Much of Cape Town radiates with modern appeal, brandishing its abundance of fashionable and trendy shops, galleries, cafes, restaurants, and hotels throughout the city. However, the crossroads where residents and tourists travel to find it all is Cape Town’s waterfront.
Leah and I took a walk through the waterfront district to see for ourselves, and found that one day was not enough to cover it all.
The heartbeat of the waterfront is the Victoria and Albert Wharf, where the city meets the sea.
Grounded by a two-story mall, the Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre bustles with 450 retail stores, and over 80 restaurants and eateries.
Beyond a swinging bridge and a capsule of specialty malls stands the Clock Tower, where a ferry (calm seas and weather permittting) awaits to shuttle intrepid visitors to Robben Island…
the one-time prison of Nelson Mandela from 1964 to 1982, but now a museum and World Heritage site. Unfortunately, high swells prevented us from visiting.
His importance to the city and country cannot be underestimated, as his name and face is omnipresent throughout the region.
Visible from all points of the city, and looming over the wharf is Table Mountain,
accessible by cable car, with commanding views of the city below. Unfortunately, Leah and I never made it to the top because of gusting winds at the time.
Continuing south, we mounted a set of stairs…
directing us to the Silo District, where a 1920s grain silo…
has been repurposed into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art,
having opened on September 2017, and boasting the world’s largest collection of African art.
The building also houses the Silo Hotel, occupying the top six floors within the one-time grain elevator. Daily rates during low season range from $900 for a luxury room to $5000 for a 1-Bedroom Penthouse. Leah and I thought we’d have a look around.
The elevator carried us to reception on the sixth floor, where we spoke to an attendant who eagerly escorted us to the eleventh floor open-air restaurant, lounge and pool.
Having missed out on a Table Mountain overlook because of weather, our surrounding views of the stadium,
the ship terminal,
and the courtyard below were spectacular, and made up for our disappointment.
Once back on earth, we headed past the shipyards…
and along the canal…
to Battery Park, a greenspace where families gather to skate and picnic.
After reaching City Hall in the distance, we doubled back to the waterfront, eager to continue the next part of our journey in search of wild animals.
The Neue Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs, and was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews around town. With its four striking copper cupolas,
it was considered one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time.
Twenty-five years later, the synagogue burned at the hands of Nazis on the eve of Kristallnacht, while onlookers could only watch in horror and dismay.
Fire engines stood guard as a precaution in case adjacent buildings should accidentally catch fire while the synagogue continued to burn.
Although the synagogue’s interior was plundered, vandalized and badly scarred by fire,
and intense Allied bombing scored direct hits on the Krupp artillery and munitions factory nearby,
the exterior of the synagogue miraculously survived against a backdrop of rubble.
My mother’s family worshipped at the Neue Synagogue from the time her parents settled in Essen in 1919. One of her earliest memories was sitting in the chapel listening to her father chant the Sabbath prayers from the bimah.
By 1988, the synagogue had been restored to its original splendor, and to the world, represented a shining memorial of the German resistance.
In August, 1999, despite my mother’s solemn vow to never return to Germany, her views were softened by Essen City Council’s olive branch of restitution, and she accepted their invitation to once again visit the synagogue she loved, and reflect on her upbringing. Twenty years later, Essen City Council officially decreed the Alte Synagogue as a “House of Jewish Culture.” Following my visit to Bergen-Belsen, I met with Martina Strehlen, the Deputy Head of Research Collections of the Old Synagogue to experience this cultural landmark, the origin of my mother’s Jewish roots, and to review specific archival materials. Martina clearly recalled my mother’s visit 20 years ago, and eagerly shared copies of artifacts she had donated to the research center’s collection.
Afterwards, I stood in the warm sun for a time and marveled at the significance of the Old Synagogue sharing a courtyard with the Church of Peace.
I was nearing the end of my journey, but there was one last deed to fulfill. Before returning my rental car to Amsterdam, I would first stop at the Jewish Cemetery of Diemen, located just outside Amsterdam’s city limits, and search for my grandfather’s grave.
Records indicate that Mnil Strawczynski was cremated on September 5, 1943, and his remains were transferred to Field U–a remote and overgrown plot of closely stacked headstones memorializing the 400 urns from Westerbork Transit Camp during Nazi occupation.
Walking the cemetary alone against a gray souless sky, I felt a odd closeness to someone I had never met, but had come to know through scattered remnants of research.
But I was no closer to the closure I was seeking.
With each stone unturned, a mountain of questions have been unearthed,
yet the answers are as obscure as the inscriptions on these markers.
I wanted more time in Amsterdam, but time wouldn’t allow it. I still had to reckon with Germany, and Bergen-Belsen was my first test. Google Maps predicted a 4.5 hour drive time, but then again, Google never consulted me about driving on the Autobahn. I rented a SEAT Leon–a car I knew nothing about–but was assured by the agent that, “SEAT Leon is a useful car to get from point A to point B.” “Never heard of it before. What kind of car is it…compared to more popular carmakers?” I asked. “Think of it as a sportier Spanish version of a VW Golf,” he informed. OK, I thought. That ought to do, and it seemed so appropriate considering how close the concentration camp is to Wolfsburg, home of the VW factory and largest automobile plant in the world. For a third of the way, I had to watch my speed, before crossing the country border into Germany. But once A1 turned into A 30, I was off to the races.
Ordinarily, 130 kph (81 mph) is the top-posted speed limit on highways, but for many high performance vehicles, that’s akin to standing still. When clear of frequent road repairs, much of the Autobahn carries three lanes of traffic: trucks and turtles in the right lane; quasi-regulation speed in the middle lane; and Mach 1, bat-outta-hell speed in the left lane. I waited patiently until I reached De Poppe, where I overtook a BMW 3, and throttled the accelerator as I pushed the transmission into top gear. This was life in the fast lane. When the speedometer crossed 170, I set my sights on the next middle-lane creeper, a Fiat 500. My cruising speed topped 190 and flattened.
