Notes from the Waxhaws

Ghost in the machine

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On a recent walk through the old city of St. Augustine, I ventured into the Lightner Museum, which is in what once was the old Alcazar Hotel. My brief visit resulted in a different kind of a ghost story. The museum houses the very large Victoriana collection of Otto Lightner, a Chicago publisher who purchased the hotel in 1946. He later gave the museum to the city of St. Augustine.

The sheer number of objects from the ‘Gilded Age’ of the 19th century was overwhelming…clothing, furniture, glassware, buttons, embroidery, stained glass windows and lamps. As I slowly walked through the three floors of the museum…at one point, the effect was dizzying. I realized that each and every one of these objects, whether a brass button, a shaving mug, or a beaded purse, had some story behind it…of the person who made it…of the person who used it. It was as if the presence of the past was made palpable. I could almost sense the great cloud of spirits…or energy…that seemed still to be attached to these mere things.

On one wall, my gaze was held captive by embroidered samplers…where every single stitch was once held in someone’s mind. In this case…a twelve-year-old named Diana…intent on showing her skills as a young needlewoman. I wondered what she thought about the spacing of the X…the Y…and Z.


In most of the rooms in the museum, there were old photographs of how the same room looked when the Alcazar was a working luxury hotel. Alternately viewing the photos and the real room, from the same vantage point, reminded me of the scenes in the film Titannic, where the images shifted from the derelict ship on the sea bottom at present, back to the time in the past when real people roamed the decks…and the ship was still alive.

Looking down from the gallery above the former hotel’s ballroom…echoes of a waltz, perhaps? And ghostly images of dancers swirling in elegant circles to the music…and all the hopes and dreams contained within these walls while the Alcazar was still alive.

ballroom gallery at Alcazar Hotel

As I was about to leave, I was hearing music…real music. A museum guide was giving a demonstration of some of the mechanized musical instruments that are in the collection. The largest…the Orchestrion…was playing a song. It was all a bit eerie…sounds from another age…guided by a roll of paper that some real person had created over a hundred years ago. At one point, the demonstrator had to stop the machine at a certain spot. She explained that the punched paper roll was getting extremely fragile in places…from repeated playing over the years. The memories of the music were getting thinner…the ghost in the machine was slowly fading away. It was an unexpectedly sad thought. I’m glad I had the chance to hear some of the music before it vanishes into thin air.

Written by Jim

January 5, 2013 at 8:33 pm

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