Antiques & Art Around Florida - 2016-2017

The Upper Crust Of a Gilded Age

Fred Taylor 2016-09-06 11:54:34

The Lightner Museum With the end of the “Late Unpleasantness Between the States“in 1865, the countr y was transformed from an agrarian culture of individuals in the South and Midwest to an urban society dominated by industrial corporations in the Northeast. The United States became the world leader in applied technology and by the end of the century had the second highest per capita income in the world after Great Britain. Along with that high income came an upper class of the “uber rich” who could not spend their industrial fortunes quickly enough. It became a game of “one upmanship” in the competition for mansions, jewels, art and showy wealth in general. Two great exhibitions in the period allowed the rest of the world a small glimpse at how American royalty really lived. The first was the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 that put on a show of American opulence highlighted by the massive “battleship” furniture of the Renaissance Revival period that the industrial barons of New York, Pittsburgh and Chicago required to furnish their mansions and grand hotels. On the other end was the Colombian Exposition of 1893, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery but primarily designed to show off American wealth and technology. The importation of exotic goods from all over the world for the 200 exhibition buildings (forty-six countries were represented) gave the 26 million visitors a new look at the world and gave the wealthy a new, immediately available avenue for the consumption of international treasures which they gobbled up voraciously. But you knew it had to end. Between Upt on Sinclair’s 1906 “The Jungle,” Teddy Rooseve It’s “trustbusting” and the “shock and awe” of World War I, the Gilded Age was tarnished beyond even the recuperative powers of Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age and the bootleggers tax free liquor. Then there was that Depression thing. Alas the glitter of the Gilded was gone. Fortunately, Otto C. Lightner was around to pick up some of the pieces. Lightner was a Chicago based publisher whose motto was “Everyone should have a hobby. Everyone should collect something” and to put his money where his mouth was Lightner launched Hobbies magazine in the depth of the Depression and eventually became known as the “King of Hobbies.” One of his premier publications was the now defunct Antique & Collecting Magazine. So what did Lightner collect? He became a scavenger of sorts. As the estates and mansions of many of the great Chicago industrial barons’ families were forced to “downsize” and deaccession, Lightner was there to help, picking up the odd Tiffany lamp here, the extra chandelier there, that old painting over yonder and the occasional entire collection that had accumulated during the Gilded Age. And like many collectors he eventually began to run out of room to store his treasure trove collection so he did what any other collector would do – he opened a museum - in Chicago. By the end of Word War II Lightner began to enjoy the moderate Florida climate more and more, especially in and around St. Augustine, so he did what many a Northerner has done, he moved to Florida. And like Among the treasures found in the Ballroom Gallery is the Grand Escritoire, a huge mahogany desk made in the form of a pipe organ with ivory and ebony inlay, circa 1806. It is believed to have belonged to Louis Bonaparte who was appointed King of Holland in 1806 by his brother Napoleon Bonaparte. The complicated structure with moveable pedestals and concealed drawers made the Wooton desk of the late 19th century look like a simple box. (Fred Taylor photo) 43 so many other Northerners before him he bought some real estate when he arrived but his real estate purchase was a little atypical. It was the then closed building that had housed the Alcazar Hotel, completed the year Lightner was born, 1887. The Alcazar was commissioned by railroad magnate Henry Flagler along with the Ponce de Leon Hotel directly across the street from the Alacazar. Both, built in Spanish Renaissance style, were completed in 1887. The Ponce De Leon is now used as part of Flagler College. The Alacazar was the epitome of the Gilded Age hotel with no luxury lacking. It had the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at the time and was lavishly decorated in the spirit of the times. Its luck ran out with almost everybody else’s during the Depression and was closed in 1932. Lightner bought the building in 1946 and relocated his Lightner Museum to the magnificent empty shell, opening two years later. He then promptly donated the building and Museum to the City of St. Augustine. He died in 1950 and is buried in the front yard of the Museum. Thanks to Otto Lightner’s generosity and the dedication of the Museum staff including Museum Executive Director Robert W. Harper, III and Museum Curator Barry Westcott Myers, Jr., it is now possible to view some of the outstanding art and artifacts collected by the denizens of the Gilded Age, displayed in 60,000 square feet in the period splendor of the Alcazar. The tour begins in the signature venue of the Museum, the Ballroom Gallery in the third floor ballroom of the original hotel. It is easy to imagine the wealthy people and their finery in this vast hall with breathtaking panoramic views of the City. The Gallery is equipped with a display board entitled “The American Castle” showing interior photos of some of the mansions such as the Palmer and McCormick houses in Chicago and Vanderbilt house, New York that yielded some of the treasures found in this room with red dots on the photos pointing out specific items found in both the photo and the Gallery. Arranged around the perimeter of the Ballroom are some of the great treasures of the rich and famous including the Grand Escritoire desk said to have belonged to Louis Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, an extreme Rococo gold leafed swan arm rocker, a 19th century Italian sculpture of Cleopatra and a nearby oil on canvas “Cleopatra and the Dying Messenger” by Trouillebert French 1873, an 1850 Viennese “Morning Glory” chandelier, a pair of Renaissance Revival lounges in an Egyptian motif, New York 1860/1870 and a profusely carved and upholstered “throne” chair from the Potter-Palmer mansion in Chicago. Below the Ballroom Gallery is the Mezzanine Gallery overlooking the lower floors and occupied by two 19th century Anglo-Indian pierce carved “blackwood” pieces, a couch and a Davenport desk, a rectangular mahogany grand piano by Alpheus Babcock, Boston 1824, a Renaissance Revival side chair acquired by G. C. Hughes at the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition and a breathtaking three-piece gold leafed Art Nouveau parlor set by S. Karpen of Chicago. The lower level Transition Galleries hold many of the incredible “smalls” of the Museum collection in glass cases surrounded by some not-so-small treasures including a monumental malachite urn from the Czar’s winter palace in St. Petersburg first exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and a Renaissance Revival grand piano that belonged to opera singer Amelita Galli-Curci. The cases include examples of early Rookwood, mid 19th century Staffordshire, early 20th century Meissen, Royal Worchester, French majolica, and late 19th century European ruby and cranberry glass and a case displaying examples of Tiffany glass. But a large section is reserved for an overwhelming display of hundreds of pieces of Brilliant Period American cut glass. The ground floor has an entire room devoted to leaded glass including a Tiffany “Dragonfly” lamp, a music room full of working examples of late 19th and early 20th century mechanical music makers and glassed in “store fronts” designed to show what window shopping was like in the late Victorian period. While the Lightner collection is enough to be completely absorbing, the elements of the original hotel that house the Museum are also part of the “collection” and include the incredible Turkish bath area, the largest indoor swimming pool of the period (now the restaurant) and the hotel gymnasium, not to mention the woodwork, the stair wells, the paneling and stone work. The Lightner Museum truly is a gem hidden within the treasure house that is St. Augustine, Florida. (

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