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Past, Present and Future
By Anne C. Heymen
Current photos by Kate Gardiner
Archival photos courtesy of the St. Augustine Historical Research Library
There’s good news and bad news involving historic preservation in St. Augustine.
The good news concerns efforts of dedicated organizations like the Woman’s Exchange, the Sisters of St. Joseph, Flagler College, the Junior Service League, Colonial Dames, the St. Augustine Historical Society and many others. These are groups which have dedicated their efforts to maintaining and preserving historic structures around town.
The bad news: many treasures have already been lost in the name of progress. Or as historian and author David Nolan, who is known for conducting historic tours in the oldest city, puts it: “I’ve always threatened to do a tour of historic parking lots!”
St. Augustine was never designed to accommodate cars, explains Susan Parker, Ph.D., former director of the St. Augustine Historical Society. The truth is, says Parker, whose doctorate is in colonial history, we’re putting cars into a 16th century-style town.
A resident of St. Augustine since 1977, Nolan’s first job was to conduct a survey of old buildings. “As soon as we finished that, people started to tear them down.
“Every building has a danger period,” Nolan adds. “I think it’s about 50 years.” Among the casualties: “almost every wooden Victorian hotel.”
But, adds Parker who grew up here, there are what some consider valid reasons for the demolitions – financial and economical. “It takes a lot of money to preserve buildings and to keep them going.” She points to Bed and Breakfasts as one of the most obvious ways to try to maintain a structure.
And, she adds, there is a reason for a change in the usage of many of the buildings; buildings which have been preserved or reconstructed. More than 50 years ago when the personality of North St. George Street was changed in celebration of the city’s 400th anniversary, one goal was to present a picture of what life was like in days gone by, with demonstrations of candle making, weaving, cigar making and other crafts. However, times have changed. Today there are specialty shops, T-shirt shops, souvenir shops and others in those buildings because, “the change of public taste. Tourists don’t want the same things that they used to,” says Parker.
Recently, Nolan compiled a list of about 20 structures which were demolished in the name of progress, many of them to make room for parking lots for area churches. The list ranges from cottages to handsome structures like Kirkside on Valencia Street. “Designed by Carrere and Hastings, (for Henry Flagler and his second wife, Ida Alice)” Nolan recounts, it was “built in 1893, with sterling silver faucets in the bathroom. In the 1940s it became a college called the University Foundation, of which our pioneer female Methodist minister, Dr. Wilma Davis, was a dean.
“In the 1950s, the Flagler heirs were told it would cost $20,000 to fix up the place. They considered that outrageous and had the place torn down. After that it was hard to make the case that ANYTHING in St. Augustine should be kept from demolition, so it was the seminal event that really launched the massive bulldozing of our architectural heritage in the 1950s and 1960s – just as the rest of the country was undergoing ‘urban renewal.’”
ONE OF THE FIRST
The St. Augustine Historical Society, Parker points out, was “one of the first to rehab old colonial buildings.” Colonial buildings are those constructed from 1565-1821 by both the Spanish and English.
Both Parker and Nolan note other groups which have dedicated their efforts to historic preservation. Among them:
*Flagler College, housed in the palatial Ponce de Leon Hotel built by Henry Flagler. The college has also made efforts to preserve other nearby structures which maintain their outward appearance but provide space for a variety of uses associated with the college.
* The Woman’s Exchange which maintains the Pena Peck House on St. George Street. Preparing to celebrate their 125th anniversary, the exchange maintains the property through a variety of fundraising efforts including luncheons, catering and a consignment shop.
* The Catholic Church through renovation of the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine; and the Sisters of St. Joseph, with preservations efforts on South St. George Street.
*The Junior Service League which undertook the huge task of restoring the Lightkeeper’s House and maintaining the St. Augustine Light. They financed their efforts in a variety of ways including grants and operating a museum.
*The Colonial Dames, which maintain the Ximenez-Fatio House on Aviles Street, through tours, grants and other projects.
Both Nolan and Parker point to numerous exceptional buildings in downtown St. Augustine. Lincolnville and Saragossa Street, observes Nolan, have “some of the greatest collection of Victorian buildings in the city.” It’s sad, he continues, that structures including St. Benedict School, Echo House and Trinity Methodist Church, all in the Lincolnville area, are in great disrepair today and are in danger of being demolished.
Once construction of reproductions was begun, Nolan concludes, others should “have been smart enough to keep the originals!”