Dating . . . Historic Buildings with Governor’s House Library

Dearest Reader,
The ton is certainly abuzz after binging the Netflix series Bridgerton. (And by ton we mean us here at Governor’s House Library.) In honor of this socially-distanced season, let us be your guide in navigating the complicated world of dating . . . historic buildings.

First, consider the material of your structure.

Each material provides clues to the origin and longevity of your building in question.⁠ For example, is it built of wood or thatch?

A black and white photograph of a man in Spanish Colonial inspired costume talking to a woman in Spanish Colonial inspired costume.

These two materials dominated St. Augustine’s architectural landscape from the first Native American settlements into the 1900s. Builders used the local forests for inexpensive renewable resources. The downside: These buildings did not always last.

A black and white photograph of a man and woman looking out onto Castillo de San Marcos' moat from the draw bridge.

How about masonry? Florida’s natural environment also provided tabby, ripio, and coquina. The first recorded use of masonry occurred in 1596 with the construction of a stone powder magazine. Today, some of St. Augustine’s oldest structures – such as Castillo de San Marcos and the González–Alvarez House – feature one or more of these materials.

Don’t forget about poured concrete and brick. St. Augustine pioneered these old methods in local structures during the late 1800s – like the Hotels Ponce de Leon, Alcazar, and Cordova.

Do not lose track of the finer details in your pursuit of dates.

After all, hardware and paint tell stories — albeit difficult ones to decipher.

A black and white photograph of a hardware made by a blacksmith on display on a wooden door.

With the help of deductive reasoning, hardware can give you an idea of how and when the structure came to be. For blacksmiths once made all hardware by hand. Mass-production took over by the 1900s. By looking at the nails in a frame, one can guess the period.

Paint, also, reveals layers of history. Analyzing paint layers can determine color, ingredients, and sometimes age.

By examining heating and cooling systems, one can move a step forward.

For buildings of St. Augustine have used a many a trick in warming and cooling our hearts over the years.⁠

A color photograph of a man dressed in Spanish colonial inspired costume kissing the hand of a woman in a Spanish colonial inspired costume exiting a carriage. Two women in Spanish colonial inspired costumes look on from a balcony in the background.

Arcades, balconies, and loggias played central roles in providing cooling shade to homes during the First Spanish Period (1565-1763). Later on the British replace Spanish brasero with fireplaces for heating rooms. And of course we see new electrical heating and cooling systems transform architecture in the early 1900s.

Changing tastes, can give you an approximate range for your study.

Identifying the architectural styles of this ton is an artform indeed. Where does one begin? This city has seen centuries of evolving tastes and global influences.

A black and white photograph of a woman walking down a street in front of St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church.

Consider St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church. As a wooden structure with Gothic Revival details, this church falls under the category Carpenter Gothic. This style popular in the late 1800s found inspiration in European Gothic cathedrals.

Though not all historical structures fall into one category. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, for example, is a Spanish Colonial structure with Spanish Revival features. Elsewhere in the city, you can also find Mediterranean Revival, Moorish Revival, Romanesque Revival, and Victorian styles to only name a few.

Historic structures often leave behind paper trails.

We cannot stop thinking of the details found in architectural plans, maps, photographs, and other historical documents. These records provide insight into the inspiration, construction, and evolution behind our favorite buildings.

An illustration of people standing around the Hotel Ponce de Leon's entrance in the 1880s.
An 1887 pamphlet for the Hotels Ponce de Leon, Alcazar, and Cordova. (UFDC)

Here in St. Augustine, many institutions hold helpful information in their collections and archives – including our very own Governor’s House Library. Promenade to our digital collections at There you can find primary source material (historic interpretation notes, architectural sketches, drawings, archaeological field reports, maps and photographs) related to the city’s built environment.

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