On our recent trip down South, one of the highlights was visiting the Florida Carriage Museum. I’m already trying to figure out which of my horses will learn to drive this spring. I’m thinking Zelda.
The Carriage Museum is located at the Grand Oaks Resort. That alone is worth a visit. The grounds are spectacular — picture oaks dripping with Spanish Moss, beautiful pastures and six rings large enough for driving — and every few minutes a horse and carriage trots by. We had a great time exploring the grounds.
The Museum features a collection compiled by Gloria Austin, an equestrian, internationally renowned carriage driver and philanthropist. After winning many championships with her horses and carriages throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, she was determined to share her knowledge of driving and its history with others. The museum is spectacular. It has more than 150 vintage carriages that have all been immaculately restored.
The centerpiece of the collection is the 1850 Armbruster Dress Chariot once owned by Emperor of Austria Franz Joseph, and his wife, Elisabeth. Our docent told us the history of the carriage and I was lucky enough to find the story written down on a post in High Minded Horseman, called “Lady Weirsdale.”
If it weren’t for lack of a cup of tea, the crown jewel of Gloria Austin’s collection may never have been acquired. The centerpiece of the Florida Carriage Museum is a one of a kind royal state carriage dated to 1850. Also known as a full dress chariot, or Gala Coupé, it once belonged to the Emperor Franz Joseph, of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was during this time that David Saunders was working with Gloria, helping her to put her collection together. For this particular excursion, they’d traveled to Oregon to purchase a Brewster summer coach; what would become the first coach in Gloria’s collection.
“We’d gone out there together,” Saunders recalls, “and the man who was restoring the coach had lots of different sheds on the property with lots of different carriages in them. That’s when I first saw the Dress Chariot or Gala Coupé. This particular guy who had been restoring the summer coach was a bit peculiar as we’d been there for two or three hours and he hadn’t offered us anything; as normally a person would offer you a cup of tea or a cup of coffee or something. So I said kind of jokingly, ‘well I’m parched, I could do with a nice cup of tea’, well he said ‘oh, I’ll go up to the house and make one’, well, I thought he would invite us up to the house but instead he left us there in this kind of tack room while he went off to get the tea.”
While waiting for tea in the tack room, Gloria and Saunders got into some carriage collecting mischief. “So the two of us, Gloria and I, with
nothing else to do, started poking around and I saw this Armbruster, which was the manufacturer of the Gala Coupé. I said to Gloria, ‘Look at this, this is a Dress Chariot’, which is the English term for a Gala Coupé, these are only made for royalty. Armbruster made carriages for the crown heads of Europe. Well, Gloria and I started looking at it, Gloria was getting excited, but the guy came back and was horrified that we’d been poking around his barn.”
It would be another two years before Gloria would own this amazing coach, but at the time she purchased it, “amazing” took quite a bit of imagination. “Almost all of the woodwork was rotten”, David Saunders remembers vividly, “A lot of the ironwork was there but it wasn’t in particularly good shape. It had been purchased originally in the 1930’s by a Hollywood movie studio for use in a Ronald Coleman movie called; The Prisoner of Zenda”. The carriage can be seen briefly about forty-five minutes into the 1937 film. The Gala Coupé makes its appearance during the climax of the coronation scene and is easily recognizable (even in the YouTube clip). Pulled by six light grey horses, and driven Postilion, the carriage looks almost as good in the film as the magnificently restored version of itself that’s on display in the Florida Carriage Museum today.
No one knows how the carriage originally made it to the United States, but if it hadn’t ended up in that barn, it might have been lost forever.
More carriages to come!