“They don’t make them like they used to” is a common adage when it comes to houses built from a certain era — and for good reason. Some of the historic homes that still stand in places like St. Augustine and Riverside were constructed with massive beams of solid wood and other quality materials. The truth is that any building needs refurbishing every now and then if it’s going to be preserved for future generations. Likewise, the homes’ histories will also stand the test of time with a little help from homeowners and local storytellers. There are so many homes across the First Coast with fabulous stories, that we could fill many magazines with their tales. Here, we offer just a handful to remind us all that no matter where you live in our region, there is a hidden history waiting to be discovered.
Marabanong | Arlington
(See above photo)
Built by English Astronomer Thomas Basnett in the 1870s, this elaborate Queen Anne style house has been used, not only as a private residence throughout the decades, but also as a retreat for invalids and a filming location for several movies. Basnett named the 6,000-square-foot home Marabanong, which means “paradise” in Maori.
The extravagant home features a tower, a two-story wraparound veranda, and intricate spindle ornamentation along the balustrades. Basnett died soon after the house was built and his widow, Eliza, married a doctor who converted Marabanong into a retreat for patients and tourists.
After her second husband died, Eliza Souvielle sold Marabanong to her cousin, Grace Wilbur Trout. Like Eliza, Grace actively supported the women’s suffrage movement and was very involved in the Jacksonville community. To entertain their guests at Marabanong, Trout and her husband built a swimming pool and curated a small collection of Florida zoo animals on the property. The house remained in the Trout family until 1983.
The Eppes House | Fernandina Beach
Legend has it that a ghost haunts the Victorian house on the corner of 10th and Ash Streets in downtown Fernandina. Her name was Celeste Eppes, and most sources agree on the tragic events that supposedly trapped her spirit in the house. Part of the story was even reported in the local newspaper in 1884.
Thomas Jefferson Eppes, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, shot and killed Major F.C. Suhrer at the Mansion House Hotel where Suhrer worked on the evening of Feb. 8, 1884. Eppes’ wife, Celeste, had told her husband that Suhrer made ungentlemanly advances toward her.
According to lore, she was a beautiful, raven-haired woman, possibly of Creole descent, and Mr. Eppes was a jealous husband. The day of the murder, he stormed over to the hotel in an angry rage.
Only as Suhrer was dying from the gunshot did Eppes find out that his wife had lied about the advances. She confessed after her husband was arrested, and eventually he was acquitted of the murder. It is said that her guilty spirit still occupies the house where the newly married couple had lived in downtown Fernandina. The guilt she suffered in life eventually destroyed her mind — she allegedly died in an insane asylum — and her spirit still utters the words, “Because I bear the mark of Cain, I must roam the earth.”
Silvertown | Riverside
The original developer of the long-forgotten neighborhood known as Silvertown would be surprised that Intuition Ale Works named a beer after his development, more than 150 years after he created it. August Buesing, a German immigrant who came to the United States in the late 1850s, once published a book denouncing the recreational use of alcohol. Among other things, he was a barber, a medical doctor, a soap manufacturer and an early proponent of equality for African Americans.
Silvertown, which was eventually engulfed by the expansion of Riverside, was established in a swampy wooded area at the far edge of town. Buesing, who also worked in real estate, saw that there was a community of black citizens, mostly soldiers, living in Brooklyn, that were getting crowded out by white residents. So, he platted out a new community for them and called it Silvertown. Buesing died in 1918 at the age of 74, and through the years, the growth of predominantly Caucasian property owners of Riverside eventually absorbed the smaller subdivision of Silvertown.
A small population of Silvertown folks remained until the 1980s. Mamie Adams, one of the few remaining African American property owners in that pocket of Riverside, was the daughter of Lula Young Hamilton who had owned a house in Silvertown since the 1880s. Mamie Adams resided at 741 King Street until 1980, when she was in her 90s. 717 King Street and 2660, 2674, and 2678 Gilmore Street are the only homes still standing that were likely a part of Silvertown.
Red Bank Plantation | San Marco
Red Bank Plantation stands as a reminder of the Old South, as it was built by slaves in 1857 from the mud bricks of the St. Johns River bank. The families of Isaiah D. Hart, Isaac Hendricks, and Albert Gallatin Philips all called this house home at one point in its history.
The Philips family built the house, and owned a plantation on the 450-acre site, growing cotton and sugar cane. Following Philips’ death in 1873, much of the land was sold and several dozen houses were constructed around it, resulting in a settlement called Colonial Manor. In the 1920s the house was converted into a restaurant and inn, but it became a private residence again in 1937.
In 1939, Mrs. Thomas Ellington, the homeowner at the time, explained her understanding of Red Banks’ history to a Federal Writers’ Project interviewer.
An excerpt from that interview reveals an interesting history dating back to a time when the Spanish government owned the property in 1793:
“Judge H. B. Philips’ grandfather was the owner of the original grant,” said Mrs. Ellington, “which he received direct from the Spanish King in recognition of some meritorious service to the Crown, as was then the custom. He was a retired sea captain from Red Bank, New Jersey, hence he named his new possession “Red Bank.”
“The place was in such a wilderness, with the country then roamed far and wide by Indians, that Captain Philips was not much interested in his new property, and he never lived here. However, his son, who was Judge Philips’ father came down, and when he saw the place so beautifully located along the mighty St. Johns River, he built a log cabin right on the crest of the hill here, where he lived for some years. He acquired a large number of slaves, valued at $100,000, so I have been told. Large sections of the land were cleared and planted in cotton, sugarcane, corn, peas, and garden crops.”
The Bronson House | St. Augustine
The two-story home at 252 Saint George Street was designed by one of America’s most renowned architects Alexander Jackson Davis in 1876, and more than 100 years later, coincidentally, another architect with the last name Davis purchased and refurbished it to its original details.
It is named for its first resident, businessman Robert Bronson, who bought the plans for the house from Alexander Jackson Davis. According to The St. Augustine Record, “Davis was a prolific and nationally-known architect, born in 1803, who had designed the state capitols of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and North Carolina …The Bronson House is the only Davis structure built in Florida and one of Davis’ last commissions.” Davis is noted as the architect that brought America into the modern era of architecture with innovative designs, and invented the American Bracketed style.
The Bronson family owned the property until 1905. Several decades later, the Sisters of St. Joseph bought it and began using it for St. Joseph Academy’s classes. At one point, they applied to the City Commission to change the zoning to allow the unwed mothers of St. Gerard House to move in, but it was not approved. In 1988, St. Augustine architect Howard Davis bought and restored the house, and his family lived there until a few years ago.