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St Augustine City

St. Augustine City Hall is located at 75 King Street, St. Augustine, FL 32084; phone: 904-825-1006.

Conzalez-Alvarez House, ca. 1702, 14 St. Francis Street, St. Augustine, FL, National Register

Photo: Conzalez-Alvarez House, ca. 1702, 14 St. Francis Street, St. Augustine, FL. Prior to the present structure, the site was home to a succession of thatched, wooden structure beginning about 1650. It is often referred to as The Oldest House. The home is a National Historic Landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. Photographed by User:Ebyabe (own work), 2008, [cc-by-3.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed May, 2013.

Early St. Augustine as described in 1939 [1]

St. Augustine is the oldest permanent white settlement in the United States. Time and sun and tropical rains have exacted toll from crumbling parapets and gateways, stucco and paint have covered age-mellowed walls and antique planking, but much remains to preserve the charm and memories of an old city.

The peninsular site was selected by the Spaniards in 1565 as a strategic point for defense because three rivers encircle all but the north side where Fort San Marcos, now Fort Marion, was built. The Matanzas and North Rivers, links in the Intracoastal Waterway, border on the east and south, the San Sebastian River on the west. All are salt-water lagoons lying behind Anastasia Island, which separates the city from the Atlantic Ocean. On the north the City Gates, once the moated entrance to the town, open into narrow St.George Street, one of the principal thoroughfares. Guarding the channel on the east stands the gray stone fortress, a reminder of the settlement's early role as defender of Spain's claim to North America. Bay Street sweeps south of the fort along Matanzas Bay and past the bronze statue of Ponce de Leon, Florida's discoverer, overlooking the circle approach to the massive white Bridge of the Lions that crosses to Anastasia Island.

Here, in the heart of the ancient city, on opposite sides of the Plaza de la Constitucion, historic military parade grounds, are the Catholic Cathedral and Trinity Episcopal Church, occupying sites long used for religious activities. In the park west of the Plaza, once the site of the Spanish governor's palace, the balconied post office looks across to the red spires and tiled domes of the great Flagler hotels. Some distance beyond, past the yellow frame railroad station, are the busy docks of the shrimp-fishing fleet on the San Sebastian River.

Around the palm-fringed Plaza clusters the business district, an incongruous mixture of the old and new in structure and in wares. Although the majority of streets bear Spanish names, some are English and a few typically American. Here, side by side under overhanging balconies, are antique shops and cocktail lounges; a weathered cedar door adjoins one of gleaming chromium, and a rust-pitted iron grille, perhaps fashioned by slave hands, becomes a show window for the latest in radios. An office building shoulders an ancient cathedral; clustered flags and placards advertise points of interest; water tanks and neon signs break in on an Old World skyline, and machine-age traffic shatters the spell of drowsy, shadowed streets. The colors of Castile, emblazoned on municipal banners and on walls of ornate tourist hotels, are matched by the scarlet hibiscus and golden allamanda, blossoming in sheltered gardens and along city parkways. Bicycles are still a favorite means of transportation. Horse-drawn surreys, driven by top-hatted Negroes who solicit fares for sight-seeing trips, are reminiscent of St. Augustine's early days as a tourist resort. On narrow, twisting side streets, Minorcan restaurants offer pilau (a highly seasoned potpourri of rice with boiled meat, fish, or fowl), fried shrimp, chowders, and gopher (land turtle) stew.

The art colony along Aviles Street displays its products on gray coquina garden walls, and the artists often work at easels beneath fig trees in open courtyards. Gardens throughout the city are bright with subtropical flowers. Many plots, secluded behind high walls, were laid out a century ago, and their patios are sheltered by pomegranate, fig, and sweet orange trees, fruits brought over at an early date by the Spaniards.

The western area of the town, paralleling the sluggish San Sebastian River and traversed by the railroad, with its docks, freight houses, warehouses, and clutter of shacks, presents an industrial aspect in sharp contrast to the city's older portion.

The Spanish flavor has remained dominant in the city's atmosphere as successive waves of non-Spanish settlers fell under its influence; climate, location, and background have contributed to the preservation of its charm. Although invading nations often razed old structures and salvaged stone to build new dwellings, they retained Spanish ideas in architecture. North walls remained windowless for protection against winter winds, while large southern casements and patios were retained. The English added steep gable roofs, chimneys, and porches to their houses, but kept intact the wooden second stories and walled-in gardens. Pioneering Americans found the buildings to their liking and moved in with but few changes. The newer structures in the old part of town suggest those of Granada and Seville, and native coquina rock used in their construction is as useful to modem builders as it was to the artisans who discovered and quarried the stone in 1580.

The residential districts have grown more since 1900 than during the previous three centuries. North of the City Gates are substantial homes of Southern Colonial type, surrounded by well-kept lawns shaded by palms, crape myrtles, and massive live oaks. Intermingled are conventional brick and frame bungalows and apartment houses, and a few houses of the Spanish Provincial styles. The oleander and hibiscus hedges, and bright flowering begonia, bougainvillea, and coral vines that festoon fences and gateways, provide colorful suburban backgrounds.

Of St. Augustine's present-day population, the largest foreign group includes descendants of the Minorca, transplanted by Dr.Andrew Turnbull from the Mediterranean island in 1767. Portuguese, Italians, and Scandinavians of the shrimp fleet make up a portion of foreign residents, as well as the Cubans, Greeks, and Armenians who operate many restaurants and curio shops.

