Restored St. Augustine landmark celebrates 20 years

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Richard Kessler, CEO of The Kessler Enterprise Inc., didn’t listen to naysayers who contended a luxury hotel had no place in the Nation’s Oldest City.

In the mid-1990s, Kessler visited St. Augustine on a trip with his college-age daughter, Laura. They stayed in a bed and breakfast inn and took in the sights. Kessler had just finished the Grand Bohemian Hotel in downtown Orlando, and realized St. Augustine visitors did not have a luxury hotel option.

He walked to the Lightner building and asked to see the city manager.

“I asked him if there was any property available for a hotel,” Kessler said. “He walked to his window and pointed across the street to the courthouse. ‘You can buy that,’ he told me.”

Arthur Andersen had done a feasibility study for a hotel in St. Augustine’s downtown, advising it should have no more than 80 rooms, no more than three stars, and would take a long time to be successful.

“I didn’t believe that,” Kessler said. “I talked with Laura and we decided St. Augustine needed a luxury hotel.”

The Casa Monica Hotel originally opened in 1888, but that same year Henry Flagler purchased the property for $325,000. He renamed the hotel to Cordova and in 1903 rebranded the property as part of the Alcazar, which is now the Lightner Museum. It closed in 1932. The property served as the county courthouse from 1968 to the late 1970s.

Kessler recognized the value in restoration. He said it would cost $600,000 “a key,” meaning per room, to build it today. The restored Casa Monica Hotel opened its doors on Dec. 10, 1999.

“It was profitable in the first year,” Kessler said.

To celebrate the property’s 20th anniversary, Kessler and staff threw a party Dec. 11 for residents and visitors. Live music played while guests sipped champagne and sampled hors d’oeuvres. Kimberly Wilson, general manager, recognized 20-year employees Luis Estes and Gillen Durling.

Speakers included former St. Augustine Mayor Len Weeks, who was part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1999, and Joe Joyner, president of Flagler College. The general sentiment was that the upscale property was an impetus to downtown revitalization.

“It’s been a wonderful experience. The city is always supportive and that’s important,” Kessler said.

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