Welcome to the Lightner Museum, a museum in which the architecture and spaces within the building are as interesting as the collection itself. When we planned our trip to St. Augustine in Florida I was so excited to go and have explore this place, because I’m not sure where else you could be viewing nineteenth-century decorative arts, then look behind you and be staring down into what used to be a swimming pool… it’s quite the fascinating mix!
The Museum’s collection belonged to Otto Lightner, who was fascinated by collecting as a hobby. Lightner was originally from Wichita, Kansas, and mainly worked in publishing. He combined his interests and launched publications focussed on the act of collecting in itself, notably Hobbies, the Magazine for Collectors. He enjoyed viewing the collections of others and was inspired by the connection between people and their things (something which admittedly fascinates me in my research into collecting in the eighteenth century).
What can be viewed at the Museum are often pieces that originally belonged in the collections of others – after the Wall Street Crash in 1929, Lightner travelled around Chicago estates buying up collections from families in financial trouble. He then ran out of space for all of the things he had accumulated.
How many things did he have at this point, I hear you ask? Approximately somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 objects… no wonder he couldn’t fit them anywhere!
The solution? Enter the former Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida.
The hotel was built in 1888 by Henry Flagler, a railway magnate who capitalised on the tourism industry in Florida. The Alcazar, as you can see, was a stunning building with state-of-the-art facilities for its guests. When it was at the peak of its popularity in the 1890s, more than twenty-five-thousand people would visit during the winter season.
It is the incredible facilities which form the interesting backdrop to the museum objects today: a grand ballroom which wrapped around the top of the building like a viewing gallery over what was, at the time, the world’s largest indoor swimming pool (120 by 50 feet); steam rooms; a gym and other sports facilities such as archery and tennis; a massage parlour, and more.
See this beautiful gallery with the ceramics and glass in it? This used to be the gymnasium. The top level was where hotel workers could discretely position themselves to see if anyone needed assistance – this is now where there is a beautiful collection of art.
Though the hotel was incredibly popular in the late nineteenth century, when the Depression hit, the tourism industry struggled and the Alcazar had to close in 1931. It is such a huge building and lay empty until it was purchased by Lightner in 1947 for $150,000, who saw it as the perfect space for all of the objects he wanted to put on display. Two years later, it was opened as a museum, and Lightner gave control of it to the City of St Augustine.
When you visit today, you will walk into a courtyard that seems like a beautiful oasis, that actually holds Lightner’s grave in it. Around this courtyard you’ll see signs for city offices: the dual use was what Lightner intended.
And now to show you a few more of the fascinating and beautiful things in the collection…
Chandeliers are almost my favourite, but wait until you see this one…
Besides this, there are some fantastic paintings throughout the collection – some really quirky ones, like this Cats, Kittens and Jewelry Chest Still Life, c.1900, by Yvonne Marie Laur…
The detail in this is just stunning…
And a lovely watercolour of the gates of St. Augustine, by Phillip Brown Parsons.
VISIT THE MUSEUM
Find the museum website here. It is located in such a beautiful place and right opposite Flagler College, another ex-hotel which again is such a stunning building. Both are worth exploring if you have time in St Augustine.
Also… if you fancied some food and a little drink after you’ve taken in that gorgeous building and the fascinating objects, we had some amazing wine, cheese and charcuterie at Casa de Vino 57 – which has the most gorgeous patio. We were drawn in by the sound of live music and the lights strung between the trees!