,Participating in the Past --
' A Creative Approach to Site Use in San Agustin Antiguo
In 1972 staff members of the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board
felt the need for a more meaningful and creative approach to historic site use
in San Agustin Antiguo, the Board's interpretive area. In the past, interpre-
tation had consisted mainly of traditional house museums and craft shops, the
latter being geared more towards retail sales than interpretation. In fact, no-
where within the city could a visitor actually witness or experience life as a
colonial St. Augustinian lived it. The solution decided upon was to select one
site as an initial experiment with the living history approach. This approach was
not entirely original with the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board. Other
areas such as Plymouth Plantation or Old Economy Village had long employed
it. However, the uniqueness of St. Augustine's Spanish colonial heritage
challenged us to create something new and exciting within the framework of a
previously tested tradition.
The site chosen for this experiment was Gallegos House, a small
reconstructed dwelling, the original of which stood around 1750 and served
as the home of Martin Martinez Gallegos, an artilleryman, and the other five
members of his household. We selected this site for two primary reasons.
The first was geographical. The building was ideally located near the restored
area's northern entrance through which most visitors arrive. In fact, the
house is usually the first one the visitor sees. Therefore, in the old tradition
of putting one's best foot forward, the location was ideal. The house was also
close to the Castillo de San Marcos, the great hulking Spanish fortress in which
Martin Martinez Gallegos, like many of his contemporaries in the garrison
town of St. Augustine, served. The clearly visible facade of Castillo de San
Marcos provides an excellent interpretive reminder of the military aspect
of early St. Augustine. The second reason for selecting Gallegos House was
architectural. Its plan, a simple two-room arrangement, is known as the
common plan because of its ubiquity. In the eighteenth century this plan was
typical not only in St. Augustine architecture but also in other parts of the
world; in fact, this "one or two-celled plan was so widely used all over the
world that we should be surprised only if it were not found in St. Augustine."2
Since Gallegos House would at the time be the only exhibit building in which
the living history approach would be employed, the typicality or universality
of its architecture provided the opportunity to make a general interpretative
After deciding upon the concept, time period and location, our next
step was the actual implementation of the project. The first stage of the
program primarily involved construction. Gallegos House had to be "re-
restored". Since the building had originally been reconstructed for adaptive
use, some structural changes had to be either added or deleted. For example,
all modern conveniences or intrusions such as electricity, plumbing, glazed
windows, and decorative landscaping were removed. In their place a new
barrel-well, solid wooden shutters, wooden window grills (or rejas) and
functional landscaping, such as citrus trees and a vegetable garden, were
added. The second stage was to develop an accurate furnishing plan. From
the beginning, the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board has maintained
an active archaeological research program. From this program and from its
rich artifactual collections the staff drew most of its conclusions about correct
examples of ceramics, glass, tools, weapons, and the other smaller items of
of material culture that would have been used in the house. The selection of
furniture posed entirely different problems. How does one furnish a 1750
St. Augustine house when not a single local piece of this period is known to
exist? Our solution was to research descriptions, wills and tax inventories
of the period. Most of these, particularly the wills, painted a rather stark
picture. Even the inventory of a high ranking First Spanish Period officer,
only mentioned the following furnishings: one lathe-turned bed, four chairs,
four old stools, two mahogany writing desks, a new cedar box with lock and
key, an old cedar box and finally an empty box. 3The inventory of the estate
Governor Don Manuel Cendoya left a similarly bleak impression: a large red
cedar chest with fourteen iron straps and lock, a large Spanish cedar chest
with lock and key, a trunk decorated-with small brass tacks, a similar trunk, a
Spanish red-cedar writing desk with four iron straps, hinges, lock and key; a
large Spanish cedar chest with a lock and key, a very old large Spanish cedar
chest with eight iron bands and without a key, two large mirrors with black
frames, and (somewhat incongruously) a large leather-covered sedan chair.
The reader should note that these inventories represent possessions
of the highest stratum of the St. Augustine populace at this time. The paucity of
furniture seems to have been a universal Spanish characteristic. Even among
the nobility in Spain, furniture was a treasured item. Possession of even one
chair was an indication of high rank. During the 15th century a well-to-do
family possessed possibly one fine chair to be used by the head of the house-
hold, while other members of the family made do on benches, stools and
cushions. If the holdings of this class seem austere, one can only wonder
what an individual like Senor Gallegos might have owned.
