Wakulla Lodge: A Blast from the Past
Legions of Visitors Have Marveled at This Forgotten Coast GemWakulla Lodge: A Blast from the Past
Legions of Visitors Have Marveled at This Forgotten Coast GemBy Michael Peltier
The Wakulla Springs Lodge remains a throwback to a time when simple pleasures like swimming in a crystal-clear spring, taking a boat ride and enjoying the region’s natural beauty were enough to attract visitors from all walks of life. Most guests find their way there by word of mouth, and the lodge hosts about 12,000 people a year.
The 25-room hotel, built in 1937 by entrepreneur and kingmaker Edward Ball, has stayed true to its roots and remains an elegantly simple retreat. Today the Spanish-style hotel is a part of the state park system.
“I think Wakulla Springs has survived precisely because it hasn’t changed much — it’s consistently itself,” said Lu Vickers, a Tallahassee-based author and frequent visitor.
Passengers on the park’s fabled boat tours see what visitors saw when the lodge first opened for business: A slice of “real Florida” that avoided becoming a glitzy tourist trap.
The lodge was renovated in 2001 and continues to draw tourists, business guests and others. They hold meetings or family reunions and get married in either the facility’s conference rooms or its outdoor pavilion.
Between 50 and 80 employees work at the lodge, depending on the season, with summer being the peak.
Speculators and developers were attracted to the spring in the early 1800s. But the spring’s remote location proved too much for even the most determined promoter. Efforts to make the spring a tourist attraction languished for decades as the property along the Wakulla River changed hands, at times for as little as $10 cash.
Edward Ball would change all that. Ball came to Northwest Florida in the 1920s and began buying huge tracts of timber-rich land, which ultimately led to the creation of the St. Joe Paper Co. in 1936. During his travels for St. Joe, Ball would often purchase tracts himself that the company’s board of directors would not. In June 1934, Ball formed Wakulla Springs Inc. and began buying land along the Wakulla River.
Ball became trustee of the wealthy du Pont estate when his brother-in-law Alfred du Pont died in 1935, leaving an estate worth $34 million. Ball immediately turned his attention to Wakulla Springs and the construction of a vacation lodge.
Ball spared little expense. The Moorish-inspired building, said to have cost more than $75,000 to build, was made of stucco and roofed in red tile. Ball imported marble from around the world but relied most heavily on Tennessee marble, the pink tones of which still grace the floors, stairs, guestrooms and public changing rooms surrounding the spring.
Other amenities included a 70-foot marble countertop in the lodge’s gift shop and soda fountain. An Art Deco elevator still scoots guests to the second floor. The hotel was opened to guests in September 1937.
The lodge quickly became the place to be for celebrities and was used for a series of “Tarzan” movies and Army training exercises during the 1940s. The springs and lodge would continue to be the Hollywood of Northwest Florida in the 1950s. It served as the underwater backdrop for such films as “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and two sequels.
The lodge’s high-beamed lobby continues to showcase Aztec and Toltec designs first commissioned from a German painter living in Wakulla County who was said to have done work for Kaiser Wilhelm. An enclosed porch facing the spring was roofed in cypress and also remains unchanged.
Following Ball’s death in 1981, the property was transferred to the Nemours Foundation, formed after the death of Alfred du Pont to operate children’s health facilities in Florida. Board members quickly discovered that the property was not a profit-making venture, even with the lodge. In 1986, the state of Florida purchased the site and other Wakulla River acreage from the foundation for $7.15 million and has been operating the lodge ever since.
Unfortunately, state budget cuts may force the popular park to close, unless a private vendor can be found to run the concessions. But as of April no final decision had been made about the park’s future.