The following post comes to us by way of Joseph Jessop Warren, a doctoral student in the UF College of Design, Construction and Planning’s Historic Preservation program. Much thanks to Mr. Warren for a wonderfully fascinating piece.


Reconstruction, Authenticity, and the Colonial Spanish City

St. Augustine1

A 21st century visitor to the oldest city established by European colonists in the continental United States has the opportunity to interact with the built environment of the colonial era, but an early 20th century visitor could not. This appears to be a riddle, and it is. How could the colonial era fabric of a city, documented in surveys by the Spanish and British, disappear in one century and reappear in another?  By the blending of pedagogical principals and corporate sensibilities.

From 1962 to 1978, one of the largest colonial revival urban projects in the nation was taking place in the city of St. Augustine, Florida, creating a multisite museum and tourist attraction deliberately blurring the lines between education, entertainment, and patriotism. The extensive project was spurred by the city’s 400 year founding in 1965, the National Bi-Centennial in 1976, and a famous 20th century colonial revival project in Virginia.

During the early 20th century in the United States, the colonial revival movement was in full swing. Virginia’s commercially successful recreation of colonial era Williamsburg, funded by the Rockefeller family, inspired St. Augustine’s political leadership to solicit private funding for a similar project in St. Augustine’s historic walled city section. In 1937 the Carnegie Foundation funded a historical survey of the city’s colonial area. The study’s findings recommended a blended approach of restoration and reconstruction of documented Spanish structures within the context of the contemporary city. However, a great depression and WWII would postpone future heritage conservation policy action on historic preservation for two decades.

In 1958, Florida’s governor LeRoyCollins appointed an advisory committee to create preservation/restoration policy proposals for St. Augustine.  House Bill 774, signed in 1959, created an entity with funding to restore and reconstruct the colonial fabric of St. Augustine. The St. Augustine Preservation Board’s intent and legal structure under the Department of State gave it the authority to acquire, restore/reconstruct, and manage historic buildings in the colonial Spanish conservation area in the city

In the following year, the commission presented the “Master Plan” for the colonial study area of the city based on the Carnegie-Chatelaine Study, focusing on redevelopment in a historic control area centering on St. George Street. Historical surveys by the Spanish and British were utilized in selecting properties to be acquired.

st. augustine 2

(Your Guide to San Agustín Antiguo (Old St. Augustine),

The colonial era buildings original construction materials of coquina stone, wood, and tabby presented special challenges to the contractors. Initially, coquina stone, a soft limestone composed of shells, was mined across the St. John’s River on Anastasia Island for structural walls. However, by the mid-20th century, mining had long ceased, and sourcing and finishing the stone at a site in Flagler Beach became prohibitively expensive. Thus, coquina block gave way to contemporary concrete masonry units with scored shell stucco. The traditional wood framing utilized in the early projects switched to contemporary platform framing in order to increase speed and decrease cost.

Further, some original materials would not be suitable for the commercial usage of the reconstruction buildings. Such as, Tabby flooring documented in the original structures, constructed of shells, sand and soft cement, would decay rapidly under the heavy use of a tourist attraction. The inventive solution substituted durable Portland cement incorporated with ground shells ground laid down with a terrazzo floor machine for an authentic appearance.

st. augustine 3[Construction of Gomez House from St. George Street, looking Southeast, 1969]

In conclusion, Reconstructing/restoring historic structures exposes the conflict between authenticity and durability constrained by funding. The inevitable outcome is that original authentic materials of an impermanent nature must be altered to retain an authentic appearance while being structurally engineered for durability. While the reconstruction and restoration of colonial St. Augustine created an accessible history of a lost colonial city, the reconstruction structures themselves now tell of story of their own, one of recent historic events of the 20th century that altered the urban form of the city.

The structures vary in authenticity of technique; nevertheless, they are uniform in the intent by the State of Florida and the St. Augustine Commissions to generate tourism for the 400th Anniversary of the founding of the City and later, the Nation’s Bi-Centennial. St. Augustine teaches us to interpret the recent past of restoration and reconstruction as nationally historically significant in its own right, not as an impostor of an earlier time, but of a project representative of the time during which they were constructed.

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(Artist’s rendering for possible reconstruction projects along the South side of Cuna Street]