Historic City Memories: Palace of the Governors

This is another installment in a series of articles that Historic City News has been fortunate to receive permission to publish; taken from a collection of nostalgic memories recorded by Geoffrey B. Dobson.

The Palace of the Governors
By Geoff Dobson

At the western end of the Plaza de la Constitucion is a building known to old timers in St. Augustine as the “Old Post Office.” One may walk around the building but nothing will indicate that the building has any historical significance. In actual fact, the structure is the most historic building in the State of Florida and one of the most historic in the United States. On the south side of the building is a horse trough with a marker indicating that the trough was donated to the city in 1887 by a winter visitor to St. Augustine who was a friend of animals. The trough is currently unused. It is on the wrong side of the street from the side traversed by the horse drawn carriages.

On the east side of the building facing St. George Street is a small brass plaque. The plaque indicates that in the 1990’s, from the overhanging balcony, the King and Queen of Spain greeted the citizenry of St. Augustine. The building is reputedly falling into a state of decrepitude. Thus, the overhead balcony was repaired by the City so that there would not be an embarrassing international incident should the balcony collapse, unceremoniously dumping their majesties into the street. Another plaque tells us the names of the Postmaster General, a supervising architect, an engineer and another architect in 1935.

The only indications of the current function of the building are signs over the doors on the King Street and Cathedral Place sides indicating that the building is the “Government House Museum.” Within there is a small museum. The museum gives scant indication as to the history or age of the building. On the day the writer visited the museum, the only person present was the museum attendant who diplomatically declined to reveal the typical number of visitors in a day, only that the writer was the first visitor of the day but later in the day there are usually visitors who come to use the restrooms.

The museum is primarily devoted to a timeline of St. Augustine illustrated by the ubiquitous shards of pottery and enlargements of drawings depicting the lives of the inhabitants of the City during its various periods, in essence showing the lifestyles of the poor and wretched. As to the building, there is exhibited an enlargement of a 1764 sketch of the building which tells us that it was the residence of the British governor of East Florida. Two photographs of the building taken in 1864 during the Civil War are displayed in the lobby as well as enlargements of several postcards.. One photograph gives a hint as to the history of the building. It shows a plaque placed on the building in 1922 by the then postmaster which advised that the building was the Palace of the Spanish Governors. The original plaque is not on display or to be found.

As indicated, the building itself is historically significant. On its site, in 1591, nineteen years before the construction of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Spanish Governor of East Florida, Don Diego de Quiroga y Losada, constructed the seat of the Spanish Government in Florida. For the next one hundred eleven years, Spanish governors occupied Don Diego’s palacio. In 1702, the British governor of Carolina invaded Florida and the Palace was burned down. Shortly thereafter, however, the Palace of the Governors was rebuilt. Although it is not as elaborate as the palace of the British governors of Virginia, it is some eleven or more years older. Over the next 110 years, the Palace served as the official residence of both the Spanish and British Governors of East Florida.

In 1821, Florida was transferred to the United States. The Americans generally abstained from the practice of providing official residences or executive mansions for governors. It was customary for governors during their term of office to stay in hotels or rented quarters. Florida, as an example, did not provide an official residence for the governor until 1907. In some instances where an official residence was provided, it was less than ostentatious. In Arizona, as an example, the first “executive mansion” was a rough hewn, two room log cabin. Mark Twain in “Roughing It” described the Nevada Governor’s Mansion:

“We found the state palace of the governor of Nevada territory to consist of a white frame one-story house with two small rooms in it and a stanchion supported shed in front — for grandeur — it compelled the respect of the citizen and inspired the Indians with awe. The newly arrived Chief and Associate Justices of the Territory, and other machinery of the government, were domiciled with fewer splendors. They were boarding around privately, and had their offices in their bedrooms.

The Secretary and I took quarters in the “ranch” of a worthy French lady by the name of Bridget O’Flannigan, a camp follower of his Excellency the Governor. She had known him in his prosperity as commander-in-chief of the Metropolitan Police of New York, and she would not desert him in his adversity as Governor of Nevada.”

