University takes over management of historic St. Augustine sites

ST. AUGUSTINE Fla.
The gray masonry Government House in a plaza here survived
as the home and headquarters for Spanish and British rule for more than 200
years. It was reconstructed from ruins several times during the colonial era,
once after being burnt and reduced to rubble by the British.

But now the two-story structure faces its toughest and most
expensive challenge yet the destructive powers of aging.

It is not alone. It is among 31 historic buildings that have
become too costly for the local government to maintain and repair, so the University
of Florida has taken over their
management in the oldest continuously occupied city in the U.S.

Some structures date to the 18th century, but about
two-thirds are restorations built as late as the 1970s mainly on the original foundations.

For the past decade, the city has been leasing the buildings
for $1 a year from the state, but the $1.5 million in rent from the shops and
restaurants that occupy them is not enough to provide for upkeep. The city has
been providing about $200,000 a year for maintenance.

And crumbling history is a problem for a city whose main
tourism draw is its colonial allure.

St. Augustine
was founded in 1565, 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown
and 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. It is known for its
imposing 17th century coquina stone Spanish fort, the Castillo de San Marco,
and all manner of tourist attractions from souvenir shops in historic buildings
to ghost tours to the supposed “Fountain of Youth.”

William Adams, the city’s director of heritage tourism, said
St. Augustine is a treasure trove
with its history of Spanish, British and American roots.

“St. Augustine
today contains the largest concentration of historic resources in the United
States that testify to the presence of Spain
and Spanish-speaking people in this country,” Adams
said.

But those resources are expensive.

A task force determined the 31 structures need about $7
million in deferred maintenance and repairs, including a $4 million upgrade
needed at Government House from salt intrusion.

“Virtually all require upgrading, especially those
parts that are subject to moisture intrusion or to heavy volumes of human
traffic,” Adams said.

The University of Florida
took over the properties July 1 and its architects and engineers have dug
through archives stored at Government House and hauled off stacks of documents
to study in Gainesville, Adams
said.

“At this point, they are assessing the buildings, what
condition they are in, the repairs and the money that is going to be needed to
bring them up to an acceptable standard of use,” Adams said.

One of the issues facing the university is that the
Legislature did not provide any funding for maintenance when it transferred the
buildings.

State Rep. William Proctor, a St. Augustine Republican who
pushed for the bill, said once university officials come up with a dollar
figure, he will ask for money from the Legislature.

“I think this is going to be a good thing for the city,
the state and the nation. These buildings are a national treasure,” said
Proctor. “I don’t think any historian wouldn’t say the same thing.”

Adams and Roy Graham, director of the university’s College
of Design, Construction and
Planning, believe school is the logical manager for the properties.

Some university classes have been taught in the city for
years and UF archaeologist Kathleen Deagan has unearthed buried secrets under
centuries of dirt and muck, including the location of Fort
Mose. It was established by escaped
African-born slaves who fled British plantations in the Carolinas
to seek freedom in Spanish Florida.
“I think it’s an incredible opportunity for the whole
university,” Graham said, who was the resident architect at colonial Williamsburg
in Virginia before coming to Florida.

Graham said the buildings can be used in a number of
university programs.

“All of the programs, which are part of the
university’s structure will be enhanced by having a presence in St.
Augustine. St. Augustine
will provide a laboratory for the university,” said Adams, a former Florida
State University
history professor.

Many of the buildings were rebuilt in the 1960s and 1970s on
18th century foundations. The restoration program was part of the city’s 400th
anniversary celebration in 1965 and it was built on the Williamsburg
model.

David Nolan, an author and historian in St.
Augustine, says some of the properties aren’t truly
historic “because I watched so many of them being built.”

“Only a handful are truly old. What they really
represent are a period piece of what is now a discredited approach to historic
preservation tearing down old buildings to build fake new ones.”

Adams defends the reconstructions:
“What the buildings do is provide the visiting public with a visual
presentation of what St. Augustine
looked like during the colonial period.”

The owners of two businesses located in the buildings said
they had no problem with the change.

“Actually, it doesn’t make any difference,” said
Gary Smock, who along with his wife owns Knock on Wood, a wood products shop,
in a building from 1910 on Cuna Street.
“They are old buildings and they take a lot of maintenance.”

“I’ll be interested to see how UF changes it,”
said Michael Misiaszek, manager of the Cuna Street Toy Store in a building
constructed in 1880. “We could use a paint job and some minor
maintenance.”

Graham said he doesn’t think the management changes will
affect the businesses, including restaurants, gift shops selling tourist
trinkets and T-shirts, art galleries and others.

“No one is going to interrupt the
income-producing properties. We need all the money we can get,” Graham
said.


– Associated Press



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