Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying “you make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.” What better way to “make a life” than by giving a new house to a bride in St. Augustine?
The Don Toledo House almost fits the bill. Located at 36 Aviles Street, the two-story coquina house is part of the Sisters of St. Joseph complex with a small balcony overlooking the picturesque brick street. For many years it was advertised as being, “built in 1516 by Don Toledo, for his Indian bride.”
With this sentiment, however romantic, the house and the Churchill quote share one thing in common: they are both based on lies. The quote is charming, but Churchill never said or wrote those words (The Churchill Centre keeps a running list of quotes that have been falsely attributed to the statesman). The house is old, but it wasn’t built in 1516 and there was no Don Toledo. For starters, that would have been 49 years before Pedro Menéndez came ashore and founded St. Augustine.
The house was actually built by Gaspar Papy sometime between 1803 and 1817, which still makes it one of the few surviving colonial-era houses in St. Augustine. The myth of Don Toledo wasn’t attached to the house until Everett C. Whitney leased the house in 1903, billing it as “Whitney’s Oldest House.”
Whitney operated several other dubious attractions around town at the time: the Burning Spring Museum on Anastasia Island, wherein water from an artesian well was mixed with gasoline and lit aflame, to dramatic effect; and Whitney’s Ponce de Leon Spring, which was claimed to be the “original” Fountain of Youth located in West Augustine near the present day Crookshank Elementary School (the namesake for both Whitney Street and Spring Street, which run parallel to Masters Drive).
Even though Whitney only rented the Don Toledo (Gaspar Papy) House for five years, the myth stuck around until the Historical Society leased the house in 1939.
It’s easy to be cynical about Whitney’s turn of the century tourist trap, but I like to think all the attention it garnered as the “oldest house” may have protected it from the wrecking ball. So many colonial-era houses have been lost over the years, and it could have easily been the same for this one had it not been that the crumbling plaster walls served to make the title seem more authentic.
The house was restored in 1944 and still graces Aviles Street today. Maybe that was Don Toledo’s real gift (via Everett Whitney): he didn’t build the house, but he did help save it for future generations to enjoy.