top of page

The Places that Define Us

Interview with Leslee Keys

Principal, Keys and Associates, LLC

You have over forty years of experience in historic preservation. What were some of your early experiences in the field?

Most of my recent experiences come out of 20 years of hurricanes, documenting historic properties, and assisting with recovery efforts for historic properties afterwards. My first disaster-related experience was in 1979 to help document the Waterstreet Historic District in Xenia, Ohio. The community had lost half of its historic town to a tornado five years earlier, so the residents and business owners were trying to economically recover from that event. My next major experience related to what today would be termed resilience planning. The result was a living history farm based on a historic riverfront property southwest of Louisville, Kentucky in a protected floodplain. A house and farm remnant had been abandoned. Through a public-private partnership, we turned those into an environmental education center to teach people how to address water issues. Then in 1993, after Hurricane Andrew had ravaged Miami and the Florida Keys in August of ’92, my family and I relocated there. I spent the next four years as a State preservation office director with a jurisdiction consisting of the islands along the 110 miles through the Keys. I helped rebuild and repair the historic resources, as well as documented the A1A scenic highway. In short, I’ve been trying to save places that are important to people.

Historic preservation as a field is broadening, as it needs to, in order to deal with disasters and resilience. It's broadening to encompass the full continuum of places that represent all of America. We can trace it back almost to saving Mount Vernon, which happened right before the Civil War. Now, we’re saving all kinds of places that are important to people. I'm going to teach a special class in the fall that is going to include places, whether there are buildings on them or not, that help people grow, to understand who they are and what they want to become, which makes those places special. They’re places that may not be associated with a building. The field is working to encompass the idea of having people be grounded with the natural and built environments.

What similarities and differences in historic preservation strategies have you seen in the different places that you've worked?

There are very different components and types of people. For example, in rural Kentucky, thirty-five years ago, there were extremely long-standing families, with few newer residents. The area was economically fragile, so the interest in the property known today as Riverside: The Farnsley-Moremen Landing was to be able to keep the community intact, and not lose it to subdivision and development. The Florida Keys has a very diverse, sophisticated, and wealthier population. In general, the attraction is tourism and winter residences. The Florida Keys are gorgeous and warm, with Caribbean blue water. But, it’s also challenging there, because the Keys are so far away from the state capitol in Tallahassee. That made it challenging to try to take action initially until we worked out a unique, creative process that has been used since to have work accomplished in a timely manner. We pulled together a group of partners that might not have come together otherwise, so that was pretty incredible. These places have populations with very different interests and motivations, but both are facing water-related issues. In both cases, there are really strong senses of community and emotional commitment to the places.

Are there strategies for dealing with water-related issues from your previous experiences that you have brought to St. Augustine?

For the last 25 years, I’ve been working in St Augustine. I’ve spent the majority of that time working for Flagler College, which is headquartered in a remarkable Gilded Age hotel. I’ve very much worked on sea level rise and disaster preparedness and recovery, because after Hurricane Andrew, people started actually paying attention to sea level rise and documenting it. I would say that's where the greatest impact was made and the community has come together. We hosted the Keeping History of Water Conference in 2019 after Lisa Craig had hosted it in Annapolis in 2017. We brought people in from all over the world. It was interesting in the sense that people have a very stereotypical outlook on Florida and Miami, when St. Augustine couldn't be more different. We have a skyscraper that's six stories tall; otherwise it’s a little town. We have six and a half million tourists in a town of 15,000 residents. The interests, concerns, and needs of the community vary quite a bit. What's important is that we've been doing sea level rise efforts in a sincere way for maybe a decade or so. We've all learned to move pretty rapidly and ask for outside help. Lisa has been on the team that has been working with Resilient Heritage, which is primarily led by the City of St Augustine. The sharing of stories has helped, but every place is different. What works in Miami won't remotely work in St Augustine, and what works in St Augustine partly due to geology and water table, probably wouldn't work in Savannah or Charleston. We can use some general knowledge, but we really need to look at the needs of each place in order to do the best adaptations.

What role does tourism play in helping preserve St. Augustine’s cultural heritage?

