Historic Tovar House gets a second look

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It is said that while the Spanish occupied St. Augustine, they took thorough notes.

And according to those notes, the Tovar House at 22 St. Francis St. was a “house of thin walls of tabby, in fair condition.”

Those comments date back to a map drawn up in 1788 by Mariano de la Rocque.

No one disputed this description.

That was until retired University of Florida professor and archaeologist Herschel Shepard started poking around.

“The argument boils down to when the building was recorded during the second Spanish period,” he said. “The thickness of the walls caused it to be misinterpreted as tabby concrete rather than coquina.”

His findings and investigation kicked off a small excavation project that will run through the most of July.

Funded by a grant from the University of Florida-Flagler College Historic St. Augustine Research Institute, archaeologists Kathleen Deagan and Greg Smith are working with Shepard and Susan Parker, executive director of the St. Augustine Historical Society, to learn more about the history and construction methods of the Tovar House.

Archaeologist Sarah Bennett shovels dirt from a trench a group of archeologists dug to expose the foundation of the Tovar House at 22 St. Francis St. in St. Augustine on Thursday, July 9, 2015. The archeologists are examining the house, thought to be one of the earliest coquina buildings still standing, to learn more about the history and construction methods of the building.
Archaeologist Sarah Bennett shovels dirt from a trench a group of archeologists dug to expose the foundation of the Tovar House at 22 St. Francis St. in St. Augustine on Thursday, July 9, 2015. The archeologists are examining the house, thought to be one of the earliest coquina buildings still standing, to learn more about the history and construction methods of the building.

 

Research on property

Parker said little excavation has been done on the Francis Street property.

If work was done, it was by default during construction, so the available information on the building’s construction is limited.

“We’re looking to see what we can find out about the construction of the building because we don’t have a lot of that information,” Parker said.

According to historical research, the house was initially identified with Joseph Tovar during the first Spanish evacuation in the 1760s when every house in the area was plotted on a map drawn up in 1764 by Don Juan Elixio de la Puente.

Military engineer de la Rocque was appointed by the Spanish Crown to plot another map of the town in 1788, where the house was described as being made of tabby.

The property changed hands several times through private auctions and leasing and then in October 1918 the deed of ownership was transferred to the St. Augustine Historical Society.

The two-story house received a $140,000 renovation three years ago in anticipation of the city’s 450th anniversary celebration.

“The house looked no different then than when we (the historical society) bought it,” Parker said.

With the funding, the renovation crew replaced rotten wood, installed heating and cooling and spruced up the place.

Renovations

In the same year renovations kicked off, Shepard spent many hours examining the building while conducting research.

He believes the Tovar House is one of the earliest coquina buildings still standing today.

“My conclusion is there’s a strong possibility the Tovar House dates back much earlier than we suppose,” Shepard said.

Not to say that Shepard was skeptical of notes taken by the Spanish so long ago, but a good researcher always checks facts.

What he found was that the “walls of tabby” are not made of tabby at all.

“We know some of the walls as it stands today are not tabby,” Shepard said. “It’s different. It’s coquina.”

He also noticed the walls on the bottom floor of the two-story house were thin, measuring only a foot thick.

Shepard said traditionally, well-built structures have thicker first-floor walls.

Since July 6, archaeologist Deagan and Smith have worked from morning to mid-afternoon, digging at the house while looking for information regarding construction of the property.

“Right now we’re at about 1850 to 1860,” Deagan said.

The archaeologists initially got involved after finding out about Shepard’s findings.

“We were also very interested in the building. It is one of the oldest in colonial St. Augustine, but we just don’t know how old,” she said.

Construction methods and dates are just a few findings Deagan is hoping for.

“This is a small-scale project lasting just three weeks, but it’s fun for us,” Deagan said.

In the same year renovations kicked off, Shepard spent many hours examining the building while conducting research.

He believes the Tovar House is one of the earliest coquina buildings still standing today.

“My conclusion is there’s a strong possibility the Tovar House dates back much earlier than we suppose,” Shepard said.

Not to say that Shepard was skeptical of notes taken by the Spanish so long ago, but a good researcher always checks facts.

What he found was that the “walls of tabby” are not made of tabby at all.

“We know some of the walls as it stands today are not tabby,” Shepard said. “It’s different. It’s coquina.”

He also noticed the walls on the bottom floor of the two-story house were thin, measuring only a foot thick.

Shepard said traditionally, well-built structures have thicker first-floor walls.

Since July 6, archaeologist Deagan and Smith have worked from morning to mid-afternoon, digging at the house while looking for information regarding construction of the property.

“Right now we’re at about 1850 to 1860,” Deagan said.

The archaeologists initially got involved after finding out about Shepard’s findings.

“We were also very interested in the building. It is one of the oldest in colonial St. Augustine, but we just don’t know how old,” she said.

Construction methods and dates are just a few findings Deagan is hoping for.

“This is a small-scale project lasting just three weeks, but it’s fun for us,” Deagan said.