St. Augustine's Ponce de Leon Hotel Rides Again

By Steve Hudson | September 28, 2010

Please visit our photo gallery to view pictures of this project.

In St. Augustine, FL, a multifaceted restoration project has given a bright future to an historic old hotel — and earned industry recognition for general contractor Batson-Cook along the way.

The hotel — the Ponce de Leon Hotel, which dates from the late 1800s — has been renovated and restored as the Molly Wiley Art Building on the Flagler College campus. General contractor for the restoration was Batson-Cook, based in West Point, GA, with offices in Atlanta and in Tampa and Jacksonville, FL. This project is the most recent of some 16 Flagler College projects completed by Batson-Cook.

According to Batson-Cook Project Manager Scott Hudson, the restoration effort included not only structural improvements and foundation work but also reroofing, tile and woodwork restoration, and many other elements.

"The project totaled only about 6,500 square feet," Hudson says, "but it was a big restoration project as well as a modernization project."

Not surprisingly, on a structure dating from the 19th century, the work was not without surprises. A restoration project like this one, Hudson says, usually involves a lot of what he called "search and discovery" — and this job was no exception.

Old Building, New Application

The Ponce de Leon Hotel, a fixture in St. Augustine, is a U.S. National Landmark and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. In the late 1880s, New York entrepreneur Henry Flagler (of Standard Oil fame) decided that St. Augustine would be a great wintertime resort and set about a program of development in the area. Flagler's Spanish Renaissance Revival style Hotel Ponce de León, designed to fit into the historic area where it was built, was part of that development. The hotel featured a number of grand murals as well as mosaics and terra cotta relief on the walls and ceilings, plus Tiffany stained glass. It was also the first large-scale building to be constructed completely of site-poured concrete — although, as Batson-Cook's Hudson notes, no reinforcing steel was used, except for the occasional piece of steel railroad rail used now and then in critical areas.

One of only three Flagler Hotels to be built during the Great Depression, the Ponce de Leon Hotel continued to draw guests for some years after World War II. But eventually the hotel went into a period of declining use. It finally closed in 1967 and was subsequently sold to Flagler College.

Tackling the Trusses

One of the most challenging aspects of the overall project was the conversion of a 120-year-old boiler room annex into a two-story studio, gallery and office complex. The boiler room annex presented a number of challenges, among them the fact that it was just 1 foot 9 inches too short to accommodate two floors of classroom and studio space — but since the plan was to put two floor levels in the renovated structure, that was an obstacle that would have to be overcome.

To accomplish the goal, Hudson says it was necessary to literally raise the roof of the hotel's old boiler room — but first the team had to find a way to deal with three massive wood trusses supporting the old boiler room's roof.

Raising that roof was feasible, the team decided, but it would be a multifaceted undertaking. First it would be necessary to remove the roof itself. The team would then have to remove and rebuild the existing roof trusses, add 1 foot 9 inches to the walls, then reset the rebuilt trusses and finally rebuild the roof.

Step one was to remove the roof. The existing roof tiles were taken off and saved for subsequent reuse.

Meanwhile, attention turned to the building's three wood roof trusses. These wood trusses, which had bottom chords of 40-foot-long 8-by-8s, were held together with a single tension rod, Hudson says. Prior to removal, the trusses were stiffened with plywood affixed to each side. A crane was then used to lift each of the trusses from the structure and set each one on the ground.

Once on the ground, the individual trusses were rebuilt. Steel plates and 1-inch steel bolts were used to strengthen the trusses, and epoxy was used to seal any cracks that turned up. Following this reconstruction, the original tension rod was reinstalled.

Meanwhile, the bearing elevation was raised higher up the parapet wall by the required 1 foot 9 inches, and (after the necessary wall modifications were complete) a steel frame was installed to support the new second floor.

Finally, the trusses were reinstalled. A new subroof was constructed — this time using insulated roofing board — and the original tiles were reinstalled.

Foundation Restoration

Another key part of the overall renovation addressed the matter of strengthening the foundation at the site.

Settlement had become an issue, but because of concerns over vibration it was not possible to fix the problem using traditional driven piles. Instead, the construction team called on Intron Technologies to install helical piles to stabilize things.

"Overall, we had to drive 118 helical piles," Hudson says.

During helical pile installation, he adds, more surprises turned up — including the original concrete foundations of the original boilers. But despite such unexpected obstacles, foundation work was completed satisfactorily.

Other Restoration Elements

Although dealing with the roof trusses was the most challenging part of the project, Hudson says, the project presented many other challenges to the construction team. For instance, fireplace tiles had to be matched during parts of the interior renovation; this required special tiles that had to be custom made for the job.

To support the new facility, new infrastructure was required in the courtyard area.

"We pulled up all pavers in the courtyard," Hudson says, "then installed new infrastructure and replaced the pavers."

Since part of the new space would be used for a computer lab, specialized infrastructure was required there as well in order to support future computer systems. And throughout the project, particular attention was given to providing adequate lighting.

In addition to these phases of the work, the overall project included replacement of termite-damaged wood and some lead paint abatement. It also included reconstruction of one of the studios to the way it would have looked in the time of Henry Flagler — right down to the burlap used to finish the walls. That studio will serve as a conference room and meeting place for the college.

On the exterior of the structure, Roman bond brickwork and palm trunk column were restored. Inside, the interior was updated with a spiral staircase, a skylight and exposed-beam ceilings.

Restoration Project Earns Awards

In addition to providing a new facility for Flagler College, the project earned Batson-Cook state and local honors.

The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the project with its Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Adaptive Use. The award from the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation acknowledges the proper rehabilitation of the new structure to its new use.

Additionally, the renovation of the existing hotel space and boiler room as well as the construction of a new addition earned Batson-Cook a 2008 Horizon Award in the category of "General Contractor, Building, Renovation, $2 – $6 million" from the Associated General Contractors of Greater Florida.