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Today in History, the Florida Edition

On September 8, 1565, 52 years and 5 months after Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain, Pedro Menendez landed on the east coast of Florida with 5 ships carrying a total of 600-800 people.  His intentions: to drive out the French Huguenots and establish a Spanish settlement in what is now St. Augustine, FL.  It’s been 450 years since then, and St. Augustine is still thriving, its Spanish colonial charm rivaling the English colonial charm of Charleston, SC (est. 1670) and Savannah, GA (est.1733). Today, St. Augustine celebrated its 450th Anniversary with a reenactment of Menendez’s landing, a procession through the city, and a commemorative mass at the Cathedral Basilica, wrapping up a week-long celebration that started on September 1, 2015.

I had the pleasure of visiting St. Augustine earlier this year as it was gearing up for its 450th Anniversary celebration.  Within the visitor’s center, the Tapestry exhibit (on display April 4 to Sept. 20, 2015) had much of St. Augustine’s history on display, with replicas of Pedro Menendez’s flagship, the San Pelayo, and a 16th century Spanish colonial building.

16th century replica Spanish colonial building, constructed of cypress poles and sable palm leaves by ethnohistorian Alexander Cameron, PhD., using an Indian Council House as inspiration. Displayed at the St. Augustine visitor’s center as part of the Tapestry Exhibit. Due to battles with the Indians and construction materials used by the colonists, none of the original Menendez era homes are still standing. Photo by Stacey Sather/SGS Design & Art.
16th century replica Spanish colonial building, constructed of cypress poles and sable palm leaves by ethnohistorian Alexander Cameron, PhD., using an Indian Council House as inspiration. Displayed at the St. Augustine visitor’s center as part of the Tapestry Exhibit. Due to battles with the Indians and construction materials used by the colonists, none of the original Menendez era homes are still standing. Photo by Stacey Sather/SGS Design & Art.

Regardless of what time you go, St. Augustine is living history. There are about a dozen different ways to relive Spanish colonial Florida within St. Augustine’s historic district.  If you are interested in visiting a traditional open-air history museum, St. Augustine has three: Colonial/Spanish Quarter, the Old Florida Museum/Fort Menendez, and the Dow Museum of Historic Homes, also known as Old Town St. Augustine or Old St. Augustine Village.

A costumed interpreter at Colonial Quarter demonstrates the art of blacksmithing.
A costumed interpreter at Colonial Quarter demonstrates the art of blacksmithing.
Colonial Quarter's Taberna del Caballo - once the De Hita and Bernardo-Gonzalez houses. Meant to re-create the atmosphere of an old Spanish tavern, the Taberna del Caballo now serves Sangria and Spanish small plates/tapas.
Colonial Quarter’s Taberna del Caballo – once the De Hita and Bernardo-Gonzalez houses. Meant to re-create the atmosphere of an old Spanish tavern, the Taberna del Caballo now serves Sangria and Spanish small plates/tapas.
DeMesa-Sanchez House
Built in the 1740’s, the De Mesa-Sanchez house is the oldest home incorporated into Colonial Quarter.
Costumed interpreters at Fort Matanza discuss the life of the colonial soldier and demonstrate how to fire a cannon.
Costumed interpreters at Fort Matanza discuss the life of the colonial soldier and demonstrate how to fire a cannon.

If old Spanish forts are your thing, St. Augustine is home to the Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Matanzas.  Once used in the defense of the city, these forts are now National Monuments, operated by the National Park Service and open to the public.

If you love historic homes, then you should take a stroll down St. George Street to see how reconstructed historic buildings come alive with the attention of modern businesses.

Jose Sanchez de Ortigosa House, now the Spanish Dutch Convoy, 60 St. George St., St. Augustine, FL.
Jose Sanchez de Ortigosa House, now the Spanish Dutch Convoy, 60 St. George St., St. Augustine, FL.
Shopping on St. George Street, St.. Augustine, FL.
Shopping on St. George Street, St.. Augustine, FL.
Spanish Bakery Salcedo Kitchen 2
The Spanish Bakery, housed in what was once General Biassou’s Kitchen, 42 St. George Street, St. Augustine, FL.
Lunch at the Spanish Bakery.
Lunch at the Spanish Bakery.
Whetstone Chocolates, in Salcedo/General Biassou house, 42 St. George Street, St. Augustine, FL.
Whetstone Chocolates, in Salcedo/General Biassou house, 42 St. George Street, St. Augustine, FL.
The Oliveros House, now Flagler's Legacy Shop, 59 St. George Street, St. Augustine, FL.
The Oliveros House, now Flagler’s Legacy Shop, 59 St. George Street, St. Augustine, FL.

On top of this, St. Augustine has several historic house museums – historic homes that are now open to the public and offer guided tours – where you can experience what domestic life was like in St. Augustine centuries ago.  These include the Oldest House Museum, the Ximenez-Fatio House, and the Peña-Peck House.  At these historic house museums, the museum is the house.

The Gonzalez-Alvarez House, now part of the Oldest House Museum, at 14 St. Francis Street, St. Augustine, FL. This house is so old, it looks a little uneven no matter how I take the photo.
The Gonzalez-Alvarez House, now part of the Oldest House Museum, at 14 St. Francis Street, St. Augustine, FL. This house is so old, it looks a little uneven no matter how I take the photo.
Compare/contrast early Spanish period furnishings vs. British period furnishings. Taken at the Gonzalez-Alvarez House.
Compare/contrast early Spanish period furnishings (left) vs. British period furnishings (right). Taken at the Gonzalez-Alvarez House.
The Gonzalez-Alvarez Kitchen.
The Gonzalez-Alvarez Kitchen.

With its abundance of historic buildings, the entire city of St. Augustine is practically an open-air history museum in and of itself.

Interested in visiting? Here are a few links to help with your planning:

  1. augustine.com
  2. www.floridashistoriccoast.com
  3. www.simplystaugustine.com
  4. http://www.oldcity.com/
  5. http://www.staugustineattractions.net/
Jennifer Ring
Jennifer Ring is a freelance writer & photographer living in the Tampa Bay area, on Florida's west coast, home to some of the best beaches in the state.
http://flillustrated.com

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