Go on, admire the stuffed alligator hanging above your head.
Welcome to the Lightner Museum, the self-described ‘Smithsonian of the South’. While researching my next book, What The Florida, I came across this oddball in St. Augustine, and it ended up being one of my favorite places in the city.
The first big surprise: despite being in the historic Hotel Alcazar building, a former upper-class hotel built in the 19th century, it’s been wonderfully renovated. The second big surprise: it’s the variety (and personally, the randomness) of the exhibits that help it live up to its namesake. While there’s plenty of history on display, it’s about as random as it gets. Go from, say, a Blickensderfer typewriter from 1897 to these 20th century earrings from Senegal:
Other nearby exhibits include a Italian micro-mosaic (which you’ll see through a magnifying glass):
Mere meters away are a microscope from 1860’s London, and a 2,500 year old Egyptian mummy. Like I said, random.
Not far away is Rota, a stuffed animal presented to Winston Churchill as a war mascot during World War II.
This whole collection is a step back in time, right down to these old-school tobacco jars. This part of the ground floor exhibits emulates window-shopping, meaning you’ll be looking at the exhibits through the glass (and unfortunately, not getting as close to the exhibits themselves).
Spoons, anyone? If anyone’s a collector of spoons, comment with how many you have.
Give you one guess what these things are (answer at the bottom of the post).
Also here on the first floor are some oddball mechanical marvels and some musical instruments, which are played at 11am and 2pm. Drop what you’re doing to hear these 19th century player pianos and other musical items, or make sure you’re back here to take these instruments in (we didn’t know about these times during our visit, unfortunately!)
Head up to the second floor for plenty more decorative art, including this… monkey?
The second floor’s focus is on leaded glass, ceramics, and so on – it’s fairly clear most of the eclectic stuff is on the first floor, but there’s plenty more to see. These are cut glass pieces from the US’ ‘Brilliant Period’ from 1876-1906 – what made it brilliant was the 30-50% lead oxide added to the molten glass as it was being formed…
Some beautiful stained glass in a nearby darkened corner room. As elsewhere, there’s ample information on the cards.
A painting of Cimon and Pera, circa 1660, from a story that dates from the 5th century BC. Cimon was being held captive by his opponents in Athens, and supposedly wasn’t fed much (if anything). Only his daughter Pera was allowed to visit. She nursed him to keep him alive, and despite being condemned to die, his captors thought he was favored by the gods and eventually released him.
Ladies and gentlemen, the world has no shortage of toasters. This is the first time I’ve seen them collected in a museum, however. Presenting to you the Leonard H. Baer Toaster Collection. (The smaller print says it was given to the museum by his wife in memory of him – translation: his wife was more than happy to see them go after his passing!)
The building was an upscale hotel, which held the largest indoor pool in the world at the time. You’ll walk through the area that used to be the pool and can get a picture of you inside the metal cage on the left side (who doesn’t love getting sprayed from over a dozen different nozzles?). Keep meandering to see the ‘Russian bath’ (the steam room in the next room over).
Your final stop is the third floor, which is better thought of as a chance to look down into a grand ballroom and restaurant (complete with live pianist). A handful of larger-than-life paintings and this elaborate rocking chair are nice, but if you’re getting short on time this floor is skippable. Give it a few minutes and fantasize about wearing a nice gown or suit before moving on.
Overall, the highlight (personally) is the first floor with all its random oddities. The second and third floors round out the collection, and although it’s nowhere as large as the Smithsonian, that’s OK. Expect to spend about an hour meandering, up to two if you’re taking every little thing in.
Name: Lightner Museum
Address: 75 King St., St. Augustine, FL, 32084 (GPS: 29.890751, -81.313766)
Directions: Take I-95 to exit 318, then follow FL-16 East toward St Augustine or Green Cove Springs. Turn right onto 4 Mile Rd., then stay straight (the 2nd exit) through the traffic circle. Turn left onto W. King St., then begin looking for parking as you approach Flagler College. Metered street parking is around.
Hours: 9:00am-5:00pm Monday-Saturday (last entry 4:30pm)
Phone: (904) 824-2874
Ratings out of 5 globes (How do I rate destinations?)
Ease to arrive:
Worth the visit:
Answer: they’re occupational shaving mugs. While not explained on site, these personalized mugs were unique to each patron a barber had, and a teeming shelf of them was a sign of a good place.
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Also published on Medium.