The Casa Marina, Key West’s Grand Hotel, is a gorgeous reminder of a bygone era.
BY SARA EVANS
here is an incredible romance to places the lie at land’s end, Down East Maine, the Cape of Good Hope, Norway’s North Cape, Cap Finistere. And none of them is more special or more romantic than Key West, perched at the southernmost tip of the United States, spitting distance from the exotic city of Havana.
The history of Key West is romance itself, the home of wreckers, salvagers and pirates, of Audubon, Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.
With vast funds and a personal sense of manifest destiny, as well as an unshakable belief in Florida and its limitless potential, Henry Morrison Flagler decided to build a railway from the top of the state to its very tip, punctuated by a series of the grandest railway hotels in the nation, which he would then crown with one of the finest hotels in the country. The Casa Marina was Flagler’s dream made visible, a symbol of his unshakable belief that Florida would be transformed from an endless malarial swamp to a paradise on earth.
Flagler’s fortune came from his partnership with none other than John D. Rockefeller himself, who built his and Flagler’s fortunes during those magical days that predated the institution of the national Income Tax. Flagler invested $100,000 in Standard Oil in exchange for an equity partnership, probably one of the smartest investments ever made. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil spewed not only fossil fuel, it also erupted money.
Flagler’s love affair with Florida began in 1876, when he vacationed in St. Augustine for his health. At the time, the town was a coastal backwater with under 2,000 inhabitants. A few years later, he built the Ponce de Leon Hotel there, followed by the Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach and the iconic Palm Beach Inn which was renamed the Breakers in 1901. All the while, he was buying and linking rail lines, to form the Florida East Coast Railway. He encouraged settlement and fruit farming along the line, and donated generously to create infrastructure, churches and schools. After several rough winters in Palm Beach in the mid-1890’s, Flagler decided to push still farther south. He drained the swamps of south Florida, built a system of canals, and created what was to become modern Miami. He then decided to push even further, based on his realization that proximity to Cuba and the newly built Panama Canal would make Key West an important and strategic port of entry.
Flagler sailed the Keys in his yacht, and realized that Key West, with its mere 20,000 inhabitants, had the highest per capita income of any place on the planet. The lure was irresistible: in 1904, he began a project to link the Florida Keys by rail. The work began in 1904. In 1906, in October, a Force 5 hurricane hit the Keys, destroying all the work that had been done on the railway. “Start over,” Flagler commanded—and start over they did. Workers died on land and at sea; more hurricanes struck, but still Flagler persisted. The first train to complete the run on Flagler’s Overseas Railway pulled into Key West on January 12, 1912. It was dubbed the “the 8th Wonder of the World” and Flagler announced, “Now I can die happy. My dream is fulfilled.” He died the following year.
Like all his Florida hotels, the Casa Marina was designed by the venerable New York firm of Carrere and Hastings. Their interpretations of Spanish architecture, with thick concrete walls, richly paneled interiors and coffered ceilings, and lobbies and gardens filled with palms and wicker, meshed perfectly with Flagler’s notions of an American Riviera. This Mediterranean spin gave Florida its visual identity. Opened in 1920, the Casa Marina was the brightest jewel in Flagler’s empire. French doors, croquet courts, a miniature golf course, and gardens exquisitely planted with a riot of trees and flowers, cooled by Key West’s constant trade winds, all made the Casa Marina a destination not to be missed.
The hotel was an emblem of the jazz age, a place to let loose, to drink, party and dance the night away. It became a favorite of entertainers, politicians and gangsters, of presidents and rumrunners, embezzlers and millionaires.
Once he built a railway; he made it run….and then the terrible Labor Day hurricane of 1935 blew Flagler’s dream away. The Overseas Railway line was destroyed and abandoned, never to be rebuilt. And along with it languished his beautiful Casa Marina.
Abandoned until a major renovation in 1978, Casa Marina, part of the Waldorf Astoria group of Hilton Hotels, has returned to its former glory. The $13 million, 18-month restoration managed to retain the Jazz Age elegance of the hotel, while modernizing and upgrading it to impeccable standards. Its suites are spare and contemporary, its gardens and beach groomed to perfection. Its public spaces, lobby, dining rooms, patios and ballrooms all evoke another time, with their gently blowing curtains, and rich wood walls and columns. The staff is first rate. And they believe, almost to a man and woman, that the hotel is haunted—by none other than the ghost of Henry Morrison Flagler himself. If the Casa Marina is where his shade has come to rest, than he was—and is—a lucky man indeed.