The Fiat was coming up fast on my right. I checked my mirrors, and suddenly discovered the front end of a Mercedes-AMG GT filling my rearview and flashing its headlights. Seriously?! Within seconds of passing the Fiat?! I stood my ground–I was committed to passing the Fiat–it was my right! Of course, my tailgater thought the same. The roadster was so close, I could have been towing him. And now its syncopated horn was blaring. In my fantasy, it probably resembled a Grand Prix pas de deux, but in reality, it was German intimidation. I sped past the Fiat and quickly crossed back to the middle. The Mercedes effortlessly blew by me doing no less than 240, and in a blink of an eye, my nemesis was beyond my driving horizon. Thereafter, I occasionally found my way back to the rocket lane, but I was content to run, where others were meant to fly. Nevertheless, I managed to shave a half-hour off my run time as I took my exit. The scenery turned verdant green as I shot down the lonely country lane. Trees were filling in, crops were sprouting, and accents of color from wild flowers popped against a cloudless sky. I was racing to Bergen-Belsen–not knowing what to expect–but once I sensed the immediacy of my arrival, I purposely down-shifted my anxiety to regain control of my emotions. I sat in the parking lot for a minute with the engine idling, thinking about the history of this place and its connection to my family, and the untold suffering and misery caused to so many others, that I wept. It wasn’t a long cry, but long enough to strengthen my resolve. I entered the facility, where I met Simone, who sat behind the desk of the documentation center… and I restated my purpose. She took my grandmother’s name and cross-checked it against the memorial registry. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 people died of starvation, disease, brutality and medical sadism while interned at Bergen-Belsen. When British Allies liberated the camp on April, 15, 1945, they discovered over 60,000 prisoners, most of them sick or dying. “You are very fortunate. Just before the Liberation, the Nazis destroyed most of their records to hide their crimes. We have records for only half the prisoners held here, but lucky for you, your grandmother’s name is on the list,” she said with excitement. And then she presented me with twin volumes… and flagged the most significant page in Volume Two, which caused my heart to race. Simone offered a map of the museum, and I got started on my quest.
My time was limited and I was feeling overwhelmed by the site of so many artifacts–laid out like a trail of evidence–to narrate a place in time when human beings behaved at their worst.
Standing there, I was seeing the truth stripped bare, and this sensation was getting in my way of collecting clues of my family. Square window boxes have been dropped into the cement floor, representing the found objects that archealogists have unearthed…
after the camp was incinerated by the Brits to control the spread of typhus. Walls of displays detail the story of the horrors within… Because of my correspondence with Bernd Horstmann, curator of the museum’s Register of Names, I learned that Grandma Rose arrived at Bergen-Belsen from Westerbork on January 12, 1944 with 1,024 other Jews, and was detained at the Star Camp, a subsection of the Exchange Camp… Because Grandma Rose had value to the Nazis as a seamstress, she was most likely deployed to the SS-owned Weaving Works, which forced women to produce items from scrap materials, in addition to repairing inmate uniforms. Although living conditions at the Star Camp were considered better than other blocks within Bergen-Belsen… the indignity and torture was more than enough to drive many of the prisoners mad. Nonetheless, a code of conduct ruled inside the huts, in sharp contrast to the chaos and barbarism that reigned on the outside. Having been relegated to Block 20, Grandma Rose was beholden to Jewish Elder, Joseph Weiss. In time, as surrounding concentration camps closed, Bergen-Belsen saw a dramatic increase in inmates. Originally intended as a Soviet POW camp for 20,000 prisoners, the camp population swelled beyond imagination and sustainability. By April, 1945, the Third Reich learned that the Allies had broken German defenses from the west and the south as the Soviets were advancing from the east. On April 7, 1945, Grandma Rose was among the first to be loaded onto a cattle car initially bound for Thereisenstadt, but destined for the gas chambers. Of course, none of the transportees knew where they were going or what to expect on the other side of their living hell, except continuing sickness and certain death. After six days of unimaginable terror on the rails, Grandma Rose’s train was liberated near the German village of Farsleben on April 15, 1945 by American soldiers from the 743rd Tank Battalion of the 30th Infantry Division.
Maj. Frank Towers, who also took part in the liberation, organized the transfer of Grandma Rose and the other 2,500 freed prisoners to a nearby town, Hillersleben, where they received medical treatment from Allied troops. Grandma Rose weighed 90 pounds when she admitted to the field hospital. I felt I had reached my capacity for absorbing the inhumanity justified by the Nazis in their quest for the “Final Solution”. I didn’t know if I could process any more of it, but there was one last exhibit inside the Film Tower that was impossible to ignore, no matter how difficult to endure. Eventually, the museum was cleared at 5pm. As many as 10 other patrons filed through the exit and into their cars, leaving me with another couple to roam the cemetery grounds on a beautiful Spring afternoon. There are no tombstones on the grounds, but there are government memorials… and government tributes… and personal markers. scattered among a cluster of memorial mounds… where the unknown remains of tens of thousands of victims share a mass grave beneath the berm.
(please be advised of extremely graphic content)
I found solace inside the House of Silence, an outlying metal and glass edifice on the edge of camp, in the midst of a grove of birch trees… where a soaring meditation room offers space for personal reflection, and an altar for hundreds of tokens of healing and prayer. Bergen-Belsen is a sad place that offers little redemption beyond the nagging reminder that people have the capacity for immeasurable cruelty toward each other–as if it’s in our DNA–and this is our scar for future reference.Surely, a solemn oath from each of us to “never forget,” brings us one step closer to “never again.” But this memorial also challenges us to check our speed. We need to slow down and be mindful of the world around us in order to listen closely for the pulse of hatred that still beats among us, lest we drive down this familiar road again, ignoring the vital signs of tolerance, freedom, and understanding. A “Search for Closure” concludes with Part 3.
A recent two-week trip abroad was much more than a European romp through a handful of city centers. My mission was ambitious: to gather relevant data on my mother’s ancestry that has thus far proved elusive, and reconnect with family across the Atlantic whom I haven’t seen in nearly 48 years.
My itinerary took me through the highlands of Scotland, to the canals of Holland, to the Rhineland of Germany,
with travel hubs in Edinburgh,
before taking a breath, and finishing strong as a tourist in Brussels,
Each stop was consequential in my quest to uncover vital research of my mother’s epic escape from Nazi Germany, and the endless road taken to reunite her broken family.
This was not an easy trip, but I could sense that during the planning stage. Yet, preparing myself for the inevitable and predictable emotional turmoil was balanced by the prospect of discovery–knowing that every step was taking me closer to connecting the dots.
Starting in the UK, I then worked my way back in time to The Netherlands, and eventually Germany–where it all began–but it was Amsterdam that proved most pivotal in my discovery and the epicenter of my travels, because it was Amsterdam that first offered safe harbor and hope for two young sisters, who until then, only had each other.
It was in Amsterdam that my long-distance cousin Jude and I began to fill in the missing pieces.
It so happened that a landmark exhibit of rare photographs at Amsterdam’s National Holocaust Museum coincided with our visit, and immediately became a must-see.