Negroes have had an important place in St. Augustine's history. As slaves of the Spaniards brought over in the late 1500's, they were the property of the king and required to be of Catholic faith. In the first hospital in the United States, built here in 1597, a Negro woman waited on patients, including Negroes and Indians. During the Seminole War many Negroes allied with the Indians, causing much concern among St. Augustine slave owners. Shortly before the War between the States escalated slaves were aided in reaching Canada by a white family occupying a plantation near the city. This property is the site of the coeducational Florida Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes, founded in 1892. The Negro colony, west of the railroad, has its stores, meeting houses, and recreational center. The inhabitants are employed in domestic service, as guides, as unskilled laborers in small manufacturing plants and on the shrimp fishing docks, and in hotels.

Extensive plans are under way for the preservation of the historic resources of the old town St.Augustine is the subject of research by staff members of the Carnegie Institution at Washington, assisted by other historians and scientists. Excavations are revealing ancient landmarks, and old maps and documents are being used as the basis for the preservation of the important features of the city, under a program of the St. Augustine Restoration Committee.

On April 3, 1513, Ponce de Leon landed somewhere in the St. Augustine area and remained for five days. On September 8, 1565, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Spanish admiral, took possession of the territory along the river and founded the settlement, naming it St. Augustin because he first sighted Florida on August 28, St. Augustine's Day. The French fleet under Jean Ribaut, preparing to attack the town, was blown to sea by a hurricane.

St. Augustine became the Spanish military headquarters of North America, and its governors manned forts and policed the coast from Virginia to Florida for 40 years, repulsing efforts of other nations to establish colonies in the territory. One of the most formidable attacks on St. Augustine was made in 1586 by Sir Francis Drake, British admiral, who sacked and burned the town. The Spanish colonists fled to forest refuges during the raid, but later returned and rebuilt their homes.

St. Augustine was safer after it became the headquarters of missionary activities among southeastern Indians, and through its 40 or more mission towns controlled the natives and defended the frontier against the French and English. Following the founding of Charleston by the English, the Spaniards in 1672 began construction of a stone fort. From South Carolina in 1702, and again in 1728; the English descended to burn, plunder, and seize thousands of Indians for slaves. Although the fort withstood artillery attacks, the hospitals, monasteries, and the valuable Franciscan library were destroyed.

James Oglethorpe, Governor of Georgia, launched a series of attacks, the most formidable in 1740, and although he failed to capture the fort, he took all the outlying defenses. His victory on St. Simon's Island in 1742 ended the power of Spanish St. Augustine. Twenty years later, when the British took over Florida, they found a town of empty houses, most of its residents having fled to Cuba.

Under British rule (1763-83) St. Augustine enjoyed prosperity. The Indians were no longer a menace, great plantations were established in the vicinity, and the King's Highway was constructed to Georgia. During the Revolution, many slave-owning Tories found residence in the city, where anti-rebel sentiment was intense. John Hancock and Samuel Adams were burned in effigy in the public square, and later prominent dissenters, including Heyward, Rutledge, and Middleton — all signers of the Declaration of Independence — were imprisoned in the fort. The city became an important depot for British operations against the Southern Colonies, and gunboats patrolling the coast and the St. Johns River brought in numerous American prizes. A land attack against Savannah was launched from St. Augustine in 1777, and a naval venture in 1783 resulted in the capture of the Bahamas for England.

A rabid Tory paper, the East Florida Gazette, established here in 1783, ceased publication the year the war ended. When St. Augustine received word that Spain was again to control Florida, the British evacuated.

Abandoned houses gradually filled with Americans taking up Spanish land grants. A few years later American residents urged the annexation of Florida by the United States, and in 1812 a number of them joined a similar group from Fernandina for a time to support a Republic of Florida. Another Spanish evacuation took place in 1821, when Spain transferred Florida to the United States. After the new American Government became operative, the second session of the legislature was held in St. Augustine, but later Tallahassee was chosen as the capital.

Among the visitors to the city during the next decade were Prince Achille Murat, nephew of Napoleon, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that St. Augustine was a town of some 'eleven or twelve hundred people,' and that 'the Americans live on their offices, the Spaniards keep billiard tables, or, if not, send their Negroes to the mud to bring back oysters, or the shore to bring fish, and the rest of the time fiddle, mask, and dance.'

Throughout the Seminole War from 1835 to 1842, the city figured prominently in national news. Soldiers wrote letters to all parts of the country, giving their impressions of the old town; of forlorn refugees from the surrounding territory camping within the walls, and of pitiful Indian prisoners and hostages confined in the dungeons of the fort. Popular sentiment favored Osceola, Seminole leader, after his seizure in 1837 while en route to confer with American leaders 7 miles from St. Augustine. His death in prison at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, served to increase the bitterness, but this and similar controversies lapsed at the close of hostilities.

Union troops held the fort and town of St. Augustine from 1862 to the end of the War between the States. For a period following the war the town was practically isolated from the rest of the State. River boats operated up the St. Johns River as far as Picolata, and passengers reached the city, a distance of 48 miles, after a 6-hour stage and ferry trip. Provisions were mostly brought in from Jacksonville by sea, and prices were exorbitant. In 1871 a mule-drawn railroad was built from Tocoi, on the St.Johns River, to St. Augustine, and it was 1874 before the first locomotive entered the city.

With improved transportation an increasing number of tourists visited the city. Letters and articles written by noted journalists and novelists began to appear in northern papers. Among those attracted in the 188o's was Henry M. Flagler of New York, retired oil man who, impressed by the beauty of the little Spanish community, began its development as a winter resort. Flagler erected two large hotels and extended a railroad southward. St. Augustine was made, and remains, headquarters of the Florida East Coast Railway and Hotel System.

Although surrounded by water, St. Augustine has been retarded in its development as a port by the constantly shifting sand bars at the mouth of the Matanzas River, channel to the sea, which form a barrier to all but shallow draft vessels. Some water commerce, however, has been developed through the Intracoastal Waterway.

  1. Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers' Program, Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, American Guide Series, Florida Department of Public Instruction, 1939.
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