We have adopted what's commonly called a bed tax, so that if a person stays in a lodging establishment, part of the guest tax is room tax. That room tax goes to the county, and each county has the discretion of distributing that tax. It is geared to go back into tourism, so some of it could be marketing or education, and some of it can be bricks and mortar. That tax generates millions of dollars a year certainly in St. Johns County, the majority of which goes to beaches, golf and historic sites. The majority of the historic sites are in St. Augustine. This emphasis has helped to generate more revenue at the college. We've done a lot of community heritage programs with those funds. For bricks and mortar projects, Flagler College has had great success matching private funds with competitive state and federal grants. The College hosted two-speaker series two years in a row to address sea level rise and co-hosted the Keeping History Above Water conference with the University of Florida. The program included a total of 23 co-sponsors, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We hosted a community values workshop that brought Lisa in to lead, and I was her partner in that project. We identified what we consider to be the most significant resources in the community, and everyone was invited to provide input, including visitors. All of that input gave us in the St. Augustine community a blueprint to move forward.

We’ve worked very hard over the last decade, after doing some tourism surveys, to provide accuracy and authenticity. In most of the historic sites, people will find information that includes the significance of the site and its preservation story. Our Florida Humanities Council, which is our state chapter of the National Endowment for the Humanities, developed a series of audio tours on a free phone app that are just fantastic. They're called Florida Stories, and there are 30 of them now. My students and I did the one on Flagler College. The tour can be downloaded and then listened to while a person walks to the site or anywhere… on the airplane on the way home. Once downloaded, the internet is not needed. The tours are stored on smart phones. Those tours have been incredibly popular in teaching visitors to have a greater sense of appreciation for where they are.

What are some of the challenges of historic preservation that you’ve encountered?

Even after properties have been rebuilt, they still a commitment needed for maintenance. Around twenty years ago, Hurricane Floyd came through and wiped out the roof on a major portion of the former Hotel Ponce de Leon building, including a lot of windows. In 2004, the city and college experienced two more hurricanes, Frances and Jeanne. Three window projects were funded to remove the original windows on the upper floors of the building and install hurricane glass in custom-made windows that look like the historic ones. While planning and preparation remain continuing challenges, roofs on buildings have received extra waterproof underlayment and structural reinforcing as needed. It's changing the way that maintenance needs to be done timewise, condensing work around semester and summer breaks. The college has an excellent reputation for best practices and preservation, so the emphasis in future is to extend that reputation to resilience planning and actions. Each of these projects is thousands of dollars and takes a couple of years, but we have an opportunity to tell the public about it and add the information to the story of Flagler College.

You’ve written about the historic Hotel Ponce de Leon—can you tell us about that?

Yes, several books. We have what we call the coffee table books, which are large format. Fortunately, an architectural photographer out of Miami, Steven Brooke, is a dear friend has and a fantastic architectural photographer. We have 200 of his photographs in each book. The first one is Hotel Ponce de Leon: The Architecture & Decoration. Carrère and Hastings were the architects for the building. They designed more than 600 buildings in their careers including US House and Senate Buildings and the New York Public Library. The Hotel Ponce de Leon is a National Historic Landmark, with 79 Tiffany stained glass windows among many other features. We did another book that was published in 2019, which was the 50th anniversary of Flagler College, and even though it focuses on the college, major sections address the preservation of the campus because that is part of the educational experience. The campus has 19 historic buildings and is a living learning platform. When I did my doctorate, my dissertation was accepted for publication by the University Press of Florida, and it was on the Hotel Ponce de Leon and restoration. No one had really written about the building, and the book ended up selling more than 1000 copies in a couple of years. As an academic publication, that's fast so clearly there was a need to tell that story.

Leslee’s Books

Hotel Ponce de Leon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Flagler's Gilded Age Palace by Leslee Keys

Hotel Ponce de Leon: The Architecture & Decoration by Thomas Graham & Leslee Keys

Students of Flager College created a tour program about 25 years ago to showcase the architecture at the college. The effort expanded to included two shops, one on campus, and one in the downtown.


bottom of page