The Lightner Museum: Extraordinary collections

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Antique toy soldiers stand on guard as visitors walk through the first floor.

Words and images by Ben Samples

Stuffed lions, marble sculptures, Victorian art … and shrunken heads.

Welcome to the Lightner Museum.

Located deep within the heart of downtown St. Augustine, the Lightner is incredibly unique — both from within and without.

Built in 1888, the Lightner Museum was originally the Alcazar Hotel. Containing its own steam room, bowling alley, archery range and tennis court, the Alcazar attracted upper-class guests who preferred the highest level of decadence.

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The Lightner’s exterior is just as grand as its interior.

Once the Great Depression forced the Alcazar to shut its doors, Otto Lightner purchased the hotel in 1946 and used it as a literal storehouse for his immense collection of art and antiques.

But Lightner’s collection is anything but ordinary; it contains art made from human hair, intricately designed salt and pepper shakers, beautiful Tiffany glass and, yes, shrunken heads.

“When people ask me ‘What’s in here?’ what I always tell people is that this is a museum of collections,” said Emily Dietz, a student of Flagler College who interns at the Lightner. “What sets the Lightner apart is just the collections themselves. Literally, what we have here is anything and everything from all over the world.”

The museum is made up of three floors, but to say that each floor has its own distinct theme would be an overstatement.

As a general rule, the first floor is made up of Victorian-era antiques, including a collection of dolls and pianos … but visitors will also find a mummy, a stuffed turkey and a hodgepodge of unrecognizable, yet fascinating scientific contraptions.

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This fully stuffed lion is one of the first exhibits visitors pass by in Lightner’s bizarre collection.

On the second floor is a collection of beautiful glass art — along with a bathhouse that was once utilized during the building’s hotel years. And on the third floor, visitors will see fine art from Victorian era, huge, incredibly detailed furniture — and when they look down, they will see an enormous pool that has been emptied and turned into a restaurant.

No matter the odd nature of the collection, there is no denying the rich history that permeates the museum as a whole. As visitors walk through each exhibit, it’s as if they’re seeing random, sometimes bizarre snapshots of an era long past.

“It’s fascinating to see the way they used to live, and I think it was such an elegant era, [that] we’ve forgotten about,” said Diedre Young, a visitor to the Lightner.

When asked about her favorite piece in the museum, she was, quite understandably, unsure.

“I wouldn’t say there’s only one,” remarked Young. “Some of it I don’t like at all — I either like it or I don’t.”

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In a museum full of beauty and elegance, these shrunken heads certainly stand out.

For those who are willing to take a chance on the Lightner, the admission is $10 for adults, $5 for students and young people, $6 for active military and free for children under 12.

People can also visit the Café Alcazar for a meal.  With a menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and fresh seafood, the restaurant should satisfy most palettes.

And, as an added bonus, how many people can say that they’ve dined in restaurant that is located in the middle of a swimming pool?

Even if all of the fascinating eccentricities of the Lightner end up leaving you disappointed, Plan B could be only a block away. The museum is located in the middle of downtown St. Augustine — one of Florida’s most historic and tourist-friendly destinations.

The randomness of Lightner’s collection may prove to be maddening for some. But for those with a more offbeat taste, the Lightner is a fascinating treat that keeps them wondering what’s around the next corner.

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The third floor of the Lightner is full of beautiful statues, paintings and intricately detailed furniture.
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