Miss Louise Fatio ran fashionable boarding house in St. Augustine long before Victorian railroad magnate Henry Flagler brought well-heeled tourists there by train to stay in his grand hotels.
In the 1840s, 50s and 60s, Miss Fatio’s attracted wealthy travelers from the north who flocked to the exotic Florida town for its warm, balmy health-restoring climate. They came alone, with or without servants, or as couples or families – and mostly by ship. Either by sailing down the St. Johns River to a point where they could board a stage coach for the final 18 miles; or by sea, aboard schooners. Getting there would have been a long, arduous trip. So they stayed for weeks or months.
Many St. Augustine boarding houses at the time offered visitors comfortable lodging and meals. But of all the boarding houses in the Ancient City, Miss Fatio’s had the finest reputation. A handwritten note in an early Florida guidebook reads: “Fatio’s is said to be the best.”
Present day St. Augustine visitors, thanks to meticulous restoration and historic interpretation of the house, can get an authentic idea of what Miss Fatio’s looked and felt like in its heyday, and an education about tourism during Florida’s territorial and early statehood years.
The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Florida owns and operates the two-story coquina house on Aviles Street as a museum. It is restored to look as it did between 1823 and 1860, when it operated as a boarding house under the management and ownership of a succession of single women. Each room is furnished with antiques and period artifacts to portray the way it would have looked when a typical type of guest resided there, including a sea captain, military officer, invalid woman, a family and a naturalist. The lobby, dining room and downstairs parlor are also furnished to look as they would have to frontier Florida tourists, as are the second story owner/manager quarters.
During that time, “there were not many opportunities for women to support themselves, but they could with a boarding house,” museum executive director Julia Vaill Gatlin says.
When the Dames purchased the house in 1939, it was intact and structurally had not been altered significantly since it was built in 1798 for Spanish merchant Andres Ximenez as a family residence, grocery store and tavern.
When Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, Margaret Cook, “an enterprising widow from Charleston,” bought Ximenez’s house and converted it into a boarding house, Gatlin says. Her friend, Eliza Whitehurst, managed it. In 1838, Cook sold it to Sarah Petty Anderson, who ran it for a while and then hired Fatio as manager. Fatio, who never married, bought it in 1855, and after adding a second story wing, lived there the rest of her life.
In the 1880s, when Flagler came to town, boarding houses fell out of favor, and the house fell into disrepair for several decades. Plumbing and electricity have never been added. Because of this, people touring the house today experience it as its visitors did in the 1800s. Natural light and bay breezes spill in through open windows and doorways.
Boarding houses “set the stage for tourism in St. Augustine,” Gatlin says. And “this is like stepping back into a time capsule.”