Things to Do in St. Augustine: The Lightner Museum
Housed in the former Alcazar Hotel, the Lightner Museum is an important stop in historical Saint Augustine.
Not only does the museum contain a world-class collection of artwork and priceless antiques, but the fascinating history of the museum and the Alcazar Hotel is a must for any history or culture buff. The history of the building itself is well worth a visit. Photo: SeanPavonePhoto/Fotolia
»A Brief History
The Alcazar Hotel was built in 1888 by Henry Flagler and was commonly known to locals as “the castle of happy returns”. During its height of popularity in the 1890s, the hotel had more than 25,000 visitors annually. The hotel’s guests at the time enjoyed the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, Turkish baths, archery ranges, and even a bowling alley. It was an extremely popular destination for members of high society during the turn of the century.
Unfortunately, the beloved Alcazar Hotel fell victim to the harsh nature of The Great Depression and closed its doors in 1932. The former hotel was sadly facing demolition until it was bought in 1946 by Otto C. Lightner to house his vast collection of antiques and artwork. After Lightner renovated and filled the building with his collection, he decided to open its doors to the public and the “St. Augustine’s Lightner Museum of Hobbies” was opened in 1948. Lightner not only preserved the history of the grand Alcazar Hotel and founded a now prominent cultural hot spot in Saint Augustine. Some historians have dubbed him “one of the first historical preservationists”.
Lightner acquired most of his prized collection during the Great Depression. He would purchase the artwork of Chicago billionaires who had to auction their possessions to survive the economic downfall. He collected large amounts of priceless artwork - that took those billionaires a lifetime to collect - and began to expand his already vast collection of collections. When he passed away, the building and his collection officially fell into the hands of the city.
In 1968, the city began renovations and eventually opened a new city hall on the first floor of the once popular Alcazar Hotel in 1973. The Lightner Museum was opened the following year and is housed throughout three higher floors of the former hotel. It has been a favorite historical and cultural tourist destination ever since.
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The current goal of the Lightner Museum is to preserve and maintain its prominent collection for the educational and viewing pleasure of the public. The non-profit museum is currently sustained by volunteers and visitor donations.
»The Lightner Museum Permanent Collection
The Lightner Museum is commonly referred to as “the museum of curiosities” and is accurately described as “a collection of collections”. The museum houses an eclectic collection of more than 20,000 items in its permanent collection. The items vary greatly and include all sorts of different pieces, including: furniture, cut glass, toys, lamps, paintings, watches, musical instruments, figurines, animal trophies, bottles, and even art made from human hair and shrunken heads. All of these random items and more can be found at the Lightner Museum year-round.
The museum is made up of three floors, and since the collection is so eclectic and extensive, each floor does not have a particularly distinct theme like other museums typically do. However, as a general rule, the first floor of the museum contains mainly Victorian era antiques, such as pianos and dolls, alongside all sorts of strange scientific contraptions and even a stuffed turkey. Classic French oil paintings are also on display. Temptation (1879) by Jules Garner was originally displayed in the Paris Salon but now graces the walls of the Lightner Museum.
The second floor of the museum was once home to the ever-so-popular hotel bath house but now contains the museum’s extensive collection of extraordinary cut glass. One lovely bowl in particular from L.C. Tiffany was made of stretch glass in the year 1905. The bowl hails from New York and is made of bright iridescent blue and green colors. It has distinct butterfly, dragonfly, and floral markings along the rim and bright rainbow colors in the center of the bowl.
The third floor contains large, intricately detailed furniture pieces and more Victorian artwork. One piece is believed to have belong to the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis Bonaparte, in 1806. Louis was the appointed king of Holland at the time and the Grand Escritoire was made just for him out of Mahogany wood in the classic French style with ebony and ivory inlay. This floor also overlooks a restaurant that was once a large indoor pool at the Alcazar Hotel.
One of the museum’s most popular exhibits is The Music Room. Antique instruments from as early at the 1870’s can be found here, with demonstrations of these priceless antique instruments held daily. The museum’s collection of antique Tiffany glass is one of the finest in the country. There are more than 5,000 salt and pepper shakers in the museum’s collection and even shrunken mummy heads. A majestic marble statue, Cleopatra, from early 19th century Italian sculpture Raffaelo Romanelli, is proudly on display in one of the museum’s newly renovated galleries.
One of the museum’s most prized works of art is a painting of the Saint Augustine skyline by Felix F. de Crano from the year 1900. It’s no wonder why the vibrant watercolor is so close to the museum’s heart: it depicts the sun setting over the historic Alcazar Hotel. The painting is one of many works by Felix F. de Crano housed at the Lightner Museum private collection.
»Upcoming & Past Exhibitions
The Lightner Museum has thousands of items hidden away in its private collection that are not continuously displayed, so when an occasion arises to share some of these pieces, special exhibits are created. However, the museum also welcomes traveling exhibits when possible.
On loan to the Lightner Museum for the summer of 2016 is the “America’s Parks I Encore Exhibition”. This exhibition focuses on the astounding and breathtaking landscapes that America has to offer. More than 20 different artists from all around the country are featured in this exhibition, as well as many beloved national parks. The exhibition is on display from June 10 to August 31 2016.
The Lightner Museum will be hosting the exhibit “Dressing Downtown” from October 2017 to January 2018. The exhibit features the extravagant and extensive collection of fashion from the world famous television drama: Downtown Abbey. The collection contains more than 40 period pieces that have been showcased in the series.
The museum does hold occasional exhibitions of some of its own collection that is typically kept in storage. Some of the recent exhibits featured were: Felix F. de Crano – Forgotten Artist of the Flagler Art Colony (December, 2014), Undisclosed, Photographs of the Hidden Lightner by Theresa Segal (October, 2014), Gilded Saint Augustine, Fine Art from the Age of Henry M. Flagler (December, 2013), Painted Works by Edwin Augustus Moore (February, 2013).
»Plan Your Visit
The Lightner Museum offers a variety of specialized tours: self-guided, story-telling, and curator’s tours. The story-telling tours must be scheduled in advance, and are a more personalized and fun way to explore the museum. The museum’s curator, Barry Myers, offers a special tour once a month. The tour features exciting and unique treasures held in the museum and allows visitors to have an intimate experience with the collections. There are no reservations needed for this tour.
Special tours can also be tailored to different age groups, so that children can also enjoy all that the museum has to offer. Any other organizations, clubs, or educational institutions can schedule a personalized tour of the museum.
Café Alcazar offers a unique dining experience and is conveniently located directly behind the museum. The elegant café is located where the indoor swimming pool was once housed at the historic Hotel Alcazar. Weddings and other events can also be held at the Lightner Museum. A variety of ballrooms can house sit down dinners, receptions, and dancing.
The museum store offers a large collection of jewelry, books, reproduction antiques, and many other souvenirs so the entire family can commemorate their visit to the Lightner Museum.
The Lightner Museum is located in the heart of historic downtown St. Augustine. Endless fine dining, culture, and nature is always ready to be explored just minutes away. For more information, visit the St. Augustine tourism website.
Back to: Best Things to Do in St. Augustine, Florida.
Contact: 75 King Street, Saint Augustine, Florida 32084, Phone: 904-824-2874
Things to Do in St. Augustine: The Lightner Museum
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