A History Unmasked: Part Two

This three-part series will be covering my experience as I was able to see the process of archiving history in The Old Governor’s House, and most importantly, how that affects historic St. Augustine as a whole.

By Nora Heyser | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Many of Flagler College’s students and locals of the St. Augustine area know of the rich history that envelops every corner and limestone brick that this town is made of. What many don’t know, however, is the careful study and construction that must take place in order for this history to be observable.

Laura Marion and Matthew Armstrong, historical archivists that work in the Old Governor’s House Library, spoke about the process that the buildings downtown had to go through for people today to see the history that we know via images and archaeological findings to be accurate. 

One thing that Armstrong shows that brought into perspective the structure of the town and how its presented, is its mapping and construction over the years, specifically in the St. George Street area. Block maps are used in order to know, over the many years, the actual physical land rather than just basing knowledge off of addresses that change.

The Block and Lot map Marion and Armstrong use at Governor’s House Library

Armstrong referenced a block map from 1923, which is still used today, that sections off each lot of land and labels it, without addresses or street numbers. He pointed to one lot in particular, which would be recognizable to any Flagler student if they saw the actual building.

“We are in block 7, lot 8. That’s the Flagler Legacy store,” Armstrong said as he pointed to a block somewhere in the middle of St. George Street, indecipherable if not for seeing the building in person.

The Flagler Legacy store is a good example of the development in the process of preserving history and focusing on it to the extent that St. Augustine does with many of its buildings. First, Armstrong showed me an image that was looking at Flagler Legacy, from the early 1900s, estimated by the roads being paved with brick, he explained. The image showed a building that is quite recognizable to anyone today, with similar features and structure. Even the buildings around it would have been recognizable, if we were to go back in time and see the same block of land. We would know exactly where we were.

Image of St. George Street from 1959, sourced from UFHSA Governor’s House Library

Then, Armstrong and Marion showed me an image from around the 1960s, of the same block of land. It was completely different, showing a strip of modern-looking shops and storefronts, and completely different structural material. Marion and Armstrong explained that back during that time, historic preservation wasn’t on the town’s mind, so they built shops all along St. George Street. It’s similar to streets and buildings you’d find in historic Palatka or downtown Sanford, showing a modernist take of buildings and design, but not the old-time structure that St. Augustine is famous for.

“The St. Augustine Preservation Board came in, purchased the property, and demolished it, then went back and did archaeology, which is why we have the archaeological documentation,” Armstrong said as he holds up the two very different images. They would use the archaeological findings to understand the original structure from the colonial era, so that they could then construct and restore the original makeup of the historical building, on the very lot that it once stood. “They have photo documentation, written record, and archaeological digs, and they put it all together to reconstruct it.” 

Marion and Armstrong explain that it’s extremely important to understand that this process is not any kind of farce, but is a historical process to preserving the foundation of St. Augustine’s historical nature and construction. The buildings aren’t something that just look historic from the outside, but is factually historic in every room of the building and how it’s structured. The Board did extensive research in order to have complete accuracy in the representation of history. We can see the differences in images on www.whatwasthere.com, too. 

An image of St. George Street from 1880’s, sourced from the Library of Congress

One question that pops up is what was it that made the change. Why did historic preservation become a project to begin with?

Marion answered that question easily.

“St. Augustine’s 400th ‘birthday’ was in 1965, and kick-started the desire to bring most of the buildings built back to what they might have looked like in colonial times, in time for this 400th birthday,” Marion said. “Both to make the city more historic, but also for tourism purposes.”

The historic accuracy and lengths to which the board and preservationists went to restore these buildings lends itself to the process of history, and the importance of people like Marion and Armstrong, working on these projects, so that we can all enjoy a timeless piece of old Florida, that is such an important part of United States history.

Everyone can now look at the buildings and historic sites in St. Augustine and not only appreciate their beauty, but also appreciate the effort and tireless work that went into the very existence of these locations, so that history isn’t just something we read in a text book but can visually apprehend and step through.

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