Fernandina’s Florida House: New Life for Florida’s Oldest Hotel

The Florida House Inn is beginning another phase in its long history, with a new owner planning to reopen its doors in December 2010.

Florida House Inn Being Renovated By New Owner
Florida House Inn Being Renovated By New Owner

Signs of revival are apparent at a Fernandina Beach landmark.  The Florida House Inn is beginning another phase in its long history, with a new owner planning to reopen its doors December 1, 2010.

One of the most famous and historic sites on Amelia Island, the Florida House Inn’s doors closed earlier this year. Besides hosting overnight guests, diners and bar patrons, it was one of the featured stops for historic tours including a pub crawl offered by the museum, and is a storied place highlighted on ghost tours.

“When one door shuts, another one opens, so opportunity is knocking…hopefully a new proprietor will desire to bring the Florida House back to life, sooner rather than later. It appears a new owner or investor will get a rare Florida historic property.” Sentiments from my blog published in January (“Sadly, Historic Florida House Inn Closes in Fernandina Beach.”)

Famous people have walked this inn’s floorboards, including Ulysses S. Grant, Jose Marti, and Laurel & Hardy.  With homes on nearby Cumberland Island, the Carnegies (as well as other high society guests like the Rockefellers), also stepped through the doors during the Gilded Age.

“If these walls could talk,” no doubt many fascinating tales would gush out. The hotel pre-dates the Civil War. During the year Florida House was built, 1857, James Buchanan was President.

"Renovation in Progress" Florida House Inn August 13, 2010
"Renovation in Progress" Florida House Inn August 13, 2010

Hammering and scraping can be heard along 3rd Street in the historic district.  Passing by the Florida House Inn this past week, a busy crew was working away on the exterior in the summer heat. A draped banner announces “Renovation in Progress!” The new owner is reportedly Ernie Saltmarsh of Jacksonville (read article in the News-Leader).

Those familiar with the inn know it’s a large building. Besides the many guest rooms, there’s a big dining room, cozy pub and a beautiful rear courtyard with outdoor seating. A tremendous, centuries-old oak is the centerpiece of the rear brick courtyard. It seems to be embracing the inn with outstretched limbs, actually touching the structure were notches were cut out in the lodge itself to accommodate this wonderful oak. A mermaid fountain adds to the ambiance in this private outdoor setting. The News-Leader’s recent article indicates the new owner is yet undecided on the restaurant format.

Florida House Inn, Oldest Hotel in Florida, Circa 1857
Florida House Inn, Oldest Hotel in Florida

In the 1990s, Florida House Inn’s large dining room, featured “boarding house” style meals, perhaps the way it had always been through history (until around 2003 when the restaurant changed).  Diners in the old days used to sit together at long tables, joining other guests.  Then platters of southern specialties, such as fried chicken and catfish, would be placed on the table (and refills, if necessary). It was a unique dining experience, giving visitors the feel of yesteryear.  A time when guests traveled, met other folks staying at a hotel and they all sat down together at the dinner table. It was a home-style meal, comfort food.  Personally, I’d love to see the dining room return to its past boarding house roots.  It was a dining destination many local residents used to enjoy, along with tourists. Of course, the owner must do what he thinks will work best to make it a profitable enterprise.  Wishing him well with this new endeavor.

The relatively quick turnover of Florida House Inn during challenging times is very good news for the community. The historic bed and breakfast inns of Fernandina add to the allure of visiting downtown.  They’re an integral part of Fernandina’s charm.  More positive news is the recent reopening of another of the island’s historic inns, Hoyt House, also located downtown. Read more about all of Amelia Island’s bed & breakfast inns…

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By W.B. Lawson

"PERSPECTIVE" column -- Observations of island life, news & opinion.