Where History Lives: Historic Villa Flora hopes to see restorations

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By KIMEKO MCCOY
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Since 1898, the Villa Flora at 234 St. George St. has stood as one of St. Augustine’s most unique properties.

Constructed during the Flagler Era, the Historic Villa Flora boasts extensive stained glasswork, a massive coquina porch base and it is one of St. Augustine’s first examples of yellow-brown brick usage.

In order to retain all of its charm, the Villa Flora, now owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph, is hoping to see renovations soon.

Raising funds for refurbishing

Fundraising officially began Thursday toward the restoration project of the Villa Flora.

Sister Mary Christine Zimorski said Thursday night’s reception helped the project, but more dollars are still needed.

Mike Johns’ wife and preservation committee member, Norma Johns, said the kickoff “gave us a wonderful introduction to a lot of wonderful people.”

She said there will be more events to continue to introduce the city to one of St. Augustine’s gems.

“The whole object is to make people aware,” she said.

The building needs restored stained glass windows and doors, stabilizing the back porch structure, roof flashing repair, sealing of the Villa Flora building exterior brick as well as landscaping. Establishment of a contingency fund also is a goal.

“There’s a great need for repair and restoration,” said Zimorski, who overseas the Villa Flora.

Through the Bureau of Historic Preservation, the restoration and preservation of Villa Flora is to be applied to and completed in three separate phases.

At this point, the first phase is nearly complete.

The first phase of the application process includes Villa Flora Building restoration project study including architectural engineering and architectural fees at a total budget of $25,000.

Johns, Villa Flora Preservation Committee Chair, said the paperwork for phase one was submitted on May 31.

After August’s hearing for phase one, the Villa Flora was ranked acceptable for funding and approved to continue through the legislature and to the governor.

As of now, Johns says the dollar amount is headed to the governor for the final say and that’s the completion of phase one.

Phase two has a total budget of $575,000 and follows the same timeline but the implementation of the dollars from phase one and two both occur in July.

“So we’ll know if we’re in good standing within a couple to three months of October 31,” Johns said.

Already, the property has drawn support from the community.

Support has come from Flagler College’s president William Abare, Robert Harper, Executive Director of the Lightner Museum, as well as historian Dr. Michael Gannon, and even a few political figures like Doc Renuart and John Thrasher.

The final phase of the building’s repair will be the implementation of renovation and restoration. At that point, the Sisters of St. Joseph anticipate the total completion of the $600,000 project to be no later than fall of next year to line up with the 450th celebration of St. Augustine.

Zimorski said the building is cherished and important to the city and tourists alike.

“From that standpoint, we know it’s important for the historic landscape of this place that we keep this building up,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

The history of the Villa Flora

The long history of the Villa Flora pre-dates the building and begins with a Baptist minister from Minnesota.

The Baptist minister was the Rev. O.A. Weenolsen, and he and his wife became winter residents in St. Augustine for the first time when they purchased a home on Bridge Street in 1892.

Two years later, the couple moved and in 1898, they began constructing their home which is now the Villa Flora.

With about 42 stained glassworks, a luxurious porch base made of coquina and a blonde brick siding, the house that was built all those years ago looks similar today to what it did back then.

The two-story brick and coquina structure was built with a three-story tower during the Flagler Era in 1898.

According to a Villa Flora brochure, the property is one of the outstanding surviving structures of the Flagler Era as well as one of the oldest brick buildings in St. Augustine.

The couple created the beautiful garden that surrounds the building and named it Flora Promenade with roses, violets and other assorted plants.

The Villa Flora’s interior is just as beautiful as the exterior.

There are handcrafted artisan floors that were refurbished to keep their luster as well as high ceilings with crown molding.

In 1941, the property switched hands to the Sisters of St. Joseph. The group of women got their start when eight brave souls journeyed from France to St. Augustine on Sept. 2, 1866.

Since then, they’ve dedicated their time to education in health care, and when the group purchased the Villa Flora in 1941, it served as classroom space for St. Joseph Academy, a kindergarten, a novitiate, a residence and currently stands as a Renewal Center.

An additional property, Brown Hall, was constructed in 1975 right behind the Villa, and it was meant to serve as a formation house for the Sisters.

Named after Sister Theresa Joseph Brown, the Reverend Mother who purchased the Villa Flora in 1941, Brown Hall boasts housing space, gathering space as well as a peaceful courtyard.

As a renewal center, the mission of Villa Flora-Brown Hall is to “extend an invitation to dwell in the houe of the Lord through prayer, reflection and renewal in order to deepen a lived Catholic spirituality in daily life,” according to the Sister of St. Joseph website.

Today, the property even sees its share of tourists, but hopes that through the renovations, it’ll remain a jewel of St. Augustine.

For information on how to help, call 824-8594.