BY KIMEKO MCCOY
At the heart of the Nation’s Oldest City, sits what has been its core since the 16th century.
From the time it was developed, the Plaza de la Constitucion has housed everything from movements of civil rights to lighthearted community entertainment.
During St. Augustine’s first Spanish period from 1565 to 1763 and under the leadership of Gov. Gonzalo Mendez de Canzo, the first formal plan for the city was established.
Included in the plans was the simple, open-sided roofed structure that served as the city’s marketplace.
According to “St. Augustine in History” by Rodney Carlisle and Loretta Carlisle, the plaza’s structure was typical of many city markets throughout Latin America at that time.
While Mendez de Canzo served from just 1597 to 1603, his legacy is the street grid that remains today in the oldest part of the city and the city marketplace that included the use of standard weights and measures for transactions.
A book of St. Augustine’s pictorial history by Karen Harvey notes that 18th-century documents indicate what could have been a guard house on the site.
It was believed that the British, who reigned from 1763 to 1783, operated markets near the plaza’s location.
What St. Augustine residents see today is only a replica of the original.
After hurricanes destroyed the original market shelter multiple times, it had to be rebuilt.
In addition to hurricanes, the marketplace roof was lit up in flames in a fire of 1887.
That particular fire left a block of St. Augustine in ashes. It started on an early April morning in 1887 when a fire broke out at the St. Augustine Hotel, which was on the corner of Charlotte and King streets. The Record reported that the fire woke up the whole town and hotel guests threw their valuables into the street before fleeing the building.
By the time it burned out, only some coquina stone walls of the nearby church remained.
Repairing and building
In Harvey’s book, it’s noted that a new market was built in 1878, most likely on Aviles Street.
This left the Plaza vacant for auctioneers, public activities and even the occasional loiters.
It was leased by Captain Vaill that same year to be repaired.
In 2010, city archaeologist Carl Halbirt started digging around the plaza, looking for St. Augustine secrets buried on the property.
The Record reported that although the plaza was more than 400 years old, it had never been totally excavated.
However, when the city decided to install more electrical channels, local archaeologists jumped at the chance to discover something new.
What was found changed the way St. Augustine looked at the property.
The Plaza revealed a way of life from St. Augustine’s early history.
“Although these areas were open expanses of land, there still were structures that could have served governmental or religious purposes,” Halbirt said.
He and the dig crew found numerous butchered animal fragments that would have been from the Plaza’s time as a city market.
Bottle fragments, pipe stems and other remnants of what Halbirt called male-oriented activities were also found.
What’s more interesting is the two customs houses that Halbirt says were found buried in the earth.
“A lot of people don’t realize that underneath the public market were a series of custom houses,” Halbirt said.
After digging the area that had to be built and rebuilt over three times in a span of 30 years, Halbirt concluded that the Plaza served as a social hub for very special events as well as a market place.
“The Plaza is one of those enigmas,” Halbirt said. “We know something important is there but the question is what is it doing there.”
Still serving today
Much like the objective of its establishment, St. Augustine’s Plaza still serves as a community hot spot for all kinds of events.
St. Augustine Historical Society Executive Director Susan Parker, said, “Locally, it really was the center of town.”
The Plaza served as the spot to exchange goods and news, she said.
“That news and celebrations carried on into the 20th century,” she said.
For more than 20 years, it has been home to St. Augustine’s Concerts in the Plaza otherwise known as the best way to spend a Thursday night in St. Augustine.
It has also been the kick off area for the city’s famous Nights of Lights tradition that has been featured in National Geographic on various occasions.
Just two years ago, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young spoke at the Plaza.
With all that it has seen, the Plaza has managed to stand and keep watch over St. Augustine.
With St. Augustine’s growing number of people, Parker says that the quintessential piece of the city often can’t hold as many as need to be accommodated.
“We’ve outgrown it as a gathering space,” she said.
However, it’s historical value keeps people coming back.