Next to the beaches, it’s Flagler’s prized attraction. The Princess Place Preserve is a 1,500-acre nature park and estate along the Matanzas River and Pellicer Creek. It was owned across two previous centuries by a woman who had not a drop of royalty in her except in lavish tastes—in art, in jewels, in precious metals, in mercurial men, one of whom a pretender to the Russian throne. Angela Cutting’s three husbands were each a chapter in an epic of her own invention, each a link to Florida history, their stories book-ending what’s now left as that preserve, which has its place in the national registry of historical places.
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“The princess place is our real connection to Henry Flagler,” County Attorney Al Hadeed told the county’s Tourist Development Council in a briefing on Princess Place this morning, “because the person who did this was Henry Flagler’s friend, and this was their retreat in the woods, where they went to hunt, where they went to get away, where they went I’d guess to socialize and to fish.” Henry Flagler’s friend being Henri Mason Cutting, one of Florida’s gilded barons and Angela’s first husband. Henri’s odd death by drowning, or by codeine (or both) is part of the princess’ life frame.
So is the landscape surrounding her lodge, which speaks to the region’s ecological history more authentically than virtually any place in the county. To better tell the story, Flagler County, which owns the preserve, gradually bought its surrounding lands and turning the place into the archeological, historic and environmental destination. If you stand at the lodge itself and take in the view from every angle, it is nothing but preserve, including two 100-acre islands that once were the grazing grounds of Spanish colonists’ cattle.
“It is a genuine, genuine—we’re not talking about a Disney world created—a genuine, the real thing, the real McCoy, the old Florida landscape, and it’s been recognized by the Florida Public Archeology Network,” Hadeed said, referring to a statewide network created by the Legislature to recognize public architecture.
The Tourist Development Council was a bit grumpy this morning, however. About 15 minutes into Hadeed’s kaleidoscopic run-through of the preserve’s history and value to Flagler’s tourism, Bob DeVore growled: “Don’t we have a ten-minute time limit? Can we move this along?”
In fairness to DeVore, that’s why the Princess Place item was on the tourist council’s agenda to begin with—to move along a $35,000 grant the council awarded in 2006, a grant that, a matching grant for an almost equal amount from the state, but which, a few thousand dollars aside, has yet to be spent. The grant was awarded to enrich the Princess Place with an audio-visual component in the visitors center (the sort of looping video history available in most state and federal parks), furnishings for the lodge to make it as authentic as it would have been in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when it was Angela’s laird, and other museum-quality exhibits. The video and the furnishings are there.
But the museum-quality exhibit isn’t, yet. For that, a designer and fabricator must be hired, and the materials literally constructed for the place. It shouldn’t have been done already. Four years is a long time. And money awarded from the tourist council to one agency is money denied to another, as council member Mary DiStefano put it. Plus, the council has made a point of ensuring that its grants to various groups are not only awarded fairly, but spent fairly efficiently as well. There’s no question that this particular grant to the Princess Place has been mishandled over the years: too many hands got involved. Some of those right hands didn’t know what the left ones were doing, and many of those hands, locally and at the state level, left their jobs.
“Great presentation,” DeVore said, as if making amends for his grumpier comment. “The Princess Place, I was at the opening ceremony, supported it all these years, and will continue to. What we were trying to do—this has been misinterpreted, and I have been on the board sincve we started this—it was bothering us that back in November of ‘06, we granted the $35,000,” and most of it is still unspent. “I’m fully supportive of this, but I’d like to see it get completed, and I think that’s where we’re all at with this issue.”
“I tried to sensitize you to the absolute critical nature and value of this project,” Hadeed said.
“We’re aware,” DeVore said.
Hadeed continued: “It has stumbled because the county lost people. Then when the county finally got organized, and I was brought into this project, guess what? All the people on the stateside of this turned over. So it was stymied for reasons beyond the control of the project itself. Now, this is art, you are making art.”
“Yeah, we know that,” DeVore countered, again losing patience, “but you still have to put some time frame on something or you’ll be making art for the next 10 years. You can’t do that. So I recommend that we continue the grant for one more year. That’s my motion.”
“Thank you sir,” Hadeed said, with pointed emphasis on the “sir.” The motion passed unanimously, at least by the five of the eight council members present.
Andrew Blair and Pam Walker were absent. Ron Vath, the board member representing Flagler Beach, and a city commissioner there, has been absent from all his public duties since mid-August after unexpectedly, and without explanation, taking a job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, apparently in Iowa. The Flagler Beach commission excused him. The tourist council has not. Vath last attended a tourist council meeting in July.