UF Historic St. Augustine Inc.: Government House

Government House By Janet Snyder Matthews Ph.D. Photo: Linda Dixon, December 2010 Government House dominates

Government House

By Janet Snyder Matthews Ph.D.

Photo: Linda Dixon, December 2010 Government House
dominates the west end of the Town Plaza, a unique Spanish land use component lying within a National
Historic Landmark District. Spain’s 1573 Law of the Indies, Leyes
de los Indies, specified that colonial
town plans set aside such a plaza for government, church and public use. Along coasts, plazas were to
begin at the waterfront – to see and to be seen. Since 1598, a government building has stood on this site
with a view of the harbor landing, accommodating administrative headquarters and residences of colonial
governors appointed by the Crowns of Spain, then Britain, then Spain again. After Spain ceded Florida
to the United States in 1821, this current Government House served as a courthouse and briefly as a
Capitol of the new Territory of Florida. In 1836, the building’s crenellated five-story tower and “a
Grand portico decorated with dorick Pillars and Entablature” were removed by Robert Mills, famed
architect of the Washington Monument.

Government House

Photo: Ray Carson, UF Photography, August 8, 2013In 1937,
the Works
Progress Administration remodeled the courthouse as “United States Post Office & Customs House.” The
1935 architectural plans depict “old coquina stone walls” which may date to St. Augustine’s first Spanish
colonial period.
Outlines of windows and exposed coquina limestone of those old walls are visible on today’s north, east, and south facades.
The new concrete-encased steel-frame wing flanked a walled courtyard on the east, a driveway to loading docks on the west. A central two-story work room was
viewed from a second-story “lookout.” Separate clerks and carrier “swing rooms” and separate toilets
were accessed by separate stairs. Offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Extension
Service and Postal Inspector lined a separate oak-floored hallway with marble-paneled toilets for men
and women. In the old building, a marble-paneled corridor led into stately high-ceilinged offices of
the Civil Service Commission, Public Health, and Customs, which opened onto a shaded gallery over the
courtyard.

In 1959, Governor Leroy Collins signed into law Chapter 59-521, establishing the St. Augustine Historical
Restoration and Preservation Commission. The Bill’s sponsor in the Senate was Verle Pope, “The Lion of
St. Johns,” whose home stood near the foot of the Bridge of Lions. The Act authorized the Commission to
hire professionals to direct research, acquire, reconstruct, restore, and preserve with funds appropriated
by the State. It also provided for demolition and clearance of buildings within defined “slum areas.”

Governor Collins appointed five Commissioners whose meetings and staff and a growing archeological
collection were headquartered in Government House. After disastrous floodwater damage to the collection,
a 1989 State grant funded accession, curation and cataloging of 980 boxes by the University of Florida
Museum of Natural History, a process requiring continuous work for more than two decades.

Government House is one of the state-owned buildings managed by the University of Florida “to ensure
long-term preservation and interpretation of state-owned historic properties in St. Augustine while
facilitating an educational program at the University of Florida… responsive to the state’s needs
for professionals in historic preservation, archaeology, cultural resource management, cultural tourism,
and museum administration and will help meet needs of St. Augustine and the state through educational
internships and practicums.”

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