Northeast Florida is home to a seemingly endless amount of historical structures and businesses. But did you know that includes the oldest bar in the state of Florida?
Sure enough, the Palace Saloon located at 117 Centre Street in Fernandina Beach – about 45 minutes from downtown Jacksonville – lays claim to that title. It’s been in business since 1903, surviving Prohibition, a major fire, and even an ongoing alleged ghost haunting.
The two-story building in which the bar resides was built in 1878. Josiah Prescott commissioned it to house his men’s shoe store, which it did until 1903. That’s when German immigrant Louis G. Hirth purchased the building and converted it into an upscale bar, complete with intricate, hand-carved wooden furnishings, intended for ship captains and wealthy visitors to Fernandina’s nearby riverside docks.
The Palace Saloon, as he dubbed it, did exactly as Hirth planned. The bar was referred to in its early years as the “Shipcaptain’s Bar” in reference to its affluent clientele. In 1907, artist Roy Kennard added several detailed murals to the building’s interior; he would later refurbish the murals himself during a round of renovations in the 1950s.
When the Prohibition era came around, Hirth kept his bar open as long as legally possible before temporarily shifting to serving ice cream and “near-beer.” Once the restrictions were lifted, the bar reopened for alcohol sales.
The bar stayed in the Hirth family until it was purchased by a local company, Land & Williams, in the 1950s. The new owners gave the bar a slight facelift, including Kennard’s refurbished murals, but left the majority of its historic features intact.
In 1999, a fire charred much of the bar’s interior, requiring it to close for repairs.
The Palace Saloon is still open today after 113 years – although its bar area remains shuttered due to COVID-19, temporarily making it a bottle shop only. It’s now operated by Amelia Island Hospitality Group, which operates several other historic venues on Amelia Island. It’s popular with tourists as well as ghost hunters, due to the bar’s aforementioned (alleged) haunting by a longtime bartender.
And with the bar being part of the Fernandina Beach Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s likely not going anywhere anytime soon.