Thursday is a big day for the White family. David and Cathy White, owners of O.C. White’s, and their two daughters, Julie White-Alford and Jennifer White-Conner, will take their plans for the former Santa Maria Restaurant before the city’s Historic Architectural Review Board for an opinion of appropriateness and a demolition permit.
The former owners were beleaguered with maintenance and repair issues on the 100-year-old structure that has been remodeled and repurposed several times in its history. Patch-work repairs have been accumulating to the point that what is left is too structurally un-sound to repair further.
“St Augustine locals and residents know my reputation for first class construction and the high quality, family friendly atmosphere in our dining rooms,” David White told Historic City News editor Michael Gold. “We have millions invested and committed already, and I would not have taken on this project unless I knew we could do it right.”
Gold says with the Whites, those thoughts are not a sales pitch. He’s known Cathy (Harding) and David White since high school, and Gold reports that they give back in spades to the home town they share.
“Just one example,” Gold pointed out in his report, “is the free Thanksgiving dinners that will be gratefully enjoyed by local seniors who would otherwise be alone again this year.”
St Augustine’s most infamous pirate, Pat Croce, backed out of a plan to renovate the restaurant as a “Key West style” raw oyster bar with expanded access from the river. That hasn’t dissuaded White or his family, because they say they don’t intend to make the mistakes that were made by the relatively short-time St Augustine businessman.
Although the restaurant purchase in March included a Class 4, “consume on premises” liquor license that allows White to operate a nightclub or cocktail lounge and requires no sale of food whatsoever, White is not in the bar business and says he has no interest in doing that.
Cathy White explained that they will offer a lighter fare than available at O.C. White’s; featuring fresh seafood and other menu items that she says are still part of a closely guarded secret. “We will offer drinks with dinner but have no intention of having the place known as another bar in St Augustine,” she said.
Another bone of contention downtown is whether the building would become another “wedding venue”, Julie laughed at our question. Julie and her sister, Jennifer, operate “The White Room”, one of the city’s premier bayfront event venues — atop the former Plaza Hotel at 1 King Street, which the Whites also own. “Why would we want to compete with ourselves?”
Julie says she is excited that such an important location will be returning to the city under her family’s care. She said Tuesday that she realized the dilapidated conditions that exist there today couldn’t possibly endure much longer. “It looks like they just kept laying down more plywood but never really addressed the structural problems underneath.”
An inspection of the pilings and exposed plumbing that have been left to decay, year after year, storm after storm, is disconcerting at best. We obtained photographs of a number of areas beneath the existing building that made us ask, “What did they pay $2.3 million for?”
As you might expect, in 1910 the first structure, a private residence, was not the lone surviving structure extending over the Matanzas River. And, as late as the 1920’s and 1930’s, it probably was not beyond the realm of possibility that another building might, one day, extend seaward. We now know that, one by one, as the piers and out buildings were taken down, they were not replaced.
What you might not expect is that the restaurant building is deeded and fully mapped at the property appraiser’s office, has a parcel number, and pays ad valorem taxes like any restaurant on dry land. What’s different is that the city claims ownership of the submerged land beneath the building, even though the building owner has exclusive rights to use of the property. Also, the property is not in one of the city’s historic preservation districts — it is zoned “open rural”.
Cathy says that she would like to use some of the dining space for marine educational purposes. “I’d like a large aquarium in the dining room and other creative ways to allow our guests to learn about the importance of our marine environment.”
David says he gets asked a lot by former Santa Maria patrons if they are still going to be able to “feed the fish as you dine”, an advertising slogan from the 1960’s that referred to portholes around the east end of the building where you could drop your food directly into the bay for the eagerly awaiting fish. David smiled and said although it still hasn’t been decided if they will continue to call the restaurant “Santa Maria”, even if they do, they won’t dump food, or anything else, into the water. “Besides, our food is going to be too good to feed the fish!”
White’s plan is to remove everything including the wooden pilings and to rebuild using marine grade concrete pilings which will support a reinforced concrete deck. The deck will serve as the foundation for construction of the buildings. White said he does not need to increase the footprint of the existing structure to accommodate a more fortified, durable venue that takes full advantage of the views offered at the exceptional location.
“I’d like to begin work in January 2016 and have it opened by January of 2017,” White told Historic City News. “But we’ll see.”