BY MARIAN TOMBLIN | CONTRIBUTING WRITER
The acrid scent of turpentine stung the air: The task of painting the enormous wood building was finally complete.
Harried seamstresses eyed the painters, laughing with jealousy as they fed yard after yard of the coarse cotton mosquito netting under their machine’s humming needles. Workmen secured the carpet, colored brown and dark red, with a faint touch of green, “Almost time!” was felt rather than heard by this small army of workers as The Day approached.
Jan. 1, 1888: The Ormond Hotel in the woods receives its first guests. And what a guest list it was!
In her book, “Ormond on the Halifax,” historian Alice Strickland describes the frenzy of activity that preceded the debut of our city’s most famous landmark, located where the appropriately named Ormond Heritage Condominium is now.
Hotel Ormond, as it became known to locals, was about to be discovered by 400 guests, including local celebrities Alexander Agassiz, the noted marine zoologist, Supreme Court Justice George Shiras, Jr. and portraitist John Singer Sergeant.
After Henry Flagler’s purchase in 1891, the building grew from its original 70 rooms to 600, becoming one of the largest all-wood structures in the United States.
By joining Flagler’s luxury line, which included St. Augustine’s Ponce de Leon Hotel and Palm Beach’s Breakers, Hotel Ormond’s guestbook grew proportionately: the billionaire John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (Henry Flagler’s partner in Standard Oil), Ned McLean (whose wife owned the Hope Diamond and reaped resultant heartbreak), President Warren G. Harding, novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, humorist Will Rogers, industrialists Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison, composer John Phillip Sousa, mobster Al Capone and assorted members of the Astor and Vanderbilt families.
Even one of the hotel’s former employees became a household name — Ed Sullivan took a job there in 1923 as golf secretary, after losing his newspaper job in Miami.
Because of its lack of air conditioning, Hotel Ormond was only open four months out of the year. Each January, our sleepy little town was shaken awake by the arrival of Mr. Flagler’s train. By the end of April, things quieted back down as wealthy Yankees fled the heat, returning to their northern compounds.
Eventually it became apparent that this business model was not sustainable. In 1949 Flagler’s East Coast Hotel Company sold the hotel to businessman Robert Woodward.
Located in the middle of the Florida wilderness, Hotel Ormond, once a destination for the adventurous, became a destination for the weary. In 1951 it was turned into a retirement home. For the next three decades, the property struggled to turn a profit.
In 1992, after numerous attempts at restoring and redefining, Hotel Ormond was demolished.
But its story doesn’t end there! The Ormond Beach Historical Society has done a masterful job of collecting, preserving and presenting artifacts from our golden era. Looking for an easy way to entertain out of town guests? Visit the Society’s welcome center in the historic MacDonald House on East Granada, then treat your group to lunch at Billy’s Tap Room, just next door.
The Hotel may be gone, but its heart is still beating 125 years after its grand opening.