Historic destinations embody centuries of heritage. They tell the stories of the people who lived, worked and gathered there.
And they’re often physical testaments of the community effort put into saving them. So holding a meeting in a historic venue means “you’re not just coming to an event here; you’re coming to an event in a building that has meaning,” said Caroline Ponder, event coordinator for the restored 1926 Florentine Building in Birmingham, Alabama.
Whether it’s in a mansion on a former sugarcane plantation or in a former convent for Catholic nuns, the South’s long and rich history offers planners countless historic venues for their meetings and events.
Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth
St. Augustine, Florida
Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine, Florida, has an interesting story, one that seems a little backward. What started as a roadside attraction based around a legend later turned out to be an authentic historical site and archaeological goldmine.
H.H. Williams purchased the land in 1868 and was the first to start selling sips of water from the spring on his property, aka the Fountain of Youth for which Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León went searching in 1513, said Kit Keating, public relations director.
The park has been in the Fraser family since 1927, and it was Walter Fraser’s love of the legend that led him to preserve the 15-acre site on the banks of the Matanzas River and St. Augustine Inlet. Because Fraser made the property into a tourist attraction, “it was never developed into real estate,” Keating said.
The accidental unearthing of a skull in 1934 led to the discovery that the park was both the location of the Timucuan village of Seloy and the site of Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ original St. Augustine settlement in 1565. Researchers also discovered that the property was the location of the first Franciscan Mission Church in the United States, which dates to 1587.
Today, visitors can still take sips of water from the “Fountain of Youth,” explore the replica Timucua village and mission church, climb to the top of the watchtower, visit the working blacksmith shop and watch as a period cannon is fired on the hour. The planetarium also offers an 11-minute show about celestial navigation of the 1500s.
Groups can gather in the event pavilion, which is being expanded to accommodate up to 150 guests seated at tables or 300 for receptions. The Front Lawn can hold about 100 chairs, and the nearby Wisteria Arbor is available for smaller groups.
The year was 1926, but architect Henry Upton Sims didn’t design his building on the downtown Birmingham, Alabama, corner in the popular Art Deco style of the time. The dramatic Italian-style architecture of the Florentine Building features rows of arching windows lining the facade of the two-story structure.
The 90-year-old building had been vacant for several years before Corretti Catering bought it and launched a multimillion-dollar renovation that restored and preserved the structure, which reopened in January 2015.
“I definitely think the fact we’re a historic building is one of our best selling points,” Ponder said. “People want something different, and especially in Birmingham, there’s a revitalization happening in downtown.”
The ground floor has housed everything from financial offices to a hot dog stand, she said. Today, the catering kitchen is in the back, and in front, the Café has a lunch counter and arched floor-to-ceiling windows and can seat about 100 people. The space is intended to be a restaurant one day, Ponder said.
But the crown jewel is the upstairs ballroom, where rows of arched windows line the walls and chandeliers hang from the elaborate barrel-coved ceiling. Although it was restored to its original architecture, the space now includes modern audiovisual components such as built-in sound and a projector screen. Groups often use both spaces, such as starting with a cocktail hour in the Café before moving upstairs for a meal in the ballroom, which can seat a little more than 300 guests.