Art & Soul – Exploring a Hidden Gem

Article & Photos by Beth Carson

Traces of artists past and present abound. Custom designed, Tiffany windows in the dining hall at historic Flagler College, down a block and a half to the inspired cathedral of Memorial Presbyterian Church, directly next door at the Villa at Kirkside with its Haint Blue ceiling in the bathroom, St. Augustine is an unexpected cultural jewel in Florida. Our GPS is pointed to the Villa at Kirkside, which sits on property that used to belong to Memorial Presbyterian Church, named one of America’s 8 Religious Wonders. The church is one of the reasons I hand-selected this home away from home for my birthday weekend.

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“Next door” can mean a lot of things and cameras have been known to play tricks, so I was braced for a bit of disappointment. But when we pulled up after dark, my jaw slacked as we pulled into the drive. Even with my head craning out the window- I couldn’t see the beautifully lit and lovingly designed memorial in its entirety. It is almost close enough to lean over the waisthigh wall and touch. I was in love. And we were still in the car. Inside the downstairs suite, we are greeted with a wealth of information and graceful touches- a lidded, glass jar of Q-Tips in the bathroom, 2 glasses and wine in the bedroom, and a bowl of fresh-from-the-frontyard oranges. The villa is gracefully appointed with vignettes of hand-selected art, striking flowers and solid wood accent pieces. The Villa at Kirkside is actually 3 in one. The whole house- a 5 bedroom 4 bath and a half bath with private yard and pool in a quiet neighborhood just a few blocks from the historic district with parking for 2 cars — can be rented in its entirety.

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The large kitchen and multiple common areas make it easy for large groups to spread out and enjoy the home. Or, you can choose the 2 story upstairs- 3 bed, 3 and a half baths with pool and garden access. However, a couple or small group can rent the downstairs Kirkside Suite, with 2 bedrooms and 1 large bathroom. That’s where my husband and I stayed for the long weekend in January. It was the perfect combination of affordable and cozy. Your experience is a top priority with owners Mary and Keith. The positive pre-vacation feeling starts as soon as Keith responds personally to your request. Mary’s design skill is evident throughout the house. Layers of colors, textures and indulgent moments are around every corner. Keith is the communicator of the pair, his enthusiasm for your ideal vacation carries through in his emails. As a well-regarded part of the local community, Mary and Keith have created a warm haven in the quiet area in the heart of the European town of St. Augustine.

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Mary and Keith have created a warm haven in a quiet area in the heart of the oldest European settlement within the continental US. Founding Father Henry Flagler, who is responsible for much of the beauty in St. Augustine, was not only a shrewd businessman, but driven by an internal need for beauty– and for beauty to connect with the soul. Flagler constructed the Memorial Presbyterian Church as a memorial for his daughter. On the facade of Memorial Presbyterian Church is a swirling circle. When you step inside, you see that the circle allows light to illuminate the parallel stained glass window.

The outside represents the chaos and tumultuous world we live in– something fully on his mind while he constructed this memorial. However, step inside to the church, and the beauty of the glowing stained glass is evident. Church historian Jay Smith said “People walk in and they see a little piece of Europe. I wouldn’t say it rivals European cathedrals, but it has its own unique beauty and majesty, and people are very surprised by that.” Just a block and a half away, is Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel now Flagler College.

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The hotel was a mecca for the wealthy in the late 1800’s. Visitors, there only by personal invitation, spent up to the equivalent of $100,000 in today’s money, to spend the season in his high style, high tech hotel. The Ponce de Leon Hotel had electricity four years before the White House. From the light colored Tiffany stained glass windows to the beautiful towers, cleverly designed to hide their mundane purpose as a reservoir for spring water, (the local water contained high amounts of sulphur) no luxury was spared for his guests. However, as the designs he had created became reality, doubts crept in,and he began to be concerned that his creation was too beautiful—too perfect. Believing that only God could create perfection, he instructed the mosaic artisans to purposely lay a single tile in the large entryway that didn’t follow the pattern. This one out of place tile put his soul at rest- knowing he wasn’t competing with God.

Sunday morning, we held hands and walked the few yards from the front door of the Kirkside Suite and joined the rest of the worshipers for the 11:00 service. Glowing stained glass, the ornate, mahogany altar, and the soaring blue ceiling drew me in. For an hour and a half, I was in Europe. Around Town Walk to the left, beyond the church, for the artsy, historic part of downtown.  Turn right after a half a block, then you are at the back block of Flagler College. Walk the block, and turn left for sumptuous art galleries, jewelry stores and upmarket eateries. In front of you is the Bridge of Lions, connecting the mainland with Anastasia Island, which has a lighthouse and state park. To the left of the bridge before you cross is the Castillo de San Marcos, a riverfront Fort, which is a big hit with kids of all ages. St. George Street is the popular pedestrian area full of shops and small restaurants with live music and outdoor dining. You’ll also find the Colonial Quarter, where people in period costumes share St. Augustine’s history with you.

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The Visitor’s Center and the Villa at Kirkside owner Keith have great maps. Another Gem Many visitors miss the eclectic and historically significant neighborhood of Lincolnville, which is a short walk away just to the right and forward. Home of the only Martin Luther King Avenue that Dr. King actually led a march down, this area played a large part in the Civil Rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visited more than once, never staying in the same house more than one night, for his safety and the families’ that hosted him. An easily walkable neighborhood, you’ll recognize the area with the historic brown street markers. Take a walk on Sunday morning, after church at Memorial Presbyterian Church lets out, you’ll likely hear powerful sermons and gospel music belting out from the many churches for hours. Home to the highest concentration of Victorian homes, the neighborhood is a pleasing blend of painted ladies and fixer-uppers.

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The Lincolnville neighborhood is sandwiched between the Whestone Chocolates of St. Augustine (delicious handmade chocolates made onsite- if you do a factory tour – go Tuesday through Saturday- as their weekend falls on Sunday and Monday) and the delightful Dow Museum of Historic Homes a collection of 9 historic homes from 1790-1910. St. Augustine has a variety of opportunities- from the beach, which is driving distance, to fun dining and shopping opportunities, to exploring cultural and historical gems just steps from the front door. Kirkside Villa is a perfect spot for your stay whether you want the full house with access to the backyard pool, or the budget-friendly downstairs suite.

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