A Touch of Old Spain - Historic St. Augustine

Article excerpt

With a building tradition twice as old as America itself, St. Augustine's vital, colorful architecture reveals a time when Spain ruled La Florida with majesty and grace.

America's oldest continuously occupied European city, St. Augustine, Florida, is a place possessed of architectural magic. Its venerable buildings, renovations and reconstructions alike, some based on construction plans twice as old as America itself, recall an era when Spain wielded a mighty hand in the New World. Yet even though the exotic Spanish influence is most obvious along the city's narrow streets, there is the surprisingly harmonious inclusion of British and colonial design elements, which only enhances St. Augustine's enduring charm.

Yet all this architectural harmony has not come without a price. When faced with the choice in the 1960s of what to preserve, the Saint Augustine Historic Preservation Board wisely picked the first Spanish colonial period, focusing "at or near 1763," which was at the end of Spanish rule and the beginning of the British colonial period.

By selecting the Spanish influence on the city, the board hoped to offer a unique architectural environment that could follow, but not compete with, the successful presentation of British life in Williamsburg, Virginia, whose restoration, begun in 1926, was viewed as a model. Ironically, a wealth of nineteenth-and twentieth-century buildings were demolished to rebuild, in highly authentic fashion, St. Augustine's eighteenth-century, Spanish- style buildings, which today fascinate both tourists and residents.

By 1965, thirty structures had been restored or reconstructed in the city's Historic District, a "significant achievement given the limited funding sources, multiple ownership of the area, and existing hybrid buildings," notes Warren Boeschenstein in Historic American Towns Along the Atlantic Coast. "The resulting unified collection of buildings emphasizes the overall character of the district," he stresses, but, "at the same time, these restorations are confusing, since all but the most knowledgeable observers walking along St. George Street [in the district's northern section] have difficulty distinguishing authentic buildings from reconstructed or fabricated ones."

Not only did three different countries--Spain, England, and the United States--participate in the city's buildup at varying times, but, unlike subsequent Spanish settlements, which typically had one colonial purpose, St. Augustine had three: military base (presidio), civic trading center (pueblo or villa), and religious outpost (mision). This unique blending resulted in a sort of architectural "identity crisis," which persists to this day.

Indeed, the "official look" of the Old City remains a matter of occasionally heated public debate among St. Augustine's architectural elite. "Nothing in this town worth saving is up to code ... the Fort, Flagler College, Lightner Museum," exclaimed local author and historian David Nolan when activists were recently fighting state proposals to replace the city's Bridge of Lyons (1925--27), a concrete and steel drawbridge in the Mediterranean Revival style with graceful arches and bascule towers with red tile roofs.

"Take all that stuff down and the city might be up to code, but who's going to want to come here? The bridge is a great symbol of the city. You don't throw your symbols away," warned Nolan, who did the first comprehensive survey (1978--80) of St. Augustine's twenty-five hundred old buildings. "We found Colonial and some Victorian garbage, as well as several buildings that people did not know about. It takes a practiced eye," he boasted, adding: "Cities are not supposed to be this beautiful. Savannah and Charleston had a British background, but St. Augustine has a Spanish feel to it."

Nancy Sikes-Kline, a member of St. Augustine's Historic Architecture Review Board, likewise defends the past. "The business of the nation's oldest city is heritage tourism, and we sell historical authenticity," insists Sikes-Kline, who quickly notes: "It's an economic issue. …