In St. Augustine, Florida, you will find a quaint gem on quiet St. Francis Street. This big house has a big history, one that few people have probably ever heard. It’s known as the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, or the “Oldest House.” Some people say it’s the oldest house in the country, but that is highly doubted. Even some homes and buildings in St. Augustine are said to go back in time as far as this one, if not longer, but whether or not it’s the “oldest” house isn’t the issue. It still has a lot of history under its roof, and everyone is certain of this.
Land records show that a dwelling of one form or another could be found on this site way back into the 1600s. You might say that the houses in a Florida city couldn’t possibly go back that far, but considering the city was founded in 1565, it is most probably true. In the beginning the houses were probably made of wood or some other perishable material on which time soon took a toll. In the early 1700s, however, a more permanent one-story building was constructed; this was the base for the current Gonzalez-Alvarez House. This little house was very Spanish in design, attesting to the origins of the people of the city. Tomas Gonzalez and his family occupied the house until the 1760s, when British troops took over the city and English and other foreign immigrants began pouring in.
In the 1700s, the time period of Eugenia Price’s book “Maria” which concerns one of the British owners of the home, a lavish second floor was added. Changes throughout the years turned the Gonzalez-Alvarez House into a bright and somewhat pompous structure, complete with awnings and a huge backyard tower room. Luckily, it has been returned to its previous appearance for all to appreciate.
First of all, for those wondering exactly where the “Oldest House” is, it can be found at 14 St. Francis Street. Across the street is a huge yellow structure that is now the St. Francis Barracks and home to the National Guard, but was once a monastery rebuilt over time. Visitors to the Gonzalez-Alvarez House usually enter by the garden gate, taking time to enjoy the exquisite decorating tastes of another one of the house’s 18th century owners, Geronimo Alvarez. After paying the admission (which ranges from $4.00 to $8.00 depending on your age) you are free to explore the gardens. Very young children (under the age of six) will not have to pay admission. The house and grounds can be toured from 9:00 to 5:00 and will be open every day except major holidays.
Once inside the damp stone walls of the original part of the house (the downstairs) a tour guide weaves the tales of the house’s beginnings and the family that lived in these tiny quarters. Note the smoke stains on the walls and the simple but elegant furnishings. You will notice a cardplaying room and other tiny enclaves. A walk up the wooden stairs will bring you into the much more elegant part of the house, the mid-18th century addition known as Maria’s Room. The room takes its name from Maria Evans Fenwick Peavett, the subject of Eugenia Price’s novel. Lovely colonial furniture, a paneled ceiling, and elegant wood floors sharply contrast to the plain amenities found in the Gonzalez section below.
From Maria’s Room you can tour the Alvarez dining room, a family gathering spot during Geronimo Alvarez’s ownership of the home. If you can, try to visit in the morning; there’s nothing better than a cool Florida morning breeze blowing through the house’s open windows. Walking back a small hallway reveals a small but lofty room. A huge bed takes up much of the room, and is lovingly described as the “Million-Dollar Bed.” While it may or not be worth that much, it is said to have once belonged to Florida notary General Joseph Hernandez.
Once you’re back outside, don’t forget to tour the separate Spanish kitchen. In colonial St. Augustine, threat of fire goaded wealthier residents to have their kitchens built apart from the main house so damage would be minimal. Statuary and small items scattered here and there in the gardens will capture your interest. The back of the house is as charming as the front, made up of many large windows and smooth white walls. You can visit a museum on the grounds, and check out another 18th century house next door, the red-and-white Tovar House.
By Lacie R. Schaeffer