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Lightner Museum: History is Just Around The Corner

st augustine lightner museum

Otto Lightner’s collection of fine and decorative Victorian Era art and relics is housed in the former Alcazar Hotel, which was built by railroad tycoon and hotel developer Henry Flagler in 1888. Lightner was a Chicago-area newspaper editor and publisher who made his fortune by rescuing financially struggling publications, which he turned into profitable ventures. During the Depression, he retained his wealth as the owner and publisher of Hobbies magazine, one of the country’s first publications dedicated to antiques and collectibles. He believed that everyone should collect something. As a result, when wealthy Chicagoans began to sell off their art collections in the 1930s to pay back taxes, Lightener began collecting all or portions of their holdings. He purchased several large homes and estates in and around Chicago to house his growing collection.

The Start of an Impressive Collection

Otto Lightner’s collection of fine and decorative Victorian Era art and relics is housed in the former Alcazar Hotel, which was built by railroad tycoon and hotel developer Henry Flagler in 1888. Lightner was a Chicago-area newspaper editor and publisher who made his fortune by rescuing financially struggling publications, which he turned into profitable ventures. During the Depression, he retained his wealth as the owner and publisher of Hobbies magazine, one of the country’s first publications dedicated to antiques and collectibles. He believed that everyone should collect something. As a result, when wealthy Chicagoans began to sell off their art collections in the 1930s to pay back taxes, Lightener began collecting all or portions of their holdings. He purchased several large homes and estates in and around Chicago to house his growing collection.

lightner-museum-st-augustine-exteriorVisiting St. Augustine

In 1946, Lightner moved to St. Augustine to recover from an illness. He stayed at the Ponce de Leon Hotel, which was across the street from the then-defunct Hotel Alcazar that had closed its doors 15 years earlier. Like the Ponce de Leon, the Spanish Renaissance Revival-style Alcazar Hotel was constructed by Henry Flagler as part of his dream to turn St. Augustine into a southern Riviera. Completed in 1888, the former hotel was designed by Carrere and Hasting, who are also renowned for the Beaux-Arts style New York Public Library.

lightner-museum-historyFrom Hotel to Museum

During the peak of its popularity, the hotel entertained more than 25,000 guests. Amenities included a grand three-story ballroom, sulfur baths, a steam room and an indoor pool, which was the largest at the time.

The grounds featured an open courtyard with palm trees and a stone arch bridge spanning the fishpond. Lightner purchased the building in 1947 and donated it to the City of St. Augustine as a permanent home for his extensive art collection, which he relocated from Chicago the following year. The museum opened to the public in 1948 after the hotel was purchased by Otto Lightner to house his collections. 

From typewriters to Tiffany, Otto Lightner’s collections of fine and decorative art from the 19th century were impressive and extensive.  The museum’s eclectic collection ranges from a mummy, shrunken heads, human hair art, cigar labels, buttons, salt and pepper shakers, to Tiffany glass, cut glass, porcelain, fine art paintings, furniture and sculptures all housed throughout the four floors of the original Alcazar Hotel.The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

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