A large number of photos were taken by professional photographers, mostly commissioned by German authorities for use as propaganda.In addition, there were also countless amateurs who photographed the persecution and deportation of the Jews.The NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) manages by far the largest photo collection on this theme and conducted extensive research into the visual history of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands.Countless archives at home and abroad were consulted;this has led to the discovery of many still unknown photos. The exhibition shows a large and representative overview of the photographic recording of the persecution of the Jews.The images show in a penetrating and confronting way, the consequences of the anti-Jewish measures in the occupied Netherlands.They bear witness to the merciless behavior of the German occupiers, the cooperation of the Dutch in the deportations, but also the help to people in hiding and to the daily Jewish life during the occupation.In addition, attention is paid to the post-war reception of the few survivors from the camps and those who returned from hiding.
First greeted with a timeline of events,
we proceeded through an open-air corridor and into a subdued chamber, where mostly elderly patrons followed a photographic progression of Holland’s involvement in the war, and its impact on the Jewish population:
Experiencing the exhibit was numbing to my core, but still my senses were on high alert. What were my chances, I wondered, that of the 140,000 remaining Jews in Holland from 1940-1945, I might find a photograph of my grandmother stitching an article of clothing…
for the Jewish Council,
to match up with one of the few yarns she used to tell me when I was so much younger and unappreciative of her travails?
Perhaps, she could be the proper woman in the gray coat with the straight back walking the lane between barracks in Westerbork.
Or might I recognize her in a crowd of 2,500 faces that was awaiting one of three “death trains” to Theresienstadt after the Nazi command realized that the Allies were only days away from liberating Bergen-Belson on April 15, 1945.
At times, I used my camera as a shield to protect me from the full impact of the horror behind the photographs, thinking that if I could position myself as someone who is solely documenting the documents, than I could better insulate myself from the madness that she and so many others must have experienced.
An interactive Remembrance Wall occupied a room by the Museum foyer, encouraging patrons to search its ever-evolving database for the names and dates of Jewish victims who perished in Holland.
As a tribute to my unknown maternal grandfather Mnil…
I entered his name into the query window. He never survived Westerbork, and I had a quiet moment of reflection and gratitude for his courage to save his family before himself.
A two-hour drive to Kamp Westerbork with Jude did nothing to assuage my feelings of emptiness and sadness, but the site was ironically enlightening and beautifully serene.
Once at the memorial museum, we were greeted by a train of suitcases, representing the cycle of detainees that the Dutch pushed through Westerbork over the years,
with an emphasis on the plight of 102,000 Jews who sacrified their lives, all for the sake of a twisted manifesto of hatred.
Jude and I met Guido, the senior conservator of the museum at the museum cafe,
where he eagerly shared news and theories of our grandfather’s demise and our grandmother’s salvation through a collection of registration documents.
Two miles away, the hallowed grounds of the memorial can be reached on foot or by bus. Mostly empty space and green fields for an array of radio telescopes,
it nevertheless showcases a collection of iconic relics from the war that survived the Dutch government’s demolition of the camp in the 1960s.
There is a glass enclosure protecting the Commandant’s quarters;
an original boxcar that stands as a testament to the 84 trains that transported Jews to Auschwitz and Sobibor,
where nearly all of the 94,643 persons deported were killed on arrival;
a monument to the 102,000 Jews of The Netherlands who passed through Westerbork…
and lost their lives;
the remnants of a barrack;
and a guard tower standing beside a metaphoric railbed.
I drifted from display to display, as if being involuntarily directed like a Ouija board peg–believing that I was somehow being programmed to walk in the footsteps of my grandparents.
Upon return to Amsterdam, Jude and I strolled through the Jewish District, walking past the Portuguese Synagogue, an imposing Baroque structure completed in 1675, where most certainly, our family would have prayed, but sadly, never as a family;
and along Weesperstraat, past the Monument of Jewish Gratitude,
where a controversial limestone edifice will soon be replaced by Daniel Libeskind’s Shoah Memorial.
From there, we strolled in search of the Burgerweeshius,
once the landmark orphanage that sheltered our moms after they were transported from Soesterberg…
and now home to the Amsterdam Museum.
For one moment, I thought I could hear the faint and familiar sound of children playing in the courtyard–playing tag around the tree, and playing soccer across the herringbone pavers.
Amsterdam had much to offer. Walking through the city, I felt an eerie sense of belonging–not because of the dissonance of grief–past or present–but the resonance of a shared understanding brought about by reconnecting with my cousin, Jude and the revelation that Amsterdam’s secrets have become an open book of acknowledgement and remembrance.
Peering into shop windows along the streets and canals of Amsterdam…
…presents many an oddity that will surely arouse the senses. Although, considering Amsterdam’s predilection and distinction for legal marijuana and prostitution, it would seem unlikely that there could be any room for other surprises.
Yet oddly enough, despite the merchandising overload of everything cannabis,
and the city’s penchant for 24-hr flesh peddling,
there is more to Amsterdam than just kink and circumstance.
There are also plenty of museums,
and enough al fresco cafés and frites stores to support a cultural and gastronomical battalion.
Amsterdam is a place for eyes behind your head, because two eyes in front is not enough to sidestep all the oncoming cyclists coming from every direction,
but also to catch all the head-turning outrageousness of an unrepentant town that still embraces Easter.
Amsterdam is a place to relax. Heck, half the population is already stoned, and the pungent waft of weed is a strong reminder to kick back and enjoy the scenery.
Amsterdam is a tolerant town, where all kinds of people gather and co-exist without judgement or little reservation. Citizens are proud and expressive, at times aggressive, but mostly helpful–although they smoke entirely too much, and regard the street as their personal ashtray.
As a laissez-faire society by practice and design, it appears to work. Quite simply, Amsterdam is a libertarian’s delight!
And that leaves plenty of room for rubber duckies and vaginas, and everything between.
Brussels loves its folklore. And its citizens are unabashed about it. They show it off around town, and celebrate it with a flourish.
Belgians are world renown chocolatiers, and proud of their invention. Case in point–Jean Neuhaus…
…a one-time chemist who realized that a chocolate coating around a pill helps the medicine go down. His pharmacy in Galerie de la Reine…
located in a glass-covered mall of pilasters, arches, and windows…
was converted into a chocolate shop in 1912, when he replaced his pills with praline, giving rise to an international addiction, and no doubt, a tooth decay epidemic.
On this particular day, the theme of chocolate carried over to Brussel’s most famous fountain–a 17th century pisser known as Manneken Pis–who was undergoing a celebrated makeover with yet another costume.
The pomp and circumstance surrounding the event was palpable. A singing society of Manneken Pis enthusiasts had crowded the corner of the Incubator and Oak Street,
just south of Grand Place…
in anticipation of the grand reveal.
Outside the circle of importance, a fringe show delighted the onlookers.
Eventually, the Nation’s colors were pulled away to expose the little exhibitionist dressed as a chocolatier–one of 1000 different costumes he has worn throughout the ages.
