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America's Ancient City

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[St. Johns County Visitors & Convention Bureau photo]
Dawn dusts a flattering hue on the Bridge of Lions, which reaches across Matanzas Bay.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


As St. Augustine wrestles with the modern problems of growth and development, its centuries-old allure beckons visitors.

ST. AUGUSTINE -- Like some Southern elder, slowed by the scar tissue of old hurts and beset by age, this town comes to its feet slowly each morning.

Sunset paints the remarkable Bridge of Lions between the Ancient City and its barrier beach communities with a fresh face, first pale pink and then, as the flow of hotel and restaurant workers increases into town, a harsher white. Belabored by tourists heading east across Matanzas Bay to the beach or by locals crossing to favorite eateries, the bridge maintains its dignity.

However, authorities are now considering replacing the Bridge of Lions with something more modern, something wider, something safer. There is an irony about taking down something old to better move people to something older. Oldest, actually.

For generations, St. Augustine has wrapped itself in that claim -- technically, the oldest permanent European settlement in the U.S. -- based on the fact Spanish soldiers founded it in 1565.

With that many coats of history slapped on this place, it's easy to understand James Ponce Sr.'s support for tearing down the bridge.

As Ponce, once pictured on publicity brochures in a conquistador breastplate and helmet, relates in a heavy drawl: "I can count back nine generations in St. Augustine -- seven generations back, my grandfather laid the cornerstone of the Castillo," the famed, star-shaped fort begun in 1672.

So Ponce, now 80 and his thin beard faded from black to white, speaks from authority when he says, "Tear down the bridge! It's only 77 years old -- that's not historic!"

Besides, Ponce owns a sprawling motel and restaurant complex just across the bridge near St. Augustine Beach and says he can feed 1,000 a night, providing potential customers don't get discouraged from coming there by bridge traffic.

Arguments over the bridge are an example of old and new clashing as St. Augustine undergoes development pressure.

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[St. Johns County Visitors & Convention Bureau photo]
The Castillo de San Marcos has stood as a symbol of St. Augustine for more than 300 years.

Everything new is old again

The city was already trading on its climate and historic sites when financier Henry Flagler built his first Florida hotel (quickly followed by a second) here in the late 1880s. The small town became a favorite stop for passengers on Flagler's new railroad into the state.

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[Photo: Jeff Greenberg]
St. Augustine’s striking Flagler College was originally the Ponce de Leon Hotel, built in 1887 by railroad magnate Henry Flagler as his first Florida hotel.
Though Flager's men kept laying track farther south, leading to more of his newly built hotels, there was always a market for the Ancient City's history.

There still are 33 buildings dating as far back as 1763 -- built during the last Spanish period, which ended in 1821. And there are plenty of other structures from more recent periods, sometimes anointed with the adjective "oldest," to lure tourists.

Through the work of archaeologists and costumed history interpreters, one street in particular offers the authentic historical experience: St. George Street, in the Restoration area. Here, blacksmiths hammer sparks from red-hot metal, lowly Spanish soldiers explain how they had to barter handicrafts for food, English settlers tend their gardens and spinning wheels.

Yet in this area, too, there is a current hubbub probably unlike anything in the previous centuries.

Where once there were humble one- and two-story tabby homes, the scattering of shops that developed a few decades ago among the residences are now the majority of structures. (This presents an interesting reverse of the history of exploration: Locals are trading cheaply made trinkets to the visitors in exchange for real money.)

Within the most historic area, perhaps 20 blocks square, there are still stores that smack of small-town America, plus a few professional offices and residences. It has become a choice locale.

But mainly the Restoration area's history re-creations now vie for the attention of passers-by with shops selling kitschy tourism merchandise, scented soaps, women's wear, shoes, imported handicrafts, candy.

One store features all things Irish; another only items for and about cats. You can no longer watch cigars being hand-rolled -- now they are imported from the Caribbean -- but you can buy a variety of bagels and designer coffees.

Too many distractions?

Still the streets swarm with tourists. There were about 1.6-million of them in St. Johns County last year, with the majority spending time in St. Augustine.

In fact, the ancient part of the Ancient City lured so many tourists with so much disposable income that another type of visitor arrived. And suddenly modern commerce and historical re-enactment joined forces against the new folk: street performers.

The musicians, magicians, fire-breathers, jugglers -- collectively termed buskers -- were plying their trade in the narrow confines of St. George Street when city officials heeded complaints by merchants and the historic representatives that mere passage was becoming difficult.

There were also complaints that some of the buskers were rude and even threatening when spectators refused to drop donations in the hat.

"Visitors have a certain expectation of what they'll see here: a nice, Mediterranean-flavored little sanctuary, old buildings, vine-covered walls," says Dana Ste. Claire, an archaeologist now directing a major historic renovation.

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[St. Johns County Visitors & Convention Bureau photo]
A horse-drawn carriage rolls past the antique shops and art galleries on old Aviles Street.

