Many times the best way understand our present day and gain perspective is to look back at where we’ve come from. As we approach the city’s 450th birthday, let’s travel back in time to 1965, to the city’s 400th birthday, known as the Quadricentennial Celebration. Let’s imagine what St. Augustine was like 50 years ago, and how the St. Augustine we know and love today was shaped by her citizens then:
It’s September 8th, 1965: the city of St. Augustine is finally lighting the 400th candle on its birthday cake, and the world is in chaos. As usual.
The country is in the middle of the Cold War, with no end in sight. Only four years ago, construction of the Berlin Wall began, and a Russian cosmonaut completed the first manned space flight into orbit. Three years ago nuclear war was narrowly avoided with the deft statesmanship of President John F. Kennedy. The next year that same president was assassinated. Last year in our own city, black demonstrators seeking equal access to jobs, education, and services were met with brutality and violence by white mobs, and a Category 3 hurricane named Dora came ashore six miles north, causing $200 million in state-wide damage. Not to mention, those four Brits with funny haircuts played on the Ed Sullivan show and whipped all the kids into a frenzy. This year activist Malcolm X was assassinated, President Lyndon Johnson deployed the first troops to war in Vietnam, the tear gas and billy clubs of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” flashed across our television screens, and just last month, the Watts Riots left Los Angeles burning for six days.
In spite of all this, we celebrate.
THE 400TH PROJECTS
In a world that seems to be consistently spinning out of control, our community has endured for 400 years. Celebrating that kind of tenacity involves creating some new things to last for another 400 years. Big things…like a 208 foot tall cross at the site where Pedro Menéndez came ashore in 1565. The Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine constructed the cross for the celebration as well as the Prince of Peace Church and a massive renovation and expansion of the Cathedral Basilica. Last year the National Park Service did restoration on the Castillo de San Marcos and the City Gate, and then between the two reconstructed a section of a defensive wall called the “Cubo Line” out of cast concrete palm logs to show how the area would have appeared in colonial Spanish times.
The St. Augustine Historical Society has been involved with the restoration of old houses for years, but for the 400th Anniversary the Society put a new research library into a reconstructed colonial building called the Alexander-O’Donaven-O’Reilly House.
I imagine when Menéndez first stepped down from boat to sand in 1565 his crew put on as much fanfare as they could muster, but today we get to make up for the past’s lack of pomp. “Cross and Sword”, the new play by Paul Green, is a dramatization of the founding of St. Augustine, replete with song and dance, and was commissioned for the 400th Anniversary. And get this, the Amphitheatre where it’s shown was built especially for Cross and Sword and funded entirely by private donations from citizens through the 400th Anniversary Corporation, under the direction of W. I. Drysdale (owner of the Alligator Farm). In 1961 the County bought the old molding Cordova Hotel Building on the corner of Cordova and King and turned it into the new County Courthouse.
ST. GEORGE STREET RESTORATIONS
Then there’s all the work on St. George Street.
There have been a couple buildings that were restored to their former colonial-era glory, but more often a building is torn down to make way for a colonial-era reconstruction. A lot of this work is being spear-headed by the St. Augustine Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission, but there are projects done by other groups, local business owners, and even some by private citizens. Some buildings aren’t reconstructed or restored at all, but the storefronts are remodeled in ways to make them look more colonial – by adding balconies, terra cotta, and coquina accents, among other things. Five years ago the St. Augustine National Bank and the Exchange Bank started offering loans with liberal rates and terms for owners or renters to remodel their facades in such a way.
The north end of St. George Street is being called the Restoration Area these days, and has completely transformed in the last half-decade. The whole area has been “Spanishified.” The goal of the Restoration Commission is to recreate the architecture and culture of colonial St. Augustine from 1565-1821, and restore a slice of the colonial walled city to be a living history museum.
They even have their own specialized construction crew with traditional building skills like shingle splitting and hand-hewing lumber.
Spanish buildings, colonial crafts and clothing; it’s all part of a larger effort to look at the Hispanic origins of our city and how that links us to our Latin American and Caribbean neighbors.
THE INTER-AMERICAN CENTER
One of the most exciting 400th Anniversary projects is the Pan American Center on St. George Street. Working with the Organization of American States, the goal is for this center to start us down the path of being a symbolic Inter-American Center. There is space for all Latin American nations to have exhibits to showcase their heritage and culture, and among the many educational projects to come are plans for a University of the Americas in our city. Just south of that is the new Hispanic Garden with the statue of Queen Isabella done by the famous sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. Across Hypolita from the Garden is the Casa del Hidalgo which was actually built by the Spanish government with a Spanish architect especially for the 400th Anniversary to house their Spanish Exhibition and Cultural Center.
Aside from all that there are the parades and the music, the Days of Spain festival put on by the Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce), the beard competition, the cake cutting ceremony…Come what may, here’s to the next 400 years!
Flash forward 50 years, to present-day September 2015: As we brace ourselves for a celebration in honor of 450 years of progress, we seek to tell our story to a greater audience, while holding tight to our history. And once again, despite all the turmoil around us, we continue to make it as the oldest, city, and a thriving one at that.
Historical Photos via the University of Florida Historic St. Augustine (UFHSA) Government House Research Collection.