Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the United States. Forty-two years before the English colonized Jamestown and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the Spanish established at St. Augustine this nation’s first enduring settlement.
The architectural legacy of the city’s past is much younger, testimony to the impermanent quality of the earliest structures and to St. Augustine’s troubled history. Only the venerable Castillo de San Marcos, completed in the late seventeenth century, survived destruction of the city by invading British forces in 1702.
Vestiges of the First Spanish Colonial Period (1565-1764) remain today in St. Augustine in the form of the town plan originally laid out by Governor Gonzalo Méndez de Canzo in the late sixteenth century and in the narrow streets and balconied houses that are identified with the architecture introduced by settlers from Spain. Throughout the modern city and within its Historic Colonial District, there remain thirty-six buildings of colonial origin and another forty that are reconstructed models of colonial buildings.
St. Augustine can boast that it contains the only urban nucleus in the United States whose street pattern and architectural ambiance reflect Spanish origins.
Historians credit Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of the Island of Puerto Rico, with the discovery of Florida in 1513. While on an exploratory trip in search of the fabled Bimini he sighted the eastern coast of Florida on Easter Sunday, which fell on March 27 that year. Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for the Spanish Crown and named it Florida after the Easter season, known in Spanish as PASCUA FLORIDA. This newly claimed territory extended north and west to encompass most of the known lands of the North American continent that had not been claimed by the Spanish in New Spain (Mexico and the Southwest).
In the following half century, the government of Spain launched no less than six expeditions attempting to settle Florida; all failed. In 1564 French Huguenots (Protestants) succeeded in establishing a fort and colony near the mouth of the St. Johns River at what is today Jacksonville. This settlement posed a threat to the Spanish fleets that sailed the Gulf Stream beside the east coast of Florida, carrying treasure from Central and South America to Spain. As Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was assembling a fleet for an expedition to Florida, the French intrusion upon lands claimed by Spain was discovered. King Philip II instructed Menéndez, Spain’s most capable admiral, to remove the French menace to Spain’s interests.
On September 8, 1565, with much pomp and circumstance and 600 voyagers cheering, Menéndez set foot on the shores of Florida. In honor of the saint whose feast day fell on the day he first sighted shore, Menéndez named the colonial settlement St. Augustine. Menéndez quickly and diligently carried out his king’s instructions. With brilliant military maneuvering and good fortune, he removed the French garrison and proceeded to consolidate Spain’s authority on the northeast coast of Florida. St. Augustine was to serve two purposes: as a military outpost, or PRESIDIO, for the defense of Florida, and a base for Catholic missionary settlements throughout the southeastern part of North America.
Maintaining St. Augustine as a permanent military colony, however, was a mighty task. Without the courage, perseverance, and tenacity of the early settlers, it is doubtful that the community would have survived.
English pirates and corsairs pillaged and burned the town on several occasions in the next century. Clashes between the Spaniards and the British became more frequent when the English colonies were established in the Carolinas, and later, in Georgia. The Spanish moved to strengthen their defenses, beginning in 1672 construction of a permanent stone fortress. The Castillo de San Marcos was brought to completion late in the century, just in time to meet an attack by British forces from the Carolinas in 1702. Unable to take the fort after a two-month siege, the British troops burned the town and retreated. In 1740, an even stronger attack was mounted by the Governor of the British colony of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe. He also failed to take the fort.
The Treaty of Paris in 1763, ending the French and Indian War, gave Florida and St. Augustine to the British, accomplishing by the stroke of a pen what pitched battles had failed to do. St. Augustine came under British rule for the first time and served as a Loyalist (pro-British) colony during the American Revolutionary War. A second Treaty of Paris (1783), which gave America’s colonies north of Florida their independence, returned Florida to Spain, a reward for Spanish assistance to the Americans in their war against England.