But Manneken Pis has some able-bodied company. Located a short distance away, his counterpart, Jeanneke Pis is a fine squating specimen.
It is believed by Belgians that the fountain was built in honor of loyalty. An old custom states that a coin tossed into the basin will bring good luck and is an expression of fidelity.
Of course, what could be more loyal than man’s best friend, symbolized by Zinneke Pis…
…thus completing the pee pee trilogy.
Dogs are a common site and symbol around Brussels, and represented throughout history, whether at the foot of Everard t’Serclaes, a 14th century legend, embodied in thestatue of his reclining corpse–
which is believed by locals to bring luck to all passers-by who rub it.
And then there’s Tintin’s dog, Snowy,
a comic sensation created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (aka George Remi).
There is a framed beauty and whimsy about the city of Brussels.
While it never takes itself too seriously,
there is just enough richness…
and Old World charm…
…to compete with any of the other great European capitals, while never forgetting its role as de facto capital of the European Union,
Everyday is Halloween at Les Catacombes de Paris. But, it’s not about dressing up in outrageous costumes, or wearing outlandish make-up. It’s about visiting a subterranean ossuary that radiates miles in all directions beyond the 14th Arrondissement of Paris.
Taking 130 steps into the bowels of time…
…and following a long and winding stoney path…
…through weeping ceilings heavy with humidity,
and sobering humility,
one reaches an imposing gateway, warning: STOP! THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH!
Beyond the entrance exists a daunting surreality that 6 million human remains reside here, integrated into the walls of 8000 year-old limestone tunnels once quarried to build Paris into one of Europe’s brightest beacons–bringing an eerie normalization to the horror and beauty of this place, for the skulls and bones are often arranged in an unnatural state of decoration.
With Parisian cemeteries overflowing their boundaries, Louis XV and Louis XVI crusaded for a ban on future burials within city limits when the insufferable stench of rotting corpses began overwhelming the community. But the Church pushed back, citing that the dominion of God’s holy spirits should never be disturbed.
However, in 1780, a rush of Spring rain caused a wall to collapse between a house cellar and the Holy Innocents Cemetery, causing the unsanitary contents of its burial pit to flood the house.
Thereafter, all Parisian cemeteries were exhumed,
and the bones were transferred into the catacombs–
a practice that continued until 1859.
Yet, it’s the skullpture, first imagined by Hericart de Thury, the inspector of the quarries during 1810 that resonates most among the catacomb’s 300,000 visitors each year.
Although there is a bone to pick: roving security discourages tourists from touching sacred ruins or leaving graffiti behind,
while a final bag check at the conclusion of the one-hour tour prevents tourists from poaching remnants.
But if souvenirs are a must (and who doesn’t enjoy a small memento of their visit), the gift shop at the museum exit does a brisk business–
Let’s face it! The Eiffel Tower is one of the most photographed structures in the world. Since celebrating the 130th anniversary of its opening last week, more than 7 million people a year now flock to gawk at it’s imposing presence along the Champ-de-Mars.
I’m certain that it’s been photographed from every imaginable angle, in all sorts of light–day and night–and in all sorts of weather conditions.
But not by me! After arriving in Paris and settling in my hotel in Montparnasse, the first thing I wanted to visit was the Eiffel Tower. To me, it meant that I was in Paris!
There’s security now. Since July 2018, a 3-meter high wall of bullet-proof glass (2.5 inches thick) protects the “Iron Lady” and visitors from vehicle-ramming attacks, while two sentried openings scan personal property. But the inconvenience is minimal compared to the lines that form for stairs and elevators to the top.
Once inside the enclave, the enormity of the tower is that much more imposing, stretching the length of one football field in all directions from the center to its foundation footings.
Examining the intricacy of the lattice can be hypnotizing,
when studying the symmetry of shapes,
or it may seem random and haphazard by a clash of metal girders.
But if abstracting the Eiffel Tower appears upsetting or unsettling, a postcard version of this Parisian landmark can always please the senses…
There’s no need searching for fabulous viewpoints in Edinburgh, because the city is chock full of them. And each one delivers the most splendid views of a town steeped in Scottish lore and history. All that’s required is an ability to scale any of the neighboring hills, and the payoff is heavenly.
For instance, a hike up to Castle Rock…
to access the gate to Edinburgh Castle…
provides a fantastic overlook to the south end.
But the bigger reward becomes more apparent after buying an access ticket to the castle for £18,
and stepping back through time to follow in the footsteps of Scottish royals who traversed the cobblestone roads since the 12th century.
Once inside Foog’s Gate, one discovers St Margaret’s Chapel–the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh–built around 1130 by David I, and dedicated to his mother Queen Margaret, who was later canonized in 1250 by Pope Innocent IV.
The chapel was designed in a Romanesque style with small, irregular stones fashioned in a simple rectangle, and underwent major reconstruction in 1851 by Queen Victoria,
and was updated with Douglas Strachan’s stained glass windows in 1922.
St Margaret’s Chapel commands a view of north Edinburgh,
looking to Leith.
In addition to the best westerly views in the city…
the Castle’s royal palace…
offers a glimpse of the elaborate decoration of the birth chamber of James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots.
A visit to the Great Hall is also in order…
boasting an interior ceiling constructed without nails–looking much like an upside down hull of a boat–
and housing a variety of vintage weapons displays.
Several exhibits on the mount recount the many coronations of its kings and queens,
the fighting character of the Scots…
and an active tribute memorial to all of those who have fallen in battle throughout the ages.
Once outside the castle entrance, a walk down the Royal Mile…
past The Hub (where the famed Fringe Festival headquarters resides)…
will likely lead to an encounter with a bagpipe player…
standing by one of the many Closes of Edinburgh which look out to the north and south.
Continuing further east is St. Giles Cathedral, founded in 1124, and the focal point of the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century.
Inside the church are an array of small knaves and chapels enhanced by extraordinary examples of intricately detailed stained glass.
Views of Edinburgh also abound from Calton Hill,
where several monuments dot the landscape, whether it’s to honor Horatio Nelson,
or the war veterans who lost their lives in the Napoleonic Wars.
Once the site of medieval tournaments and festivities during the 1400s, Calton Hill was also the best place to catch public executions in the 1600s.
But today, it’s best known for it’s iconic views of the royal residence, Hollyrood Palace positioned beneath Arthur’s Seat,
and a look down Princes Street.
the real appeal of Edinburgh lies in its streetside presence, where it’s never too early (or late) to duck inside a pub or a whiskey bar on Grassmarket…
for a pint or a single malt to really put a different spin on the city views.
