While working on a restoration project this past spring, Lightner Museum workers made an unexpected discovery: writing on the walls of the former staff quarters.
A mason the museum hired to repaint rooms on the building’s fourth floor was the first one to notice the pencil scrawlings, in some cases hidden inside bedroom closets.
“He was sanding and smoothing the plaster and he came upon these writings that had been whitewashed over,” recalled Lightner Museum curator Barry Myers.
Myers believes the writing, which dates back more than 100 years, was made by servers of the original Alcazar Hotel (in which the Lightner Museum is housed) whose dormitory was on the fourth-floor in the years of the Gilded Age hotel’s heyday, from 1888 to 1932. Many of the workers were immigrants from Ireland or Italy who did seasonal work at the Alcazar before moving on to positions with other resorts across the country.
In some cases, there’s just a name and a year, a kind of “I was here” time stamp, the earliest going back to 1915. Other etchings include work schedules, restaurant menus and prices, poetry, and even complaints about certain hotel guests.
“They were more polite than we are today, so the rudest comments described customers as ‘a pain in the neck’ or a ‘pain in the back,’ ” Myers said, adding that the hotel’s changing clientele, from uber rich to upper middle class, may not have been used to the protocol of luxury hotels, such as appropriate tipping.
Now, Lightner staff are working to translate the writing, some of which is in Italian and Spanish, and to make it part of a living history exhibit.
“We asked the sanders to leave the area as untouched as possible,” said Elizabeth Graham, an educator with the Lightner Museum.
The fourth floor currently serves as an overflow storage area for the museum and with the exception of all-access tours is off limits to the public. But that could change, especially if more writing is discovered.
So far, pencil scrawlings have been found on three of the 44 rooms that once served as staff quarters.
“There might very well be writing in more of them,” Graham said.
Each of the dorm rooms would have housed two employees, each with their own bed and dresser as well as shared closet space and a sink. One of the rooms, which Myers imagines was occupied by “fashion-forward young ladies,” has walls filled with magazine clippings of vintage pin-up models sporting finger curl hairdos, fur stoles and glamorous dresses.
“I think they were trying to kind of personalize their rooms a bit,” added McKenna Nelson, a University of Florida student who is working on the wall writing project as part of her internship with the Lightner Museum this summer.
After years as an elegant winter resort for wealthy patrons, the hotel closed in 1932. Chicago newspaper publisher Otto C. Lightner purchased the building to house his extensive collection of Victorian era pieces in 1947, finally turning it over in the form of a trust to the city of St. Augustine, which since 1973 has used the ground floor for its City Hall.
The Lightner Museum opened on the second floor in 1974 and has used the top floor for storage since then. Museum staff had not thought about restoring the rooms until staff began preparing for the upcoming “Downton Abbey” exhibition in October and needed more space for collection records. The discovery of the wall writing was a happy accident, one that Myers hopes will serve to tell more stories about the structure’s past.
“We think it’s important to keep this as part of the museum building’s history,” Myers said.