For whatever reason, I like to know exactly where important buildings once stood – where its footprint was, for somehow I think it lingers and makes a permanent impression on the
area. For Palm Beach, no other structure could be as important as the Hotel Royal Poinciana (HRP) once was. Envisioned as the grand hotel on Lake Worth, Henry Flagler built the hotel in 1893, and expanded it many times until it became not only the largest wooden structure in the world, but the largest hotel in the world.
I knew that the HRP was near where the Flagler Museum is today, and that it was on the Lake Worth (Intracoastal Waterway) side of the island. A historical marker in the area indicates that today’s Palm Beach Tower condominiums are on the land where the HRP once stood. But I wondered, where exactly did the hotel stand? Maps of the time didn’t really provide a clue, because so much has changed in roadways; houses and cottages once there are gone too.
Then I stumbled across detailed maps of West Palm Beach the Sanborn Company prepared to estimate rates for fire insurance (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanborn_Maps). The University of Florida has scanned the pre-1923 Sanborn Maps of Florida cities and towns, and the maps provide a rich history of buildings that once stood in many Florida cities (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/?c=SANBORN).
Included in the maps for West Palm Beach are the maps of Palm Beach, with incredibly detailed maps of the HRP, even listing how many night watchmen would be on duty and information on all buildings on the site. I took this map and overlaid it on a modern aerial photograph from Google maps. My only points of reference were the then Flagler residence with the small road in front, the shoreline of Lake Worth, and Royal Poinciana Way. These points allowed me to scale and place the hotel exactly on the modern landscape.
And then I saw it. Today’s Cocoanut Row roadway, just north of the Flagler Museum, cuts squarely through the ballroom of the Hotel Royal Poinciana! The ballroom is the small octogon shaped room on the picture above. Countless rich and famous people danced on that floor; the biggest event of every HRP season was the George Washington Ball, and the event would have had its grandest moments on that ballroom floor.
It is truly hard, if not impossible, for us today to imagine the grandeur, the elegance and prominence of the Hotel Royal Poinciana as a focal point for the Gilded Age. The construction of the immense place was an undertaking of its own, but to feed and pamper
thousands of guests among its 1,500 rooms at a level that wealthy persons would be satisfied with had to have been a monumental task! The local area supplied much of the fruits, vegetables and fish, but other meats and foodstuffs all had to arrive by train or steamer in an era with little or no refrigeration.
As time went by, many factors contributed to the HRP’s demise. It’s design was considered old-fashioned by the 1920s, the buildings were badly damaged in the 1928 hurricane, and the Great Depression all led to the hotel’s closing and demolition, completed by 1936.
Pat Crowley has a very informative blog on the HRP with great photographs and other ephemera – take a look at http://royalpoincianahotel.blogspot.com/
The photographs and postcards are a part of the Florida State Archives, the University of Florida digital collection and the Library of Congress Archives.