This famous St. Augustine attraction was the very first of Robert Ripley’s permanent oddity museums.
Robert L. Ripley was the world’s most famous cartoonist in the 20th century.
Mr. Believe It or Not produced cartoons, took well-publicized trips to strange and exotic lands, appeared in radio, TV and cinematic shows, published books and opened museums. His fame equaled that of any politician or movie star in the 1930s through the 1940s.
His rise to fame began simply enough with a daily cartoon that premiered in 1929, where he would share strange facts about the world. He titled it Believe It or Not. While the information shared was often hard to believe or surprising, it was generally true. In his work, Ripley would eventually employ a large team of researchers to assist.
It was probably inevitable that he would look into creating a museum that would showcase some of the odd things that he collected on his many trips throughout the world. This he did for the first time in 1933 at the Chicago World’s Fair. The Odditorium, as it was titled, was a success, and it was repeated at other fairs and expositions.
Sadly, Robert Ripley died in 1949 at the age of 58, the same year his company moved towards opening its first permanent museum.
This is when the resort city of St. Augustine enters the picture. The new museum would be placed in a rather appropriate building – the Castle Warden. With its fanciful Moorish Revival style, the Castle was one of the earliest mansions built in a city that was quickly becoming the primary winter resort of the northern wealthy.
Built in 1887 as a winter home for William Warden, the Castle quickly became an epicenter of cultural activities in St. Augustine. Warden was one of Henry Flagler’s business associates, a trustee of the giant Standard Oil Conglomerate and president of the St. Augustine Gas and Electric Company. The design of the Castle was made in the Moorish style to compliment Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de Leon and the railroad and oil magnate’s other buildings which had been styled after classic Spanish architecture.
The Castle is located directly north of the Castillo de San Marcos on San Marco Avenue. Originally constructed as a 3 story building of approximately 6000 sq. feet (557 sq. meters), in 1941 it was converted to a hotel once Warden moved his family’s winter residence to Palm Beach. The new owner, Norton Baskin, a hotel owner from Ocala, had also just married famed Florida author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and together they would use an apartment on the top floor of the hotel as one of their homes.
Opened in 1950, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum was a mixture of the original Odditoriums, a repository of most of Ripley’s collection and a memorial to the life of Ripley. Today the museum continues to display many of the items collected by Ripley himself, though much of his personal collection has been spread out around the world.
As of 2020, there were 31 Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums in operation. The parent company, Ripley Entertainment Inc., has its headquarters in Orlando. The Warden Castle has been expanded to be over 20,000 sq. feet (1858 sq. meters) and is the second longest-running museum in the Oldest City (the Lightner Museum opened in 1948).