Florida is commonly known for its wealth of destination hotspots: amusement parks, spring break parties, and sun-soaked beaches. In a state filled with such plentiful vacation opportunities, it’s easy for tourists and locals alike to overlook the area’s rich history. But for Joe Bruce, the executive director of facilities at Flagler College, it’s the foundation of his work in St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city.
Bruce, who has more than a decade of experience in facilities operations, earned his BA in history from Florida State University, giving him a unique perspective to his role with Flagler College. While the college didn’t open until 1968, its story can be traced back to the 1500s, when Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Léon landed near St. Augustine and dubbed the peninsula La Florida. Nearly 400 years later, in the 1880s, developer and Standard Oil Cofounder Henry Flagler built the Hotel Ponce de Léon with an aesthetic inspired by the Spanish Revival, setting the tone for St. Augustine’s architecture to this day.
The Hotel Ponce de Léon has since earned National Landmark status and been transformed into Flagler College’s most coveted residential hall. It’s also Bruce’s legacy project.
“I know I’m biased, but I like to say that the Ponce is the centerpiece of St. Augustine,” Bruce says with a laugh. “Many people probably say it’s the [Castillo de San Marcos] fort or [downtown epicenter] St. George Street, but I would lobby for Ponce Hall.”
The Ponce hosted the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, and Ernest Hemingway (to name just a few), and its original lighting was designed by Flagler’s close friend Thomas Edison. Flagler also tapped Louis Comfort Tiffany of the Tiffany & Co. empire to design the hotel’s interiors. Naturally, preservation is a key part of Bruce’s work.
“Tiffany had designed and done the [stained glass windows] in our dining halls,” the director says, “and so we have to protect those from the outside, from the elements, or from vandalism with specially designed clear acrylic sheeting.”
The dining hall is one of the Ponce’s biggest draws. “It’s an incredibly ornate dining hall,” Bruce explains. “A lot of our students refer to it as ‘Hogwarts’ endearingly, and it does have that feeling.” The room spans more than 14,000 square feet and has a 48-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling featuring murals painted by artist George W. Maynard.
Being surrounded by such amazing facilities isn’t something that Bruce takes for granted. “I haven’t gotten used to it yet,” he says. “I feel like the way I look at it is every building, every wall, every brick, every piece of wood trim has a story to tell. And I’m just particularly interested in learning what that story is. Listening is half the battle, and advocating for those spaces is kind of the other half. I know that there’s some story there and [we need to] take the time to uncover it before we go swinging a hammer.”
The facilities team’s efforts to upgrade the residential rooms in the Ponce (and several other halls) have kept everyone busy. Bruce lists new paint, replaced doors and flooring, patched hand-carved wood and marble mosaic floors, and the addition of brighter, modern lighting as just some of the plans in place. And he has bigger ambitions.
“One thing I would love to accomplish while I’m here, in conjunction with other renovations, is to reduce the amount of external conduit and get the walls and ceilings less cluttered,” he says. “[I want to] get closer to an unobstructed view of these long, high-ceiling hallways that we have in the Ponce.”
Aside from the infrastructure, Bruce’s team—comprised of housekeeping, grounds, and maintenance—is also finding ways to improve the student experience. “We’re adding several kinds of community spaces in an effort to make the space feel more like home, where [residents] can study . . . and just hang out and relax with each other. We’re creating these little spaces—these little nooks, if you will—throughout the building.”
For Bruce, a major component of his work is in the elements that often go unnoticed. “I want to take things to another level when it comes to attention to detail because I feel very strongly that every single [thing]—like a crooked sign, a scuff on the marble—all adds up to create an experience,” he explains. “It’s something I don’t want to lose sight of. Even though we have these massive [capital planning] initiatives going on, those little details really add up.”
Ever the history buff, Bruce admits that he occasionally loses himself in the stories behind those details. “I can find myself researching one tile that we have and trying to find where it came from. Who painted it? Who did this? And I’ll look up at the clock and realize hours have gone by and I’ve been researching this tiny, minute detail that 99 percent of folks may not notice.”
Although his team members may not spend as much time investigating as Bruce does, he emphasizes that they are like-minded when it comes to a passion for preservation. “I can’t say enough about my crew. None of us want to cut corners, and that’s important because I can’t be everywhere all the time. I have to trust that folks have that same mindset toward maintaining integrity,” he says. “I feel very comfortable and just very proud of my crew. The amount of work that my maintenance, household, and ground crews do on a daily basis is mind boggling.”
St. Augustine’s impression on newcomers, whether they’re passing through or here to stay, is important to Bruce, who has called the city home for over 30 years. “This is our town, and this is one way that we can contribute to it.” But his ultimate commitment is to the students that travel from all over the country to call Flagler College’s historic buildings “home.”
“I think that philosophy comes naturally to most of my folks,” Bruce affirms, “and most everybody I’ve worked with here.”