Preserving the Ponce: Flagler's ambitious renovation and restoration efforts ensuring the historic structure's future
Oct 13, 2023
by Anna Boone
Since Flagler College’s earliest days, Ponce Hall has been a fixture in the lives of the Davis family.
Their involvement with Flagler began in 1971 when contractor A.D. Davis was asked to take the lead on renovation efforts turning Henry Flagler’s former Hotel Ponce de Leon into the fledgling College’s main residential and administration spaces.
Two generations later, A.D.’s grandson, Mike, was at the helm as A.D. Davis Construction took on an ambitious renovation and restoration project for the College- one of the largest since it was first built in 1888.
“When we walked out of that East Wing, it was in the best shape it’s been in since it was built 130 years ago,” Davis said.
Davis has gotten to know the intricacies and character of the Ponce better than most people still involved with the building today. He has worked construction projects in the Ponce since his first high school summer in 1981.
“It’s been a special place to work as I’ve gotten older,” Davis said about the masterpiece of Spanish Renaissance architecture.
During the summer of 2022, a burst fire-suppression pipe in the East Wing brought damage to the building in its 134th year. The College was optimistic and ready to use this unexpected event to the advantage of the institution and its beloved focal point.
Mike Davis and his son Reese Davis took the lead on a team of more than 100 workers dedicated to the multimillion-dollar renovation of this National Historic Landmark. This project’s aim was to begin upgrading the Ponce to modern standards while attentively preserving it for many future generations.
An Opportunity Emerges
“We found ourselves in a place that we really didn’t think we’d have again for multiple generations to really open up the building and get to some of the systematic issues that it’s had just as a result of being so old,” Flagler’s Executive Director of Facilities Joe Bruce said.
He said the leadership team for this project isn’t taking this rare window for granted.
“This opportunity was thrown in our laps and we’re trying to take the best advantage of it that we can,” Bruce said.
In its infancy, the College didn’t have the ambitious funds necessary to completely overhaul things like the plumbing and electrical systems of the Ponce.
Mike Davis acknowledged that the College “has been blessed by some people who have done a really good job of taking care of the Ponce.”
But Flagler recognized that there comes a time in the lifecycle of any building when it’s necessary to assess everything from the roof down in the best interest of safety and longevity.
With this in mind, the College committed to the year-long renovation and restoration project of the East Wing which will act as a blueprint for a similar undertaking in the West Wing throughout upcoming years.
The Ponce renovation is a major initiative under President John Delaney’s leadership of Flagler. His initiatives have also included updates to other, more modern residential buildings on campus, the opening of new spaces like the Brown Innovation Center, and student amenities like a kayak launch on the San Sebastian River.
Balancing Modernization with Historic Preservation
When students re-entered the East Wing of the Ponce this Fall, they were greeted by a space with modern accommodations and a refreshed perspective on the remarkable history of the building.
The renovation includes entirely new electrical and plumbing, a modern HVAC system that better controls temperatures and humidity, renovated laundry and bathroom spaces, and re-imagined lounge and study areas. Other elements include a new terracotta roof, insulation, and updated fire safety equipment.
Alongside these practical necessities, Flagler’s Executive Director of Facilities Joe Bruce said the leadership team for the project always had preservation and restoration as “an asterisk” in their minds, consistently assessing if they are “doing justice to the space.”
In some elements of the project, like installing new HVAC and electrical systems, the need for modernization of facilities married well with the goal of historic restoration.
Bruce said all of the wiring and piping that was previously visible on the ceilings of hallways in the Ponce will now be concealed behind walls, mimicking what the hallways would have originally looked like in the Ponce de Leon Hotel.
But he said some elements of the historic restoration and renovation, like refurbishing previously covered original fireplaces and restoring original tiling and trim, have proven more tedious and will continue to take time.
“It’s time-consuming, but we thought it was really important since those are such signature pieces of the entire building,” Bruce said. “We wanted to be able to meld the historical core of the Ponce into the residence halls and bring those two worlds together.”
A central element of this project has been uncovering elements of original design and architecture that have been masked by work done to the hotel before it was bought for use by the College.
“When you’re dealing with a building that’s 130 years old, that’s had different management and different purposes, contractors aren’t talking to the last contractors,” Flagler’s Vice President and Chief of Staff, Laura Stevenson said.
Stevenson said that some of the first renovations to the hotel came only a season or two after it opened, and they never stopped.
“They would just add,” she said. “Add layers and layers.”
This year is the first time the College has truly had the opportunity to explore the residential spaces in the Ponce and uncover what has been slowly hidden across decades of its ever-evolving story.
“The Ponce will always unveil mysteries to you and things that you just were not expecting,” Stevenson said.
As contractors worked on the Ponce, Stevenson said they came across historical gems that had been buried over the years. There were 17 original fireplaces discovered behind the walls of the East Wing along with unseen wallpaper designs that are being cataloged and saved with the hope of replication.
One swatch of this wallpaper has even been framed and displayed in Ponce East.
Stevenson said it has been critical to balance the updates and renovations that will “future-proof the building” with the important responsibility of saving and celebrating the Ponce’s unique story and architecture.
“We have to do our due diligence to preserve and be good stewards of the historical elements,” she said.
Working in an Architectural Time Capsule
Flagler built the Hotel Ponce de León as the first of his series of luxury resorts along Florida’s east coast. But Mike Davis said details of the Ponce’s magic were bound to be lost beneath layers of dated construction accumulating across the building’s history of varied use.
“Over the years, the Ponce had lost some of its historic feel in those hallways,” Davis said, noting that such an expansive project by the College provided the opportunity to better showcase more of that history.
He said in addition to ensuring all facility systems are functioning at their best, this project is prioritizing restoring and preserving the character of the Ponce that he’s built an appreciation for over the years. Davis said the goal was to make the rooms and hallways in the East Wing more closely resemble their original state than they have in decades.
“It has more of a historic hotel feel now,” he said about Ponce East.
Now that the East Wing is completed, there are plans to begin similar renovation efforts on the West Wing.
Although initially inconvenient, Laura Stevenson said the damaging burst pipe in 2022 necessitated the College taking critical steps in preserving the Ponce for more than 100 years to come- a distinctly worthwhile cause.
The question that Stevenson said guided the mission of this project and of Flagler College is one reflecting hope in generations of students to come that will call the Ponce home for a chapter of their own stories.
“What can we do for the future that’s going to maintain this beautiful history and this legacy?” she said.
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