This is the second installment in a series about an interesting piece of commemoration used by the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board with their reconstruction projects: the cornerstone. This time we’ll be looking at the cornerstone for the reconstructed Marin-Hassett House, which was also known as the Pan American Center.
The Pan American Center was intended to be a museum space to showcase Latin American art, but in a broader sense it was to help St. Augustine serve as a bridge between the United States and Latin America. With the rise of communist governments in the Cold War-era, the Organization of American States (OAS) sought to use St. Augustine to appeal to those countries with a shared history as a gateway to democracy. Dr. Juan Plate, acting director of the OAS in 1965, described the Pan American Center as “a new center of spiritual understanding of all the sister nations of the Americas.” Working with the OAS and businesses with ties to Latin America, the Preservation Board constructed the Pan American Center to offer every Latin American country an opportunity to share an exhibit to showcase the arts and artifacts of their culture. Representation didn’t end up being as encompassing as originally hoped, but temporary and and permanent exhibits were still created with purchases, gifts, and loans from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Peru.
The Pan American Center was scheduled to be dedicated on April 14, 1965, which was Pan-American Day as well as the 75th Anniversary of the first meeting of the International Union of American Republics (the precursor of the OAS). However, this date wasn’t able to be met, and the cornerstone ceremony for the site was instead held on April 24, 1965. In attendance were representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Paraguay, Guatemala, Peru, Panama, Honduras, and the United States. The stone was placed by Dr. William Sanders, assistant secretary general of the OAS. Coquina blocks were used for the cornerstone, which makes it easy to pick out in progress photos taken during construction because the rest of the house was constructed of concrete block. The cornerstone was left unplastered, and can still be viewed today on St. George Street.
The Marin-Hassett House illustrates one of the problematic issues with cornerstone ceremonies: by adding another important date it can muddy the water on determining when a building was “built.” The stone was actually laid before all the other structures on the site were demolished and cleared away. Construction didn’t begin until the first week of July, 1965. Then the building was finished and formally dedicated on September 4th, 1965, so it could be part of the official 400th Anniversary celebrations for the city. So, what is the “construction date” of the building? April 14th, 1965? July, 1965? September 4, 1965? All of them? Different people use different dates, and it makes one thing clear: having good, accurate records in the library is essential to understanding a building, regardless of when the cornerstone was placed.