High up on Hill Street overlooking Glasgow’s valley…
stands a proper and prominent synagogue, as if telling all concerned, that the Jews of Glasgow are here to stay, and equally deserving of a splendid house of worship to celebrate Shabbat and festivals that can easily compete with a host of surrounding Anglican and Roman churches.
The Garnethill Synagogue is Scotland’s oldest, built between 1879 and 1881 with flourishes of Romanesque Revival on the outside,
and Byzantine Revival architecture on the inside…
leading to a grand sanctuary…
once defined by an Orthodox tradition of seating women upstairs, apart from men who prayed downstairs.
But that edict has changed at Garnethill Synagogue for a different reason: there’s simply not enough of a remaining congregation to fill the seats. Men and women are now reunited downstairs, but (thank God) still segregated by sitting on opposite sides, gaining entry through separate doors.
Harvey Kaplan delights in telling me the story of Jewish immigration to Scotland.
For the past 11 years, Harvey has actively advocated for the past. He leads the charge as the director of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, an adjunct to the Garnethill Synagogue, working to make Scottish Jewish heritage relevant to a shrinking Scottish Jewish community that now favors bigger Jewish population centers in Manchester and London.
His vision will soon reach fruition thanks to a grant and remodel to be finished by 2020.
I had contacted Harvey earlier in anticipation of my efforts to research of my mother’s journey as a girl through Britain during the Holocaust.
After a tour of the sanctuary, we got down to business. Harvey’s mission to preserve the nation’s Jewish identity became clearer to me as I reflected on my drive to Haddington and Polton earlier in the day.
Before my appointment, I first stopped at Whittingehame House–
–one-time residence of Lord Balfour, Prime Minister, statesman,
and architect of the monumental Balfour Declaration, which granted homesteading rights to Jews in Palestine after Middle Eastern maps were redrawn following WW1.
In the wake of Jewish children seeking refuge in Britain to escape the Nazi scourge, Lord Balfour’s nephew and heir, Viscount Traprain, offered his home and its extensive grounds, surrounded by twisted yew trees,
as a farm school from 1939 to 1941 for teenaged refugees interested in making Aliyah to an Israeli kibbutz in the near future.
I became aware of the change to the estate when I noticed an online ad (https://www.onthemarket.com/details/3579306) detailing a ground floor, 4-bedroom flat with an asking price of £1,850,000. But still, I had to see it for myself.
Unfortunately, nobody was home. Perhaps, I should have made an appointment with the realtor.
From Haddington, I traveled to Polton, a community near Lasswade in Midlothian, in search of the Polton Farm School, the successor to Whittingehame Farm School, when Whittingehame closed its doors in September 1941.
The trip became more challenging after Google maps rejected my request, and left me hanging. I drove through several country hamlets looking for a sign (from God), and found the clue I was looking for by the side of the road.
I spoke to the lassie tending bar at the Polton Inn, who admitted to being a born and bred townie who knew a wee bit of history about the area. As I spun my story, she perked up.
“You absolutely must go next door and speak to the gentleman of the house. Certainly, he would know better than anyone what became of the school, ’cause I know for certain there was a school there back in the day, for I believe the farm you’re speaking of is on the other side of our wall,” she said.
I loved listening to her brogue, and wished I could perfect that lilting tone. “You mean I was that close?” I wondered.
“Will you come back and tell us what he said?” she asked.
If there was any doubt, the gates said it all.
Unfortunately, the farmer turned me away, informing me that all the property was split up in the 1960s to make room for development. There was nothing more than that.
Harvey didn’t have very much on Polton House either, but he’s optimistic. Somewhere, he surmises, there’s an attic somewhere in Scotland filled with a treasure trove of documents and photographs that’s waiting to be discovered by the descendants of early refugees, immigrants, and freedom seekers who willed a way to make a life for themselves and their families.
And when that should happen (and it does happen), Harvey will be there with his troupe of volunteers to dutifully catalog it all in order to preserve Scotland’s Jewish identity while there is still something left to preserve.
When we parted ways, I returned to the Glasgow overview,
There’s a wall of potty talk that circles the public restroom in the center of St. Augustine’s Old Town on St. George St. It follows a chronology of lavatory achievements through the ages as a testament to shitty innovations in evacuations. So before you make a big stink and turn a blind eye to an issue this pressing, just cut the crap and log into a blog that offers a fulfilling means to an end:
“This small chamber, located inside an ancient dwelling, had a drainage system that connected to other dwellings, and may have been an early toilet and sewage system.”
“This large public latrine with marble-topped toilets was used by the elite as a privilege of royalty and nobility.”
“Sir John Harrington published a book describing the forerunner to the modern flush toilet and installed one for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, at Richmond Palace, which she refused to use because it made too much noise.”
“This British chamber pot, a ceramic called Sponged Pearlware, was used by St. Augustine colonists.”
“Archaeologists excavated this toilet from the moat that ran along the Cubo Line, a defensive earthwork that protected access to the city. Long used as a dump by St. Augustine residents, the city filled in the moat in 1900.”
Society has made major advances in personal hygiene, to the extent that there are deco palaces devoted to pepsic discomfort…
while also allowing for targeted political commentary.
In celebration of Pi-Day, Leah and I scored theater tickets to the national tour of Waitress, presenting at Times-Union Center in downtown Jacksonville. Wanting to take advantage of fair weather, and never having seen Jacksonville during daylight hours, we decided to make an afternoon of it by visiting the Cummer Museum of Arts and Gardens located in Jacksonville’s Riverside neighborhood, a short distance from our evening venue.
And it was well worth the trip.
In 1902, Arthur Cummer joined his parents, Wellington and Ada at their St. Johns River homestead, and built a half-timber English Tudor style house for Ninah, his bride. Arthur and Ninah began collecting art soon after.
Only the designated Tudor Room remains from the original house, so “the public at large may enjoy some insight into the personality of the owner.”
A series of interconnected museum wings are separated by a courtyard paved with terra-cotta tiles from the Cummer’s old roof.
The original Cummer collection plus acquired collections of paintings, sculptures, and Meissen porcelain fill fourteen galleries, span 3200 years, and range from:
to 100 CE…
to 13th century…
to 17th century…
to 18th century…
to 19th century…
…to contemporary artists like Harlem Renaissance sculptor, Augusta Savage, whose work is currently exhibiting in the Mason Gallery.
Following Arthur Cummer’s death in 1943, Ninah wished to establish a “center for beauty and culture…[for] all of the people” on the residence grounds.
Upon the widow’s death in 1958, the estate and gardens were granted to the DeEtte Holden Cummer Museum Foundation. Soon after, buildings were demolished (with the exception of the Tudor Room) in favor of a state-of-the-art museum that opened in 1961, followed by a detailed restoration of the property’s Italian Garden…
the Olmstead Garden…
and the English Garden–
all of which were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 for outstanding “American landscape design in the first four decades of the twentieth century.”
