDonald’s—might have helped to show exactly what was at stake. Similarly, Plant’s ability to win financial concessions directly anticipates Florida’s remarkable generosity toward a hard-driving Walt Disney in negotiations for Disney World. In short, Braden’s material is inherently interesting on its own terms, but it is doubly intriguing given its continued relevance. Its context, in the broadest terms, must also include more recent developments of the ideas of linkage and exemption.
This, however, may be too much to ask of a book that already achieves a good deal, despite its curious lack of a formal conclusion. If The Architecture of Leisure does not explore every possible angle of analysis, that may only be an indication of the richness of her material, which still fascinates (and, in several instances, still functions: two of the hotels are currently used by Flagler College and the University of Tampa). The last word on these resorts has not yet been registered, but Braden has at least produced a useful and provocative volume on the subject.
Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, Maryland Institute College of Art
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