I froze in my tracks, chilled by the hostile presence I could feel behind me. A pall of silence fell over the room. Speckled, dancing colors from the stained glass windows, paused in their movement on the walls. People entering the room stood stalk still. I slowly turned to see what had so startled me. I saw nothing. The presence remained. I squinted, trying to pierce the veil preventing me from seeing what ever it was. The image formed in my mind of an angry woman nearing seventy. Her dark hair confined in a bun on the back of her head was streaked with gray. She wore a print dress reaching well below the knee. Her black, wool sweater hung open. Her eyes flashed in anger as she ordered me out of the room.
On my first visit to the Lightner Museum in 1977, I worked my way slowly through the rooms and exhibits. Numbed with a constant onslaught of uniqueness and beauty, it took the Tiffany room to shake me into a little brighter awareness. “These articles were made by the very hands of Louis Comfort Tiffany,” I remember thinking.
In the center of the room, a large chandelier hung within my reach. In years past, artists told me that the mark of a genuine masterpiece is the compulsion the viewer feels to touch it. This cut-glass shade was no doubt such a masterpiece and I felt that compulsion. I quietly approached it. Pausing in front of it for a few seconds to admire its beauty close up, it occurred to me that there might be an alarm system and if I touched it, bells and whistles might go off bringing in the museum’s security. I still wanted to touch it. Raising my hand in defiance of the potential consequences, I extended my index finger and very gently touched a real Tiffany, cut-glass Chandelier.
At exactly that moment, the hostile presence made itself known right behind me.
Thirty years passed without my giving that experience much thought. In time I went to work for Historic Tours of America. The company wanted me to review all the historical attractions before I came on board fulltime, so I visited the Lightner Museum again. This time I moved more slowly, probably because in my thirty years in St. Augustine, I had learned more about Otto Lightner and his contemporaries than I knew on my first visit. Much of what I saw this time brought to mind stories I heard and articles I read. I remembered seeing a room dedicated to Musical Machines, on my first visit.
One of Otto Lightner’s collections was machines that can play musical instruments. On my first visit I missed the concert (11:00 A.M. and 2.00 P.M. daily). This time the concert was just beginning as I walked into that room. In the early 1900’s people were growing excited about MACHINES. They built mechanical devices to do things unimagined in the past and this room loudly echoes that excitement in a collection of cleverness and creativity forming an art form of its own. One machine even plays a violin. There are several organs and street pianos including a hurdy-gurdy. Machines were the rage of the day.
An adjoining room on the first floor exhibits two functional, blown glass, steam engines; the very essence of the age of industry blown into art. An early “word processor” (an antique typewriter) is displayed in that room right beside seashells and Indian spears. Otto Lightner’s passion was collecting. His wife probably said, “he just never throws anything away.” His button collection is upstairs with the cut glass and crystal. He collected pretty, marble ladies, elaborate furniture and unusual dishes. The list is endless.
Lighter made his money in the Hobbies Magazine business advocating the hobby of collecting. He traveled the world doing his own buying. He was an avid collector of collections and he opened a museum to house them. A visitor will find everything there from toasters to Tiffanies, from Steins to Steinways. He even collected an Egyptian Mummy. That probably has a ghost associated with it, too. Lightner’s Museum is quite a place, but the most dramatic, historical artifact there is the building itself, a tribute to the imagination of Henry Morrison Flagler. From his gardened courtyard to his marble fixtured steam room, The Alcazar Hotel is an architectural statement about beauty, luxury and pleasure.
The swimming pool fascinates me even more than the shower with the sixteen shower-heads. The pool’s ceiling, four stories above the water once could be opened to the sky. Vast decks wrapped around the pool in the upper stories, looking down upon swimmers in one of the largest, indoor pools of its day, fifty feet wide and one hundred twenty feet long. Viewing the room housing the swimming pool haunts the imagination. The room is cavernous. Shops line the sides of the pool. The Café Alcazar serves lunch in the deep end, but the ghosts are still there. Even if they can’t be seen, they can be felt echoing through the silence of that large hall. I wonder if Henry Flagler chafes over his swimming pool being turned into a theater, and if Richard Boone regrets the decision to engineer that change. The days are gone when children splashed one another in that water to the echoes of Beethoven from the orchestra above, while their dancing parents in formal attire watched over them, far below.
My visits to the Alcazar Hotel always include time in the pool and reflection of the grandeur of those past spring nights. As I wander through the building, I try to imagine how it must have been as a hotel. On this last visit, I wandered and mused as before but to my surprise, I had a jarring reminder of my first arrival at the Museum.
After visiting the gymnasium, Lightner’s dining room and the cut glass creations, I finally reached the Tiffany Room. Many years had passed since my last trip to see the actual museum exhibits. The slightly darkened room allowed the colors of Tiffany’s wonderful creations to be highlighted by the sun shining through the window. It took my eyes a moment to adjust and when they did, the first thing I saw was that Tiffany chandelier. I walked closer for a better look and felt the same compulsion I felt, the first time I was there. I wanted to touch it. The same thoughts occurred, as before – what if there is an alarm system. This must be pretty valuable. I didn’t want to cause a stir or get into trouble, but still. I wanted to touch it. I raised my hand, extended my index finger and touched a real Tiffany creation. The ghost was still there.
I went back to the Lightner Museum today to get photographs specifically to photograph that Tiffany Chandelier for this article. I expected to find orbs in lots of the pictures, since many people in St. Augustine talk of how haunted that building is. I was looking forward to finding out if the ghost was still there.
Not only was the ghost not there, the chandelier was not there, either. I went to a museum attendant and asked about the chandelier and was told to go to the desk downstairs and ask there. The person I spoke with at the desk had been working at the Lightner Museum for decades. When I asked about the chandelier, she answered, “What chandelier?”
I asked if the exhibit had been changed in the last few years and was told that the Tiffany exhibit had not been changed or altered in any way in more than forty years. I walked away shaking my head. Not only was there no chandelier, there had never been a chandelier.
When I got home I called the person who was with me on my last visit and she confirmed that we had seen a chandelier and that I was not losing my mind. The experience left me somewhat disconcerted. I’m not used to having ghosts play with my senses in this way.