As northeast Florida’s largest and most significant museum and arts education center housing over 5,000 works of art…
the sky is the limit.
BTW…the show was a tasty morsel about a bittersweet topic.
The day in St. Augustine started out dreary, with passing drizzle and smoky cloud cover, but with the polar vortex finally loosening its grip on the Midwest, and the California coastline bracing for epic rain and mud, the local weather seemed well within the bounds of “I can’t complain” conditions for a Florida weekend.
Nevertheless, taking a chance on an outdoor activity seemed risky. So Leah and I hedged our bets and we traveled to St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, where $12.95 will buy a St. Johns County resident general admission for one year. We figured that we could always duck the rain…
by browsing the Keeper’s house,
and following the marble tiles to the landing anchorage.
Then it’s 219 steps to the top.
Congress authorized new construction in 1870 to replace the fading “Old Spanish Watchtower” by the shoreline, that’s evolved since the late 1500’s.
$100,000 funded three years of construction.
Tourists have been climbing the corkscrew stairs since 1910. The Philadelphia iron works…
hug the walls of the 165 foot Alabama brick structure,
occasionally interrupted by keyhole glimpses of life…
until the stairs reach an opening…
to a 360-degree lookout…
that’s capped by 370 hand-cut glass prisms arranged in a beehive shape towering twelve feet tall and six feet in diameter.
The original lens was restored in 1992 because of vandals,
and re-lit by a 1000-watt bulb the following year.
Today, the tower represents the oldest brick structure in St. Augustine, and shines a bright light on a community that preserves its heritage, protects through its presence, and invests in its future.
My first Mexican vacation dates back to June 1975, when Mayan archeology was en vogue among discovery buffs and adventure seekers. Notwithstanding the primitive infrastructure and limited tourist facilities throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, the ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal were touted as the new off-the-beaten-path destinations worthy of exploring. And sleepy Cozumel was quickly becoming a lightning rod for scuba enthusiasts after Calypso dropped anchor atop the world’s second largest reef system mapped by Jacque Cousteau in 1961.
My unforgettable honeymoon exploits began with a flight to colonial Merida. After a few days roaming the Yucatan capital, my travel agent provided a wretched VW bug for cruising the crude roadways through the jungle to explore the nearby Mayan pyramids. Unfortunately, car shocks were not an available option, so cruising in the beetle became a bone-bruising experience.
The drive took Ros and me from ruin to ruin to Quintana Roo, with a proposed route down the coastline to Akumal’s picturesque Yal-ku lagoon and neighboring cenotes. But not before the bug broke down at noon on the border of a carved out town with a hard-packed dirt road reserved for payloaders and dump trucks. If only I could find a phone to notify the local agency in Merida…but not so fast.
In what was to later become Cancun City, there were only two available telephones in town: one belonged to the military police, and the other was located inside an established cantina, where we waited our turn behind a long line of contractors from Mexico City who had queued up to call home for supplies and payroll.
As luck would have it, my bride and I were befriended by the manager of the Sheraton Hotel–the very first hotelier to arrive on the Cancun scene–who overheard our predicament and offered to advocate on our behalf. Having identified himself as the only bilingual person in the vicinity, I thought I had discovered El Dorado.
We shared a meal of tamales and cervezas, and counted the electronic chimes gonging from the newly erected church tower, as day turned into night-for-day, with crews working around the clock in the hope of meeting an insurmountable deadline. I can’t remember if it was four or five or forever hours, but within that time frame our GM had located and negotiated with a local Mayan mechanic who had limited experience repairing diesel lawnmowers, and was willing to diagnose our car trouble on the spot.
After Fabio rebuilt our carburetor for $75, we were on our way, albeit ten hours behind schedule, but secure in knowing that a full moon would help light our way as we rumbled South to our next few stops.
At the end of our first week on the mainland, we reached a charming fishing village known as Playa del Carmen where we ferried across to Cozumel for what was to be the relaxing second half of our honeymoon. A ride through roiling seas did little for our confidence and constitution.
We checked into Cozumel’s exclusive El Presidente Hotel (because it was the one and only hotel up and running at the time). And without a minute wasted, we hopped on a rental scooter to discover our surroundings. Dressed only in swimsuits and sun protection, we set a course for Centro (town) on our 50cc moped.
With the sun on our faces and sea-breeze at our backs, Ros hung on for dear life as we cruised like Easy Riders for all of ten minutes…in the wrong direction. While I had asked the desk clerk for directions in Spanglish, his quick response in Spanish only left me guessing if I should make a left or right turn at the hotel entrance. So I made a left, and followed the road for five miles.
I still remember the event clearly. There was no warning, no barrier–only a road…then no road–just a drop-off of sand and rocks. A split second reflex to squeeze the brakes to avoid a wipeout was not without consequences. I pictured us in a time-lapsed, slow motion free-fall–my wife hurdling over the handlebars in a tuck position, and me rolling with the bike until it came to a stop in a black gravel pile.
My ears were ringing, making it hard to figure if the groans were coming from Ros or me. Instinctively, I kicked the back wheel off my bloody leg and tried to stand until I realized that my Technicolor world had been replaced by overlapping layers of yellow, magenta, and cyan–ever so slightly out of registration: clear signs of a concussion that I didn’t realize at the time, but none of that mattered at the moment.
My mission, compelled by a sense of urgency (and driven by excessive amounts of adrenalin) was to rescue my wife, who was presently lying beside the broken road, curled into a fetal position and sobbing. Fortunately, her condition looked worse than she felt. We managed to prop each other up, and limp back to the scooter to assess the damage.
We were in the middle of nowhere with a twisted bike frame and no means of calling for help. Our options were few and far between. Collectively, we mustered our strength and pushed the scooter back to El Presidente, where we both collapsed from heat exhaustion and shock. The concierge immediately summoned a doctor from Playa.
Meanwhile, two bellmen carted us to our room in a luggage carrier, where we were met by two housekeepers with wet towels, who oh-so-gently wiped down our blood-stained arms and legs. As we lay in bed waiting for medical assistance, the maids and bellmen–not knowing what else to do for us in our serious state–determined that fanning us would make us feel better, so each took turns waving a bath sheet from the foot of our bed until the doctor arrived.
Fortunately, our diagnosis was better than expected: our limbs and torso wounds were only superficial–analogous to second-degree burns; and my concussion was considered mild. As the doctor cleaned and bandaged us, he recounted that 90% of all accidents on Cozumel were scooter-related. As if to cheer us up, he considered us lucky that our injuries were far less serious than others he’s treated. True, but even so, the treatment seemed cruel and unfair.