Nevertheless, the Americans had a use for the building. It became the courthouse for all of Florida east of the Suwannee River. Originally, there were but two courts. Additionally, the second session of the Territorial Legislative Council met in the building before Tallahassee was designated as the Territorial Capital. It was, thus, in a sense for a time the Territorial Capitol Building. The building also served as a public hall and customs house.

In the building, the great cases of the time were tried. Here was determined the fate of the great land grant given by the Spanish king to Don Fernando de la Maza Arrendondo. The case ultimately wended its way to the United States Supreme Court. A young David Levy was admitted to practice law in the courthouse. Levy’s grandfather was Jacoub Ben Youli, Grand Vizier to the Sultan of Morocco. His grandmother was the daughter of a British physician captured by Barbary pirates and sold into Youli’s harem. When there was a violent change of administration in Morocco, Levy’s grandmother escaped to British territory at Gibraltar with her son, Levy’s father. The retirement plan for members of a previous administration in Morocco was not very good. Youli literally lost his head.

David Levy, upon admission of Florida to the Union, became one of Florida’s first two senators. Following his election as Senator, by act of the Florida Legislature he changed his name to Yulee. Later he constructed the first cross-Florida railroad running from Fernandina to Cedar Key. Today, Levy County, west of Gainesville, Levyville, a ghost town south of Chiefland, and Yulee west of Fernandina are named for him.

Others of significance served in the Courthouse. One judge, Robert Reid, later became governor of Florida. Another, Isaac Bronson, was the founder of Putnam County and secured the designation of Palatka as its county seat. Bronson, Florida, the county seat of Levy County was named for Judge Bronson before whom David Levy, as a young man, practiced law.

The multiple use of the old Palace of the Governors sometimes provided an interesting contrast. As a courthouse, it was the site of judicial sales by the federal marshal. As a public hall, the building was used by the Protestant denominations until their own churches could be built. Under the Spanish, only the Catholic Church was permitted. Thus, when the Americans came, there were no Protestant churches until the Episcopal Church at the corner of St. George and King Streets was constructed.

A young New England writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, visiting St. Augustine in 1826, noted the contrast:

“I attended a meeting of the Bible Society, the treasurer of this institution is marshal of the district, and, by a somewhat unfortunate arrangement, had appointed a special meeting of the society and a slave-auction at the same time and place, one being in the Government House, and the other in the adjoining yard. One ear, therefore, heard the glad tidings of great joy, whilst the other was regaled with, ‘Going, gentlemen, going!’ and almost without changing our position we might aid in sending the Scriptures into Africa, or bidding on ‘four children without the mother,’ who had been kidnapped there from. There is something wonderfully piquant in the manners of the place, theological or civil.”

In the 1930’s, the Franklin Roosevelt Administration “renovated” the old building by ripping the two-story portico off the Cathedral Place side of the building and installing modern terrazzo floors within. Thus, not to be seen is the old courtroom. Indeed, within the building it looks for the most part like an old post office.

St. Augustine is wondrously modest of its history. Here we have the oldest courthouse in the State, older than the “Old Courthouse” in St. Louis. Ours is unmarked and unsung. The one in St. Louis is maintained by the National Park Service and visited by thousands. We have a Palace of the Governors, as historic as those in Williamsburg and Sante Fe, Ours is moldering in decrepitude with the City Fathers fearful that balconies will collapse under honored guests. In Georgia, the old state capital building in Milledgeville has been fully restored as has been the old governor’s mansion. In Wyoming, the site where the Territorial Legislative Council met is remembered by an historic marker on Carey Ave., even though the building is gone. The site of a nearby saloon that was popular with legislators is, however, not marked. In Arizona, the two-room log cabin is maintained as a museum, heralded as the “Mount Vernon of Arizona.” Fortunately, the governor no longer has to live in it or haul his own water.

Thus, like the Indians and citizens of Mark Twain’s Virginia City, citizens may gaze upon the Palace with awe and respect.

Photo credit: Submitted by Geoffrey B. Dobson

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer and a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

Let us know what you think >>