If you loved the Emmy-award-winning PBS series Downton Abbey, get yourself to St. Augustine, Fla., before January 7, 2018. The historic coastal city is the last stop on a nine-city tour for the collection of elegant, vintage costumes billed as Dressing Downton: Changing Fashions for Changing Times. It runs now through the beginning of the new year and brings the Gilded Age – end of Civil War to Stock Market crash in 1929 – into sharp relief.
Staged on the third floor Ballroom Gallery in the historic city’s Lightner Museum, 36 costumes drape mannequins staged in “rooms” decorated with vibrant Asian rugs, and turn-of-the-20th-century fine art and furniture from the museum’s collection.
In a mockup of an early 1910s century room – one of 16 vignettes – a mahogany table from the Blackstone mansion in Chicago is set with Royal Crown Darby china and white, damask linen “lapkins”. Mannequins dressed as Lord and Lady Grantham are posed as if anticipating the arrival of dinner companions.
Nearby the drape and train of green silk dress with beaded black net overlay worn by Lady Mary Crawley in Season One can be appreciated in a bedroom setting. It’s as if actress Michelle Dockery is preparing for her call to dinner.
The exhibit goes beyond fabric and beads, drape and elegance to explain contextual significance of wealthy British attire. For example, Lady Mary Crawley’s 1913 dress isn’t simply lovely garb but a representation of cultural shifts. The curators note:
“The style of this dress reflects the opulence of the pre-war period and the interest in Orientalism, partly sparked by the performance of “Scheherazade” in 1911 by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The asymmetrical hem with beaded fringe is a typically exotic flourish. By 1912, dresses were becoming looser and shorter with high waists, thin belts and narrow skirts.”
This new style is even “boyish” in shape and liberates the wearer from the corsets of previous years. It may be symbolic of easing societal restrictions. Still, this piece and others with the same profile are well embellished and maintain ample femininity.
When reserving timed tickets for the exhibit, visitors should secure a tea reservation in the museum’s Cafe Alcazar. It’s both an architectural and culinary delight.
First, the architecture: The Lightner Museum was once the Alcazar Hotel, built in the late 1880s by northern industrialist Henry Flagler. (Flagler, by the way, was John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil.) And, the café is snugged in the now-empty indoor pool.
Tea ($55) is four courses made in-house with local ingredients. Dining begins with bright-red iced zinger tea and served with soup or salad. Guests then select white, green, black or herbal for a second cuppa. One choice is especially interesting. The dark tea – yaupon – is made not from the commonly imported Camellia Sinensis tea shrub, but from a native holly shrub with naturally occurring caffeine content. Slightly sweet it’s much like the competitive traditional tea.
The next courses are served simultaneously on a triple-tiered tray – crustless sandwiches, delicate scones and delightfully miniature tarts and cookies. For a true British influence it arrives with clotted cream and raspberry jelly.
If you’ve made the flight from Cleveland to Florida’s northeast corner, stay with the Gilded Age theme and check out St. Augustine’s related architecture found in buildings near the Lightner Museum.
You may need a second day for a 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. tour of Flagler College just across the street. Housed in the former Ponce de Leon Hotel, the Spanish Renaissance building has retained Gilded Age elegance. An hour-long tour shares how Flagler, both business man and egoist, built the four-story, 540-room hotel in just 18 months from 1887 to 1888. Observe opulent architectural details from George Willoughby Maynard ceiling murals to the largest private collection of Tiffany glass in the world. The Ponce was one of the nation’s first electrified buildings, four years before the White House was wired.
(Interesting tidbit, guests were so nervous about electricity that Flagler hired young men to operate light switches for guests.)
Flagler’s goal of attracting his friends and other wealthy folks to winter in St. Augustine — $4,000 for three months in the late 19th century (about $100,000 in today’s dollars) – was so successful that he had to build a second hotel a year later to handle overflow. That was the previously mentioned Alcazar Hotel, today’s Lightener Museum.
The Alcazar was slightly less luxurious but brought new amenities like spa, swimming pool, bowling and tennis to guests of both hotels. With judicious planning, you can squeeze in the new “Upstairs, Downstairs” tour of the Alcazar into your schedule.
For this visit, you’ll wander up and down steps to see formerly grand amenities – the marble steam room and a vigorous shower massage contraption, for example. Then, you’ll discover the fourth floor where staff had gender-segregated living quarters, like primitive versions of today’s college dorms with limited bathroom facilities. Social stratification is laid bare when you consider the lifestyle differences upstairs and downstairs.
If you still have time and energy stroll around the corner to Memorial Presbyterian Church built by Flagler in 1890 to honor his daughter Jennie Louise. Jennie, who died from complications at childbirth, is entombed there with her infant daughter in her arms. Flagler and his first wife of three are also entombed there.
Church architecture is dramatic, inspired by St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Materials are local though, using the same construction method as both The Ponce De Leon and Alcazar hotels – poured concrete mixed with crushed coquina stone mined just outside the city. Stained glass windows and the floor mosaic are treasures of the church.
By now you should be sated with historic information. And, you haven’t even touched beach sand or tapped the Spanish heritage that reaches back into the 16th century in America’s oldest city. That will require another trip to St. Augustine.