Here we were, stranded on a quiet Caribbean island during our honeymoon, surrounded by clear turquoise waters in the thick of summer, and the doctor advised us against swimming for fear of infection. Instead, we were both confined to bed rest with no possible chance of intimacy. And to make matters worse, I was ordered to refrain from alcohol, except for tending to our cuts and scrapes.
For sure, those were the hardest seven days I ever spent in bed.
On the surface, Palatka, FL appears to be an antiquated town that time has left behind. As the county seat of Putnam County, there is legal commerce aplenty,
but Main Street bears the battle scars of a once-vibrant retail scene.
Far too many vacant store and empty sidewalks along St. Johns Avenue suggest that downtown Palatka’s panache has been replaced by big-box retailers like Wal-Mart (only three miles away)–jokingly confirmed by a hand-painted directional crossroads sign…
beside an empty storefront.
In fact, it would seem that much of Palatka is FOR RENT…
or simply un-rentable…
Palatka sits on the west bank of St. Johns River offering strategic access into Central Florida, which is what made Palatka a once-thriving pre-Civil War trading post after land-hungry American settlers eliminated the Seminoles, driving them west of the Mississippi.
Equally important to Palatka’s economy at the time was its mild sub-tropical winters–extending farmers’ growing season and making the area a popular tourist destination for the hoi polloi, whose wealthier counterparts enjoyed a luxury haven in nearby, coastal St. Augustine (read The Poshest Campus in America, and Otto’s Collections).
Unfortunately, a historic fire in 1884 and deep-freeze in 1894 sealed Palatka’s fate as a favored destination, as most tourists migrated South. The city rebuilt, and eventually re-emerged as a manufacturing hub, with Georgia Pacific currently holding title to the largest private sector employer.
But what of downtown today for its nearly 11,000 residents, and how can they possibly compete with St. Augustine to the North, Orlando to the West, and Daytona Beach to the South?
The city, when considering its redevelopment needed a gimmick–something to breath new life into it.
It needed a serious makeover, or maybe some divine intervention.
Driving traffic back to the beat of the city was important. The Bingo Palace added some well-deserved blue-collar cache and shabby chic to the area,
and preserving Angels Diner for future fans of Guy Fieri has also become a go-to venue.
One look around the interior of Angel Diner, and it defies the gravity of its standing as Florida’s oldest diner.
By any law of nature, it shouldn’t be standing, but this tin-skin dive is a testament to the wire and glue that seemingly holds its walls from caving. Stepping through its Hobbit-like entrance is like being transported back to a time when shiny greasy spoons offered up Happy Day burgers and shakes, while we listened to the jukebox soundtrack of our Growing Pains.
Leah and I shared a hefty order of Fish and Chips. The check came to eight bucks, and it was tasty!
A walk around downtown after our meal left the impression that Palatka is much like a collection of rusty charm pieces; although it boasts a historic district with a melange of classic architectural styles, it’s still fighting to remain relevant.
While there is ample nostalgia here, and a story to tell of old Florida, perhaps all that’s really needed is a broom and a fresh coat of paint.
Enter the Conlee-Snyder Mural Committee in 1998, which has opted to:
…accurately depict the historical, cultural, and natural riches of Palatka and Putnam County in larger-than-life murals. In sharing these pictorial renderings with visitors and citizens, appreciation of the heritage of the community will be enhanced and developed.
The city’s plan of commissioning a plethora of tribute murals over the past twenty years has given rise to a tourism rebirth, notwithstanding the city’s longstanding and dedicated art scene and attention to local culture.
Self-described as the City of Murals,
Palatka now boasts a swath of bright colors depicting lively time capsule markers, and always helping to defib drab building back to life.
What follows is a photo essay of just a few of them in no particular order:
on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue
on South Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue
on South Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue
on North Eighth Street at St. Johns Avenue
on City Hall, Reid Street at North Second Street
on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue
on Ninth and St. Johns Avenue
on North Fourth Street at St. Johns Avenue
on North Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue
on South Fifth Street at St. Johns Avenue
on North Tenth Street at St. Johns Avenue
on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue
on South Fourth Street at St. Johns Avenue
on St. Johns Avenue between North Tenth and Eleventh Streets
on South Eleventh Street at St. Johns Avenue
on North Second Street at St. Johns Avenue
Other merchants have joined in, beautifying the exteriors of their retail establishments…
with mixed messages.
After canvassing the town with my camera for the afternoon, I dropped my work façade,
The former Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine, FL was originally built by Henry Flagler in 1888…
as an adjunct to the Hotel Ponce de Leon (see The Poshest Campus in America) to accommodate overflow patronage and provide recreational facilities to his guests. Built in the style of Spanish Renaissance Revival with Moorish overtones, the Alcazar was patterned after its famed royal palace namesake in Seville, Spain.
The Alcazar enjoyed a storied history, hosting society’s gentry throughout the winter months, and at one time housing the world’s largest indoor swimming pool…
until the Great Depression forced the hotel to shutter its doors in 1930. The Alcazar remained uninhabited for the next seventeen years, and sunk into ruin.
Enter Otto C. Lightner, a Chicago editor and publisher who purchased the property in 1947 for $150,000…
and began an extensive restoration campaign in anticipation of moving his massive Victorian era arts collection from Chicago into a proper facility worthy of its size and stature.
Today, this National Register Historic Landmark features an elaborate courtyard with a stone arch bridge…
over a koi pond.
The first floor of the museum simulates a Victorian street emporium showcasing shop front window displays of assorted paraphernalia,
Industrial Arts inventions,
mechanized music machines,
and curiosities, like an Egyptian mummy and an aboriginal shrunken head.
The second floor features the remnants of Alcazar’s Turkish and Russian baths…
offering vaulted views across the courtyard.
Access doors to the baths stand at opposing sides the gallery vesibule.
Continuing on, the gallery boasts a prodigious collection of Victorian cut glass beneath a Tiffany chandelier,
The third floor exhibits fine furniture,
relevant fine art oil paintings from the Renaissance,
and additional collections, from match boxes…
to cigar bands.
The Lightner Museum represents Otto C. Lightner’s legacy of collecting.
He endowed his collection to the city of St. Augustine upon his death in 1950, and continues to keep a close eye on his Chicago treasures from the courtyard, where his remains are buried.
The Frontier flight was 15 minutes early, arriving from Jacksonville to Philadelphia in under 1½ hours–
just ahead of the Nor’easter that would ultimately drop 6 inches of snow and ice on the region, creating a classic commuting catastrophe.
