UF Historic St. Augustine welcomes new historic attraction
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After two years of historical triage in St. Augustine, the University of Florida will take part this weekend in the opening of a new tourist attraction based on the city’s history.
Colonial Quarter, a public-private enterprise, will open on a two-acre parcel between the east side of St. George Street and the city’s iconic fort, Castillo de San Marcos, said Linda Dixon, associate director of Facilities, Planning and Construction, which oversees UF Historic St. Augustine.
UF, as steward of the state’s historic properties in St. Augustine, partnered with Pat Croce, an entrepreneur and former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, to renovate several historic sites along St. George Street, downtown’s main thoroughfare, into an educational and entertaining attraction that will satisfy students on field trips and tourists looking for a bite to eat.
Colonial Quarter tells the story of four periods in St. Augustine’s colorful history as it changed hands between the Spanish and British. The attraction includes a historic-styled watchtower, and students and tourists can climb to the top to look over the fort and out at the Intracoastal Waterway. Croce has been a partner in historic preservation, UF property manager Billy Triay said, hiring an archaeologist to survey any ground that needed to be excavated so that artifacts would not be lost.
Colonial Quarter employees will be dressed in period garb, shepherding tourists through history from one period to the next. The attraction includes stage shows, but also pubs and other displays, like a British ship being built as it would have been centuries ago. Croce, a pirate aficionado, also owns the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum.
Colonial Quarter is the first of the year’s unveilings. As Florida gets ready to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s discovery of Florida in 1513, UF Historic St. Augustine will be ready with a new museum exhibit and renovations to Government House, a centerpiece of the historic district.
The exhibit, “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins,” features much of the university’s own scholarship and was done with the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF in collaboration with a museum designer from Washington, D.C. The state Bureau of Historic Preservation devoted $1.7 million to the exhibit, which will offer hands-on, interactive displays that blend technology with artifacts, said Darcie MacMahon, exhibits director at the Florida Museum of Natural History. It includes a film, touch tables, tablets, QR codes and a create-your-own-collage feature.
The exhibit will be “myth-busting,” MacMahon said, for those who still believe the British were the first New World settlers. St. Augustine is the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States, older than Jamestown by 42 years, and will celebrate its 450th birthday in 2015. After that celebration, the exhibit will hit the road.
“We wanted to spread the word about UF’s research into Spanish Colonial Florida,” MacMahon said, “and tell a story that still is neglected in history books.”
Another $1.2 million from the Bureau of Historic Preservation went into Government House, which will house the exhibit. The two-story, 1937 Post Office and Customs House was restored on most of the first floor to dispose of non-period additions like laminate counters. New restrooms and a catering kitchen were added, making the building’s sala, long a coveted gathering spot for parties and receptions, all the more desirable.
Renovations uncovered the original post office teller windows with iron bars. The space had been converted into a visitor center but the old windows had been covered instead of torn out, much to the renovators’ delight.
“The renovation is revealing things we’ve never seen before except in very old photographs,” Triay said.
The state Legislature asked UF in 2008 to develop a strategic plan to restore St. Augustine’s historic properties. UF received $650,000 to begin restoration in 2010 and formed UF Historic St. Augustine, a support organization. Eight colleges at the university are involved in some capacity in the historic preservation.
There is still much work to do. The second floor of Government House has spaces that would be suitable for classrooms, small seminars, research offices for graduate students and other uses if it is renovated, Dixon said, and the need for maintenance of old wood – and new air conditioning systems — in Florida’s heat and humidity will never end.
“For the people of St. Augustine, this building is a symbol,” Dixon said. “They have a personal attachment, and they like to know we’re taking care of it.”