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American Latino Heritage
St. Augustine Town Plan Historic District
St. Augustine, Florida
On a September day in 1565, Spanish Explorer Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sailed into Matanzas Bay and established the colony of St. Augustine. Though Ponce de León had already claimed the lands of Florida for Spain during a 1513 expedition, Menéndez’s mission was the first to create a successful permanent settlement. Forty-two years before the English colonized Jamestown, and 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Spain’s St. Augustine became the very first European colony in what is now the continental United States. The Spanish constructed a military base guarded by a large fortress, the Castillo de San Marcos, and the settlement developed and evolved into a sophisticated town with gridded streets and a central plaza. Burgeoning St. Augustine would remain the seat of Spanish power in Florida throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
The city is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States. The St. Augustine Town Plan National Historic Landmark District is the earliest extant example of a European planned community with a distinctive layout of a 16th century Spanish colonial town. The Spanish emphasized town planning and developed specifications for laying out new colonial towns in their 1573 Laws of the Indies. The 16th century Plaza de la Constitución still sits at St. Augustine’s center – the metaphoric heart of the strong Spanish heritage thoughtfully preserved throughout the city.
Set among the network of narrow, sometimes winding streets, the district’s existing architectural heritage spans nearly 300 years, but the district and the city are most renowned for the early Spanish colonial buildings. The district also boasts impressive buildings from the Territorial Period (1821-1845), the Flagler Era (1880s-1890s) and the Florida Boom (1920s). St. Augustine showcases this mosaic of architectural styles, materials and typologies alongside traditions and practices inspired by over 400 years of Spanish-Floridian culture.
After Spanish Explorer Ponce de León discovered the Florida Peninsula in 1513, Spain immediately recognized the land as an instrumental point of defense for the Gulf of Mexico and the powerful Gulf Stream--both of which Spain heavily used for trade and transport between the motherland and her South American Colonies. After repeated attempts by the Spanish to colonize Florida, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine in 1565 under orders from King Philip II and the town began to be laid out in 1603. The coastal colony originally served as a military outpost and a base for Catholic missionary efforts. As the town began to grow, a distinct pattern of streets emerged based on Spanish colonial city planning law that called for the laying out of towns in a gridiron with a symmetrical network of streets running both parallel and perpendicular to a central town plaza. Important civic and religious buildings were to front the plaza and provide a strong moral and governmental core to new cities.
St. Augustine’s layout reflected this early Spanish planning. The grid of streets expanded out from the main plaza, which faced the sea, and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, plots around the plaza housed the city’s main church, the Bishop’s house, the town hall, customs house, treasury building, arsenal, the hospital, guardhouses and various monuments.
During this early colonial period, St. Augustine was strategically important and routinely suffered attacks from the French and British colonists living to the north in present-day Georgia and South Carolina. Construction of the Castillo de San Marcos began in 1672 to help protect the important Spanish stronghold. The Castillo is all that remains of St. Augustine’s earliest architecture as a British attack in 1702 completely leveled the rest of the city. The large masonry fort is the oldest extant structure in St. Augustine, and the oldest of its kind in the United States. The National Park Service administers the Castillo de San Marcos as a National Monument. More information about the fort can be found here.
The City of St. Augustine went through several periods of both expansion and decline as its political and cultural climate shifted throughout the remainder of the 18th and early 19th centuries. St. Augustine had had some 342 dwellings by 1764, the end of the first Spanish period. Following the Treaty of Paris (1763), the British ruled Florida for a brief period until its return to Spanish ownership in 1784. With Spain suffering the Napoleonic invasions at home, its Floridian colonies lost importance. The expanding United States gained control of Florida in 1821, and Florida became a State in 1845. By the end of the colonial period, St. Augustine’s population was about 2,000, nearly half of whom were slaves, and the community had about 300 houses, of which about 30 houses remain, almost all of which are made of stone, using the native coquina.
St. Augustine experienced its last major boom, and an aesthetic renaissance, at the end of the 19th century. Henry Flagler, a railroad tycoon and former business partner of John D. Rockefeller, visited the city in 1885. Flagler envisioned St. Augustine as a tourist mecca – a winter resort town for wealthy Northerners. By 1886, one of Flagler’s railroad lines linked the city to the rest of the east coast, and in 1887, his company began construction on two large, ornate hotels, the Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar. Flagler also purchased a third hotel, the Cordova, renaming it Casa Monica. The massive hotels not only attracted a huge tourist industry, but also brought a new wave of Moorish and Spanish Revival styling to St. Augustine. In a short time, this style would come to characterize the look of cities throughout Florida.
ST. AUGUSTINE TODAY
Public and private efforts have been underway for many years to preserve and interpret the St. Augustine Town Plan National Historic Landmark District—especially the heritage that remains of the early colonial period. The city is now a fascinating visual mix of styles and typologies—a veritable timeline of built history ready to explore. St. Augustine prides itself on its historic district, and visitors are offered a wealth of walking tours, guided carriage rides, boat cruises, and historic reenactments.
One of the most significant features of the city is its Spanish colonial-style plan. The narrow roads and small blocks still reflect the original city layout. Set among this grid are 30 some buildings of colonial origin, and more that are reconstructions. The portion of the district located to the southwest of the Castillo de San Marcos contains the highest concentration of these buildings. Residences built along the street line have overhanging balconies, ornamental railings and decorative rejas (window bars). The Spanish colonial flavor is strongest in this part of the city—particularly between King Street and Bridge Street, the area that was once the original settlement with the largest concentrations of colonial buildings on St. George, Aviles, and St. Francis Streets and others scattered throughout the area. The Llambias House, a National Historic Landmark featured separately in this itinerary, is located at 31 St. Francis Street.
The St. Augustine plaza in the center of town also dates from the early Spanish colonial period. Today, religious, commercial and governmental buildings from various periods surround the plaza, including the Cathedral of St. Augustine, the vernacular public marketplace (1824), and the Gothic Revival Trinity Episcopal Church (1825). Within the interior of the plaza is the Spanish Constitution Obelisk (1814).
Located north of the central plaza along Matanzas Bay is the oldest and most imposing structure in the district, the Castillo de San Marcos. Originally constructed between 1672 and 1695, this impressive fortification has had many improvements and repairs since then. The symmetrical, four-bastioned fortification built around a square courtyard is made of native coquina stone. This National Monument is now a national park, a living history museum offering a range of guided tours, events and educational activities for all ages. A schedule of events for the Castillo can be viewed here.
Interpreted exhibits and events are also available at the St. Augustine Historical Society Oldest House Museum Complex, which includes Florida’s oldest standing Spanish colonial residence, the González-Alvarez House, a National Historic Landmark at 14 St. Francis Street. Beyond the Spanish colonial period, the district contains significant architecture from different periods.
Archeological investigations have helped define the limits of the Spanish colonial city. They also are addressing important questions such as how the townspeople lived and adapted to change during the colonial period and how the town and its plan evolved into this major urban center in the Spanish New World.