Often times, returning guests are able to contribute something to the history themselves. “We keep a journal now of people who come on our tours and have a story of a time they were here, and we enter that into our book and it gives us insight into what was going on during the era,” says the Vinoy’s Normile. For example, Normile says a World War II veteran from Ohio brought his extended family with him to the resort not long ago because he had been stationed at the hotel during the war, when the Vinoy was leased to the U.S. military as a training center. “He had been talking about St. Pete and the Vinoy forever,” she recalls. “In honor of this man, his family said, ‘We’ll go to St. Pete, and you can tell us all about it.’ And he brought them to the Vinoy and the tour, and they were enthralled.”
Each of the three historians interviewed by American Way arrived at their position in their own way. Faulkner, who teaches history at Metropolitan State College in Denver and has written numerous books on Colorado history, was researching a book on the history of tourism in the state and decided she needed to retake the tour at the Brown Palace to refresh her memory on the hotel’s importance. After the tour, she approached the historian and asked whether they needed anyone to lead tours. No, Faulkner was told, but the historian position would soon be open, and she would be perfect for the job. So she took it. Normile worked in administration at the Vinoy, helping it reopen after years of neglect, before eventually becoming the hotel’s first historian.
While a Ph.D. in history is not required for these positions, a passion for the hotel and a knack for storytelling certainly are. Fortunately, at each of the hotels there is more than enough fodder for anyone interested in spinning yarns. At the Breakers, for instance, Ponce likes to dress up in a period costume and regale those on his tours with tales of the hotel’s founder, using his best imitation of Flagler himself. “Just to tell them about the brick and stone isn’t that interesting,” he says. “It’s necessary to tell them the story of Henry Flagler, because whatever we are is the result of his vision.”
And in Ponce’s animated recounting of the story, Flagler, who was John D. Rockefeller’s partner at Standard Oil, saw potential nobody else did. “What’s unbelievable is he came down here, and this was almost frontier area, and he built this big hotel in the middle of nowhere,” he says. And he just kept building, too, creating the Royal Palm Ice Company when his resorts needed ice and the Florida Power and Light Company because his hotels needed electricity.
These are the sorts of stories that many visitors clearly cherish and help entice people to return again and again. They’re also proof that the walls of historical places don’t need to talk — they just need someone to talk for them.