"People coming here don't expect to run into . . . Tarot-card readers, people selling woven-palm baskets, urban drummers beating on trash cans, bad magicians . . . a boom box drowning out the interpreter talking about the Spanish Quarter."

The two sides have battled in court since 1995, with some ordinances restricting the location for street performers being tossed out as unconstitutional. The current law states that buskers cannot block doorways but may congregate at one small plaza on St. George.

While heeding that law, one performer has filed an appeal. Meanwhile, the buskers roll out yards-long paper petitions on St. George and encourage the pedestrians to add their names. However, a recent review of the paper rolls showed that the chance to commit graffiti and love messages was at least as strong as the urge to support someone else's interpretation of the First Amendment.

A number of buskers have since left the city, but the years-long, sporadic battle focused attention on old St. George, but meanwhile, nearby, two other significant efforts were under way to resurrect part of the city's history. Not surprisingly, one is a commercial venture, one is educational.

Open to the public since last December, the Casa Monica Hotel is a handsome rejuvenation of one of the city's oldest resorts. The hotel originally opened in January 1888 with just three guests and was sold three months later to railroad magnate Flagler. He was to build two other, larger hotels on other corners of the intersection of King and Cordova streets, at one end of the Restoration area.

While all three hotels initially flourished as tourism boomed in Florida during the early 20th century, the Depression helped to close them. The Casa Monica sat shuttered for about three decades before becoming county government office and court space for 30 years.

Then hotelier Richard C. Kessler bought the building and invested a reported $17-million to renovate and refurbish it.

Now a 137-room hotel with a Spanish-Mediterranean motif, Casa Monica is the priciest lodging in the city. Kessler has said he hopes to draw small business meetings and retirees with the flexibility to fill the Monday-Thursday period and to have it serve as St. Augustine's "in" place for weddings and social events.

Immediately south of the Casa Monica -- with St. George Street forming one border -- is the latest historic recreation. It may be the most ambitious.

Old St. Augustine Village consists of 10 renovated buildings, dating from 1790 to 1910. The land and buildings fill part of one city block and thus demonstrate overlapping periods of history. The project director is Ste. Claire, who formerly worked for Piper Archaeology in St. Petersburg.

Now he's employed by Daytona's Museum of Arts Sciences, which was given the land and properties in 1988.

The Village's current occupants are carpenters and other artisans, working to renovate and restore buildings to serve as life-size museum pieces. The structures range from a 101-year-old general store used by the employees of the old Casa Monica and other hotels to a 210-year-old cottage once occupied by a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France.

When that cottage, the Prince Murat House, was a boarding house, its visitors in 1827 included Ralph Waldo Emerson, recently graduated from Harvard. Just more than a century later, when the cottage served as a restaurant, one of the customers was Greta Garbo.

Another house in the village was rented in the early 1900s by author William Dean Howells, whose guests included Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis.

Another visitor to the town was John J. Audubon, in Florida in 1831-32 to paint his famous bird series. But the heat, mosquitoes and general backwardness turned him against the place. He referred to St. Augustine as "resembling some old French village" and "doubtless the poorest village I have seen in America."

Times change. Some of St. Augustine's rundown neighborhoods ringing the historic area have been gentrified. The growth is noticeable if not remarkable: The U.S. Census put the city population in 1990 at 11,695, and by April 1999 estimates gave it an 8 percent increase, to about 12,700.

Resort's museum aims for golf aficionados
Swing with an 1880s wood-shafted putter, walk the Hall of Fame or take a break in the IMAX theater.

St. Augustine: If you go
St. Augustine cannot quite be all things to all tourists. But for Florida, it's not bad.

But St. Johns County, which encompasses St. Augustine and its new bedroom communities and stretches north toward Jacksonville, has exploded. The 1990 Census counted 83,829 residents in St. Johns; by April 1999, the numbers were up 60 percent, to an estimated 113,941.

"The town has not changed that dramatically, but the (adjacent) beaches and the county have," acknowledges Mary Jane Dillon, a resident for 29 years. "The beaches have rows of condos, when there used to be a handful."

The secretary to the president of Flagler College, Dillon notes "much more a sense of commercialization on St. George." But she remembers what it was like "not to have good dining and shopping . . . having to order clothes from the Sears catalog."

"Anybody might say, "I liked the town when it was smaller,' " she says. "But it's not fair to select out only the attributes of progress that you like."

Cautions archaeologist Dana Ste. Claire: "St. Augustine is beginning to evolve into a major heritage destination. We have to protect its historic fabric.

"We cannot tear down the Bridge of Lions, or take up the brick streets to lay smoother ones."

Advertising executive Keith Gold, whose company holds the account for the county's tourism agency, would agree.

Following a marketing presentation this month, Gold noted the unmatchable heritage and told the St. Augustine Record: "We want to boost tourism, but we don't want to turn it into something other than what we know and love about the place."

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