America has been and always will be a melting pot of humanity. St. Augustine’s history as the nation’s oldest city isn’t celebrated in history books the same way that the British settlements of Plymouth or Jamestown are memorialized as fundamental narratives of our national identity. But a visit to the “Oldest House” in Florida, also known as the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, reveals a portrait of a diverse, changing America in the days long before and long after our nation was “officially” founded.

The story of the Oldest House began in 1702, when residents of the Spanish colony known as San Agustin emerged from the sturdy walls of the Castillo de San Marcos to find their wood thatched homes reduced to embers by British soldiers. As residents began to rebuild, they made a request of King Felipe V of Spain. Noting that the Castillo, made from coquina, survived the British attack, the colonists asked if they, too, could build their homes from the hard, natural stone. The request was granted.

Crafted from coquina quarried on Anastasia Island (near the present-day St. Augustine Amphitheatre) a two-room house was built near St. Augustine’s southern border. In 1725, it became home to Tomas Gonzalez, a native of the Canary Islands, and his new wife, Francisca. Tomas, an artilleryman with the Spanish army, could not have afforded the home on a soldier’s pay, so historians believe the house was a dowry given to him by Francisca’s father upon their union.

 

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Executive Director Megan Wilson standing in front of the Oldest House in Florida.

 

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Former resident of the Oldest House, James Henderson, owned the first automobile in St. Augustine.

 

Tomas and Francisca quickly filled their tiny home with ten children. All 12 family members slept on thin mattresses made from cloth stuffed with Spanish moss. Though the house was new, the family could not afford glass windowpanes for better insulation and protection. Instead, at the center of the larger room, a fire pit crackled throughout the day, filling the home with a smoky haze designed to keep out mosquitoes.

Outside the home, livestock wandered about the family’s courtyard that ran east to the waterfront. An outdoor kitchen and outhouse completed the Gonzalez family’s modest compound. Like many other colonists in St. Augustine, the Gonzalezes struggled to survive on the meager earnings of a soldier while the city fought off frequent attacks by the British.

Though it was acquired by paper and not in battle, the British finally took control of Florida from Spain with the first Treaty of Paris in 1763. St. Augustine residents were given the option to stay in exchange for renouncing their Catholic faith and Spanish citizenship. The Gonzalez family declined, as did the rest of the city’s residents, and set sail for Havana.

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The Gonzalez-Alvarez House as seen from the street entrance.

 

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On the first floor next to the “tap” room, card games may have been played. Note, there are no numbers on the cards during this period.

 

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The first floor of the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, displays period objects such as a dinner table, writing desk and colonial uniform. Also in the foreground is a fire pit from the Spanish period called a Brasero, that was used to warm the home.

 

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Upstairs is a colonial period living room. The master bedroom is located in the background.

 

Mary and Joseph Peavett bought the Oldest House from the Gonzalez family in 1775 for a sum of 261 pesos. Mary, whose life later inspired Eugenia Price’s best-selling novel Maria, previously lived in Cuba with her first husband, a British soldier. After his death, the successful midwife married Peavett, and together they renovated the home to include a second story with additional bedroom and living space. This allowed the Peavetts to repurpose the first floor into St. Augustine’s only tavern. British soldiers stationed at the St. Francis Barracks could easily stumble across the street for some liquor and cards.

By the time the Spanish returned to St. Augustine in 1783, the Peavetts had become one of the city’s most successful families. In addition to their tavern and residence in town, they owned some acreage outside the city gates as well. The Spanish made a similar offer for British residents to stay in St. Augustine and this time, the owners of the Oldest House accepted.

But in 1786, Joseph Peavett died, leaving Mary a widow once again. At 56 years old, Mary decided to take a boisterous 28 year-old Irishman named John Hudson as her third husband. The scandalous marriage quickly unraveled when Hudson was arrested and thrown in the stocks for removing an official notice at the Government House and using it to cleanse his nether regions.

Despite the money Mary spent for good counsel, Hudson was convicted and banished from the city for four years. The couple retreated to Mary’s plantation where Hudson’s lack of business acumen and previous debt took its toll on Mary’s finances. Hudson died nine months after he was banished from the city, but not before the Oldest House was seized to cover his unpaid debts.

Geronimo Alvarez bought the house and the Tolvar house next door at public auction in 1790 for 942 pesos. Alvarez, originally from Spain, became a successful politician who served as mayor of St. Augustine. While he and his wife, Antonia, lived in the Tolvar house, Alvarez’s son Antonio and his family resided in the Oldest House.

The property remained with the Alvarez family for nearly 100 years, surviving the transition of Florida from the second Spanish period to a United States territory and later a U.S. state. In the early 1880s, Geronimo’s great-granddaughter, Ella Acosta, sold the family property to a New Yorker named William Duke who used it as his summer residence until the property changed hands again in 1884 to Dr. Charles Carver and his wife.

During the Carvers’ ownership of the home, a round, medieval-style tower was added to the eastern facade of the home and the original coquina walls were covered with dark wood paneling. When the home’s architectural eccentricities drew unwanted attention, Dr. Carver began charging admission, hoping the fees would discourage curious guests.

After his wife’s death, Dr. Carver sold the house to James Henderson in 1911 for $8,500. Henderson’s tenancy was marked by his ownership of the first automobile in St. Augustine. Nicknamed “The Red Devil” by neighbors, the car was known to careen through the city’s cobblestone streets terrorizing horses and people alike at breakneck speeds near ten miles per hour.

The Hendersons later sold the house to George Reddington, manager of the South Beach Alligator Farm and Museum of Marine Curios, who operated the house as an attraction until it was sold to the St. Augustine Historical Society in 1918.

The Oldest House is a place that every American should take the time to visit, because the family narratives that made this house a home embody what makes our nation truly unique. Housed under one roof are tales of brave perseverance, ingenious entrepreneurship and strong civic duty combined with an appreciation for a walk on the wild side all woven into the hodgepodge of culture that is essential to the American persona. And don’t forget the dash of weird Florida for good measure.

 

Visitors to the Oldest House can step back through each period of the home’s extensive history during daily tours between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.For more info visit: saintaugustinehistoricalsociety.org