Where History Lives: The Government House has seen years of history
If the walls of St. Augustine’s Government House could talk they would tell you about the Menorcan refugees who crossed its path looking for a place to call home. It would tell you about the British governors who it gave shelter and warmth to for years in between Spanish settlements. It would even tell you about the great Henry Flagler who came and created buildings and hotels of great grandeur.
But most importantly, the Government House would tell you how it has seen and housed many of the changes of the nation’s oldest city.
Early history and uses
The property that sits on King Street was originally built in the late 16th century by Governor Gonzalo Mendez de Canzo, according to an earlier article in The Record.
The article continued saying that the residence served as such until the 1680s when it was replaced by a “two-story building with balconied masonry walls.”
After that, the property went through a series of building and rebuilding.
It wasn’t until 1821 that it was designated the Government House in the federal properties, and was a United States governmental property from that day forward.
“Since 1598, there has been a governmental building on this site,” said William Triay, senior property manager of the Government House under the University of Florida Historic St. Augustine, Inc.
Although the property had Spanish influence in design originally, it was changed in 1833 by architect Robert Mills, who was the same architect who drew up the original plans for the Washington Monument.
Unfortunately, Mills’ work only lasted until about the 1870s where Triay says it was once more remodeled and took on a more rectangular shape.
With all of the remodeling and rebuilding, the property still managed to retain a lot of its charm.
Triay says the property boasts terrazzo flooring, rose marble and pecky cypress wood as well as carved coral on the north and south entrances.
According to the University of Florida Historic Structure Report, Architect Mellen C. Greeley of Jacksonville was invited to design a U.S. Post Office and Customs House for the site.
Triay says there are actually many people still living in St. Augustine who remember the property much different from what it is now. They still see it as the post office it was until 1965.
The Government House was at its high point in 1935 as the Post Office and Customs House.
After World War II, the building industry was booming and President Harry Truman signed the legislation creating the National Trust for Historic Preservation for what would become the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
Under that act, the 1935 U.S. Post Office was decommissioned by the federal government.
While the act was still picking up speed and getting kinks worked out, the Historic Structure Report said that a lot of philosophies converged by 1968, and a plan was hatched for preserving the Government Building. The document says that in that year, the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board created a plan to construct a replica of the 1936 Government House.
This plan is what brought the property to look how it does today.
By the early 1970s, construction was finished and Flagler College adapted some of the house’s space to use it as an 185-seat auditorium and exhibit area.
Housing history today
The Government House went through many more uses even after its use as a Government House, U.S. Post Office and Flagler College auditorium but it wasn’t until 2007 that it came to be managed by the University of Florida.
After a period of massive restorations from 2011 to 2013, the Government House stands on its orginal property, and Triay says it is a mixture of new and old.
During the restoration period, the house was closed off to the public, but in 2013, a new interactive museum was added that excited the community.
The Government House Museum and Visitors Information Center is currently open to the public on a daily basis, and inside the house is the “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins” exhibit.
In an earlier interview, distinguished researcher Kathy Deegan said the exhibit was an effort of University of Florida Historic St. Augustine, researcher Susan Parker and other local researchers.
“It was kind of a community effort,” she said.
The exhibit is located in the area where the mail sorting room stood so many years ago.
Its highlights include life in the New Colony through 3-D gaming software as well as a site that shows how archaeologists discovered the first colony’s story.
The University of Florida Historic St. Augustine, Inc. looks after this property and about 30 others with the intentions of preserving and perpetuating history.
The corporation’s board chair Allen Lastinger said the property is currently going through a restoration period with funds provided by the state.
“The state has been very supportive and has provided millions of dollars for us to bring this structure back into what we hope will be a very good state of preservation,” Lastinger said in a recent interview.