Upon their return, the Spanish in 1784 found that St. Augustine had changed. Settlers from a failed colony in New Smyrna (south of St. Augustine) had moved to St. Augustine in 1777. This group, known collectively as MINORCANS, included settlers from the western Mediterranean island of Minorca. Their presence in St. Augustine forever changed the ethnic composition of the town.
During what is called by historians the Second Spanish Period (1784-1821), Spain suffered the Napoleonic invasions at home and struggled to retain its colonies in the western hemisphere. Florida no longer held its past importance to Spain. The expanding United States, however, regarded the Florida peninsula as vital to its interests. It was a matter of time before the Americans devised a way to acquire Florida. The Adams-Onîs Treaty, negotiated in 1819 and concluded in 1821, peaceably turned over the Spanish colonies of East and West Florida and, with them, St. Augustine, to the United States.
For the next twenty-four years, East Florida and with it St. Augustine remained a territorial possession of the United States. Not until 1845 was Florida accepted into the union as a state. The Territorial Period (1821-1845) was marked by an intense war with native Indians, the so-called Second Seminole War (1835-1842). The United States Army took over the Castillo de San Marcos and renamed it Fort Marion.
In 1861, the Civil War began. Florida joined the Confederacy, but Union troops loyal to the United States Government quickly occupied St. Augustine and remained in control of the city throughout the four-year long war. Twenty years after the end of that bitter conflict, St. Augustine entered its most glittering era.
Henry Flagler, a former partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, decided to create in St. Augustine a winter resort for wealthy Americans. He owned a railroad company that in 1886 linked St. Augustine by rail with the populous cities of the east coast. In 1887, his company began construction of two large and ornate hotels and a year later added a third that had been planned and begun by another developer. Flagler’s architects changed the appearance of St. Augustine, fashioning building styles that in time came to characterize the look of cities throughout Florida. For a time, St. Augustine was the winter tourist mecca of the United States.
In the early twentieth century, however, the very rich found other parts of Florida to which they could escape. With them fled Flagler’s dream of turning St. Augustine into the “Newport of the South.” St. Augustine nevertheless remained a tourist town. As Americans took to the highways in search of a vacation land, St. Augustine became a destination for automobile-borne visitors. The tourism industry came to dominate the local economy.
The city celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1965 and undertook in cooperation with the State of Florida a program to restore parts of the colonial city. In 1997 the City took over full responsibility for what locally had become known as the “Restoration” and with it management of the more than thirty-six buildings that had been reconstructed or restored to their historic appearance.
The first of Henry Flagler’s three great hotels, the Ponce de Leon, was adapted for use as an institution of higher learning in 1971. As Flagler College, it expanded to embrace a student body of some 1,700 by the end of the century, offering a traditional four-year arts and science degree program. The second of his hotels, the Alcazar, has since 1948 contained the Lightner Museum, (and in 1973 the City of St. Augustine municipal offices). The third Flagler hotel, originally called the Casa Monica, stood vacant for thirty-five years before St. Johns County converted it for use a county courthouse in 1965. In 1999, under private ownership, the building was restored to its original function, and is now the only one of Flagler’s three great hotels still serving that purpose.
Some 2 million visitors annually make their way to St. Augustine, lured by the sense of discovering a unique historic part of America. While the venerable Castillo de San Marcos remains the traditional magnet for visitors, there are many other appealing historical sites and vistas.
When the Spanish departed in 1821 after peacefully transferring Florida and St. Augustine to the United States, some 300 buildings stood in the town. A century later, all but thirty-six had perished, victims to fire, age, and urban change. St. Augustine set out in the 1930’s to preserve those remnants of the colonial presidio. Under the banner of “Restoration,” St. Augustine, with the help of state and federal governments, set out in 1935 to preserve what remained of the colonial city and even to reconstruct many buildings that had previously disappeared. It was in great part a tribute to such efforts that King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia made this small city a part of their 2001 visit to the United States.
The City of St. Augustine maintains architectural control over the colonial city, insuring that the inevitable change which occurs in a living urban area respects the past.