Turning the Corner: Part 1

One of the most dramatic ways the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board transformed the landscape of downtown St. Augustine during the 1960s and 70s was through the reconstruction of colonial era houses, mostly along St. George and Cuna Streets. Most of these reconstructions were only possible through donations from companies, professional organizations, and private citizens. As such, there was an incentive to inject a certain level of pomp and circumstance into these projects when they began. A great way to accomplish this was with a cornerstone laying ceremony, which usually involved a dignitary or other VIP. This is the first post of a series that looks at some of the notable cornerstone laying ceremonies.

Since it makes most sense to look at these chronologically, we’ll start with the interesting tale of the cornerstone of the Oliveros House.

A black and white photograph of Antonio Garrigues, Lyndon Johnson, and Don Carlos Robles Pique laying a stone in 1963.
(L to R) Antonio Garrigues, Lyndon Johnson, and Don Carlos Robles Pique. This photo ran in the St. Augustine Record on March 12, 1963 

What makes this cornerstone unique is that it was originally laid for a house that was never built. On March 11, 1963 there was a ceremony chock full of dignitaries to lay the cornerstone for a cultural center that was to be constructed by the Spanish government on the northeast corner of St. George and Cuna Streets. The stone was laid by the Ambassador of Spain, Antonio Garrigues (who applied the mortar) and the Spanish Director General of Information, Don Carlos Robles Pique (who laid the stone). The whole spectacle was supervised by then Vice President Lyndon Johnson. This flock of VIPs was already in town to dedicate the newly restored Arrivas House and to christen the Restoration Program as it barrelled toward the Quadricentennial Celebration to be held in 1965, and laying the stone for the cultural center was an added bonus. The only problem was that the Preservation Board wasn’t able to acquire enough contiguous property at the time and the Spanish cultural center had to be constructed elsewhere (don’t worry! It had its own cornerstone ceremony and we’ll talk about that in a different post).

A colorful architectural plan and elevation of the proposed Spanish cultural center.
A rending for the proposed Spanish cultural center that never was. Click here to visit the image on the UFDC 

     It might seem like putting the cart before the horse, but the cornerstone for the new house was placed before the old structure it was replacing was demolished. The reason for this was the HSAPB was not just reconstructing individual houses, they were attempting to recreate the entire colonial-era streetscape along St. George Street. The reconstructed houses were built right up against the street, as they would have been in Spanish colonial times, and so the cornerstone was placed against the lot line. The early 20th c. building that occupied the site up until then had been pushed back on the lot several feet to make way for a more contemporary element of our streetscape: the sidewalk. Because of this, the old and new co-existed for several months before the structure was demolished for an extensive archaeological excavation of the site.

A black and white photograph of shop taken from St. George Street.
The cornerstone sits several feet from corner of the shop, prior to demolition
A black and white photograph of the excavated foundation of Oliveros House.

     The excavations were conducted by Dr. Hale Smith, chair of the Department of Anthropology at Florida State University, along with eight FSU students. Bob Steinbach (staff archaeologist for the HSAPB) supervised. The excavations shed light on historic structures that had once stood on the site, and the lives of those who inhabited them, all of which was used to inform the reconstruction that was being planned in lieu of the Spanish cultural center. In the end it was decided that reconstruction would be of the masonry house that stood on the site in 1798, owned by a tailor from Corsica named Sebastian de Oliveros. All during the excavations and reconstruction work the cornerstone stood conspicuously at the edge of the site, waiting to play its part.

Reconstruction work started in 1964 and continued into 1965 and the time finally came to tie the cornerstone into the building, bringing the tale to an end. Even though the masonry on the exterior of the Oliveros House was plastered over, there is a patch of exposed coquina on the southwest corner of the reconstructed house (the present day Flagler Legacy store). Although it’s tempting to think this is the cornerstone laid by the Spanish dignitaries all those years ago, it appears that the exposed stone is too high to be the cornerstone. We can speculate that workman may have reset the stone to be visible, but we may never really know. You can visit it today and decide for yourself!

A black and white photograph of men reconstructing the exterior walls of Oliveros House in 1964.
Tying in the cornerstone to the south and west exterior walls, December 1964. Visit the image on the UFDC by clicking here.
A color photograph of the reconstructed Oliveros House in 1966.
The reconstructed Oliveros House in 1966. The exposed stone is visible on the corner. Visit this image on the UFDC by clicking here.

2 thoughts on “Turning the Corner: Part 1

  1. Pingback: What Lies Beneath – Governor's House Library

  2. Pingback: Rolling History and Cigars in St. Augustine – Governor's House Library

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