In a state that is home to the nation’s oldest city—St. Augustine—historic sites are a given, but it might surprise you to discover how many of these classic locales are available for group events.
You can gather amid relics from the 16th century at a place like Mission San Luis in the capital city of Tallahassee, or inject a dose of glamour and romance into your event at one of many Old Hollywood-style theaters across the state, including the landmark Tampa Theatre.
Florida’s first residences—some dating back centuries—have also opened their doors to meeting groups, each offering a unique window to the past while staying up to date with amenities and technology.
Home Sweet Home
Not surprisingly, Florida’s oldest city has some of the state’s oldest homes. St. Augustine’s Pena-Peck House started life in 1750 as the home of the Spanish Royal Treasurer, though the house’s appearance and furnishings reflect its century-long occupation by the Peck family (1837-1931).
The property and its spacious garden, set on historic St. George Street in the heart of the city’s historic district, can accommodate up to 125. Venues include a dining room that can seat 12 while one of the museum rooms hosts about 50, says Beverly Stuart, the home’s special events coordinator.
“If groups want more atmosphere, we also offer tours,” she says. “They can go upstairs and tour the house, then come back down and have their function.”
Right off St. George Street, nine early structures have been gathered together within one city block to form the Dow Museum of Historic Houses. Ranging in age from 102 to 222 years old, the homes represent a timeline stretching from Florida’s days as a Spanish colony to the era when real estate tycoon Henry Flagler opened the state to tourism by building a railroad that spanned the peninsula. Groups may tour the homes, but actual gatherings are held along the cobblestone walkways and intimate courtyards that wrap around the houses.
North of St. Augustine on Amelia Island, the former Victorian seaport town of Fernandina Beach boasts a National Historic District of restored Victorian homes—many now operating as bed-and-breakfast inns, including the Williams House, built in 1856 and offering a number of indoor and outdoor event spaces for corporate gatherings. Nearby Hoyt House and Fairbanks House provide picturesque backdrops for corporate events, while the Florida House Inn—a boarding house for railroad workers in the mid-1800s—recently added a meeting room with space for more than 100 guests.
Leaving Northeast Florida, vintage venues are spread across the state and include Tallahassee’s Goodwood Museum & Gardens, built in the 1830s as a private estate and featuring the oldest fresco ceilings in Florida. Event space includes a Carriage House that can seat up to 200.
“Goodwood is nestled in a grove of live oak trees. It takes you out of the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” notes Leigh Eisenhauer, director of events at the venue.
In Orlando, a group of four former homes—including one built in 1893—comprise the Courtyard at Lake Lucerne B&B, where Victorian accents and period furnishings offer a “creative, relaxed environment,” says Angie Vargas, sales and special events manager.
With meeting space for up to 60, it’s a unique alternative to traditional venues, Vargas notes.
Heading into the Gulf Coast—and more than a hundred years into the past—the former winter homes of inventor Thomas Edison and automobile pioneer Henry Ford still front the Caloosahatchee River. Today, both houses have been combined into one museum complex that includes Edison’s laboratory, rare antique autos, botanical gardens and a huge riverfront lawn that can be used for day or evening events. Other function spaces include the Estates Museum and the Edison Caretaker’s House.
While Edison and Ford became active in local civic organizations in Fort Myers and took frequent camping trips into the Everglades, other pioneering residents were developing the state’s southeast coast. The Stranahan family’s 111-year-old home on the New River in Fort Lauderdale still stands and is open for corporate functions.
“We’ve had groups as small as 10 and as large as 350 between the house itself and the park next door,” says April Kirk, Stranahan’s executive director.
If your idea of home is something on a grander scale, Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, constructed in 1916 by industrialist James Deering, is an ornate bayfront villa in Miami filled with treasures from Renaissance Europe. Certain rooms of the home, as well as the outdoor terraces and 10 acres of formal gardens, are available for evening rentals.
“One of the things that makes Vizcaya special is its waterfront location; it was actually meant to be visited by water,” says Nydia Perez, special events assistant at the venue. “So you get breezes from the bay during your event.”
Seeing the Light
Also on the water, and serving those arriving by sea, are Florida’s historic lighthouses, many of which are open for tours, while some also offer special group programs and facilities for receptions and other events.
In the latter category, the 1887 Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, located south of Daytona Beach, has a storied past that includes guiding author Stephen Crane to safety following a shipwreck in 1897. In addition to guided tours for up to 75, groups can delve into local history during half-hour workshops offered at no extra charge, says Bob Callister, programs manager at the lighthouse.
“We can accommodate any group that wants to explore some aspect of Florida or lighthouse history in depth,” Callister says. “Once I learn the particular interest of the group, I can help them plan it.”
North of Daytona, the St. Augustine Lighthouse features a distinctive striped tower rising over the city. It was constructed in 1874, though a watchtower of some kind has been in the same spot since the 1500s. Both the 219-step tower and Keeper’s House are open to visitors, while events are hosted on a front lawn or indoors at the Anastasia Gallery, which can accommodate up to 150.
On the Gulf side of the state, the 1890 Boca Grande Lighthouse, now part of Gasparilla Island State Park, was constructed as an aid to the burgeoning phosphate industry that kept boats coming and going at the turn of the last century. Almost lost to erosion by 1970, the lighthouse was restored and a museum was built inside. The 13-acre site also includes Amory Chapel next door, which can accommodate up to 75 for group events.
“It’s right on the beach. It’s beautiful, with spectacular views,” says Amanda Pearsall, executive assistant for the Barrier Island Parks Society, Port Boca Grande Lighthouse & Museum.
Also presiding over Gulf waters is the 1847 Key West Lighthouse, deactivated in 1969 but given new life as a heritage site. The tower itself and nearby Keeper’s Quarters, now a museum, have been restored and are filled with historical artifacts, including instruments, maps, photos and a Fresnel lens large enough to stand in. The museum is available for receptions and other events, while the lighthouse lawn can accommodate up to 200 seated and 350 buffet-style.
South of Ponce Inlet, the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & Museum in northern Palm Beach County has survived the Civil War, Seminole Indian skirmishes, hurricanes and even earth tremors, and the 1860 landmark is still an active aid to navigation. Visitors climb the 105 steps to the top on tower tours, while the museum—housed in a restored World War II building—takes them through 5,000 years of local history.