Yet despite the nail-biting adventure of driving through icy lanes of traffic moving sideways, and the total disregard of STOP sign awareness, there was a calmness to the city that I had never noticed before, giving the illusion of Walking Dead abandonment.
First order of business was food. Move over Pat’s and Geno’s, because there is a rival cheesesteak to adore at John’s Roast Pork in South Philly. Fortunately, the lousy weather short-circuited the out-the-door line that is almost always guaranteed during lunchtime.
My son, Noah ordered two 12-inch sandwiches with mushrooms and onions that could easily feed a family of four, but proved worthy of two consecutive lunches for each of us.
Then, we were off to his apartment in Fishtown, an up-and-coming gentrification project that is locked between empty lots boasting scattered mattresses, and hastily-erected, fresh-bricked row buildings that contradict the broken sidewalks–all within viewing distance of Ben Franklin bridge…
and walking distance to Reading Market.
After an overnight stay in Germantown, a walk around the neighborhood revealed only remnants of the shot of winter that overwhelmed the area during the past 48 hours.
It was a bad day for Col. Charles Olmstead and the Confederate Army on April 10, 1862, when Capt. Quincy Gillmore’s Union artillery attacked Fort Pulaski from the northwest beachhead of Tybee Island, forcing its surrender thirty hours later,
and proving that a seemingly invincible coastal fortification that required 25 million bricks, 18 years, and $1 million to build could never catch up to evolving weapons technology.
Even 7½-inch-thick mortar walls were insufficient to protect the Fort’s garrison from the explosive bombardment of Gillmore’s experimental rifled cannon fire from one mile away.
Construction on Fort Pulaski began in 1829 as part of the Third System–in defense of Savannah’s 20,000 citizens and dynamic seaport–adopted by President Madison in response to the War of 1812.
With Fort Sumter under Confederate control by Christmas, 1860, Gov. Joseph Brown ordered state militia to seize Fort Pulaski–still unoccupied by Federal troops–on January 3, 1861…
…and transferred ownership to the Confederacy following Georgia’s succession on January 19, 1861.
It was a controversial gambit that ultimately escalated into eleven States joining the Confederacy–spiraling the South into Civil War by April 12, 1861.
In 1888, Henry Flagler of Standard Oil fame opened the Hotel Ponce de Leon (a.k.a the Ponce) in downtown St. Augustine to the delight of many fortunate Northerners, who eagerly took up tropical residency in one of 450 rooms during the winter season.
The elaborate Spanish Renaissance design was designed by the renown firm of Carrère and Hastings, with terra-cotta flourishes provided by Emmanuel Louis Masqueray.
Construction consisted of poured concrete over a coquina base–a new-fangled technique that laid the groundwork for future prominent buildings throughout the country.
Louis Comfort Tiffany and Company was responsible for the interior design, using the ballroom ceiling as an inspired palette for his signature “Tiffany blue”,
and an anchor for a complement of Austrian crystal chandeliers.
For three and one-half months and the princely sum of $4,000 ($100K by today’s count), Flagler’s pampered guests enjoyed uncommon luxury for their time, which included private bathrooms, building-wide electricity supplied by Edison’s on-site DC dynamos (another first for a hotel), gourmet meals, and nightly entertainment.
Upon entry through the Beaux-Arts gateway,
guests would cross the courtyard gardens past the playful sundial fountain
adorned by twelve spitting terra-cotta frogs.
Guests would continue through the hotel doors…
to gaze at the legendary rotunda:
The grand entranceway of the historic Ponce de Leon has been called the most elegant room in St. Augustine. The ornate Rotunda has captivated guests and visitors since the debut of the hotel on January 10, 1888. Richly decorated, the three-and-half story dome displays spectacular murals by George Willoughby Maynard and brilliant gilding that warms dimly lit spaces.
The Rotunda is the pivotal point of the Hotel Ponce de Leon’s floor plan, the crossing of the main north-south and east-west axes. In this central location hotel guests arrived, departed, socialized, waited for their carriages, or strolled to other areas of the hotel complex. The Rotunda linked the private guest room wings…to the public spaces of the hotel.
At the first floor level, eight caryatids (robed figures of women) carved in oak support the 80-foot dome and shape the octagonal plan of the Rotunda. Around the ornate wooden pillars, mosaic tile floors, marble and dark oak baseboards, large fireplaces, and gilded walls create the exotic atmosphere of this room. Hidden from view is a structural dome piercing the rooftop that shields a solarium. Originally balconies accessed from the solarium hosted tropical roof gardens and a breathtaking view of St. Augustine. In 1893, lion heads with electric lights were added at the mezzanine level.
On the plaster walls of the dome at the second floor level, noted muralist George Maynard painted eight elaborate female figures representing the four elements – Fire, Earth, Air and Water – and the four stages of Spanish exploration – Adventure, Discovery, Conquest and Civilization. Around these principal figures are many layers of symbolism, rendered by Maynard in meticulous detail. In 1897, ten years after their completion, Maynard reproduced these murals in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.
Presently, the ballroom at the west end serves as an orientation facility for guided historic tours and a ceremonial setting for faculty,
but also houses a selection of relics from a bygone era in an adjoining parlor,
with an emphasis on fine art,
and family life.
At the north wing of the hotel, the cavernous dining hall commands attention for its opulence and splendor.
Ten barreled bay windows are panelled in Tiffany stained-glass,
and believed to be part of the world’s largest private collection–making it worthy of safeguarding by forming a sandwich of bullet-proof glass on the outside,
and unbreakable acrylic on the inside.
[Diners sat beneath a quad of]…graceful angels that represent the four seasons, and a majestic Spanish galleon under full sail–an artistic rendition of the ship that brought Ponce de Leon to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth.
[Again], the majestic ceilings were the work of George Willoughby Maynard, the nation’s foremost muralist of the time. Full-length female figures were the focal point of this room. The ceilings hold Spanish crests and coats of arms intermingled with colorful proverbs.
The hotel was commandeered by the federal government during World War II, and used as a Coast Guard training facility. When the building was decommissioned by the Coast Guard after the war, hotel operations resumed, but sales and travelers were never as robust as before.
The Ponce made history again on March 31, 1964, when the dining room was chosen by black students from Richard J. Murry Middle School as the site for a mass sit-in, which ended in police violence and arrests, ultimately resulting in Senate passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Ponce closed its doors in 1967, only to reopen the following year as the centerpiece of the newly endowed Flagler College, where the newly restored Ponce continued its service to historic St. Augustine as a residence hall and campus cafeteria for freshman girls.
Presently, tuition, room and board totals $30,000, which in the scheme of things, seems like an unlikely bargain at today’s prices for yesterday’s glamor.
(The building was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and was awarded National Historic Landmark status on February 21, 2006.)