Another means of solving the riddle of colonial decorative arts in
St. Augustine was the careful study of Spanish and Spanish colonial genre
paintings. These simple scenes of smoky kitchens and stark living areas
served to reinforce even further the concepts we were already forming.
Rooms furnished only in the most minimal and functional way consistently
appeared in works dating from the 16th century to the present day.
Once the research had been done and the preliminary furnishing plan
written, it became immediately obvious that the necessary artifacts would be
difficult if not impossible to locate. We decided, therefore, to manufacture
most of them in-house. Our cabinetmaker reproduced a number of appropriate
antique pieces from the Board's collection. Other craftpeople, such as the
blacksmith, weaver, and potter, made the necessary items of their trade.
In fact, it could be said that living history completely redefined the purpose
and function of the craft shops in San Agustin Antiguo.
The result of all this work was two barren but highly dramatic rooms,
which the visitor can observe today. Upon entering the first room, the visitor
is struck by the expanse of grey tabby floor and white plaster walls along which
sit trunks, stools, bed rolls, and a single chair. Above the one chair reserved
for a visiting priest, a civil officer or the head of the household, is a small
shelf. This shelf, the focal point of the family's daily prayers, contains a
small cross, a religious painting, rosary beads and other accroutrements of
the Catholic faith. The wooden trunks, on stands to prevent damage from damp
floors, contain the personal possessions of the family. To complete the "decor"
of this room, a few wall pegs are hung with clothing, clusters of tools, weapons
and fishing equipment.
In comparison with the front room, the kitchen seems almost cluttered.
Dominating the center is a simple work table. Hanging over it is a large
wooden "rodent proof" shelf, on which foodstuffs may be stored. The other
item of furniture is the alacena, or trastero, a type of free-standing cupboard
popular for centuries in Spain, Mexico and New Mexico. The most observable
feature of the room is, of course, the stove. This rectangular masonry structure,
with openings in the front and top for small fires, is known to have existed in
colonial St. Augustine as well as in other Spanish colonial countries. Smoke
from this "range" theoretically escapes from holes in the ceiling. The walls
and the ceiling, however, give sooty testimony to the inefficiency of this device.
Stoves of this type prompted the Quaker Botanist, John Bartram, to describe
early St. Augustine houses as ". . all as smoky as an Indian cabin though
their methods are various". Because of the smoke the house must be period-
ically whitewashed and generally freshened up, a process which brings to mind
the biannual "kitchen moving" which is done in the Southwest even today.
The fresh, informal atmosphere of Gallegos House is immediately
felt by the visitor. He is actually encouraged to sit on stools, to open chests
and to examine objects in the room. The unstructured interpretation gives
all visitors a choice of activities to experience. Interpretation in Gallegos
House stresses domestic chores. On any given day a visitor may come upon
a colonial meal in preparation, see wood being chopped, clothes being washed
and some gardening in progress. Special projects such as soap making, dyeing
or needlework are practiced as often as there is a need for the product, just
as in real-life.
Costumes, or period dress, in Gallegos House are limited to what
the average lower-class person would have worn at the time. A typical female
outfit consists of a simple linen shift, a petticoat, a woolen bodice and some
type of a head scarf. In cooler weather the costume is sometimes supple-
mented with a rebozo, a type of long shawl worn during the eighteenth century.
The success of living history in the Gallegos House led the staff to
consider further possibilities in a project such as this. Aware of the range
of educational prospects offered by the living history technique, the Historic
St. Augustine Preservation Board in cooperation with the Department of
Sociology of Flagler College, embarked upon an even more ambitious experiment
with this approach. In the summer of 1972 the Board received a matching grant
from the Florida Citizens Committee for the Humanities, a regranting agency
for the National Foundation for the Humanities. The grant was awarded under
the state theme "Man of the 70's: Coping with Change". Using these funds,
the Board and the college sought to construct an artificial "time tunnel" in
which a group of six previously-trained Flagler College students would recreate
lifestyles and cultural patterns as they might have existed in colonial St.
Augustine. The participants acted out the roles of two imaginary families,
those of a farmer and a fisherman, actually residing in the Gallegos House and
in an adjoining building, the Gomez House, for a period of six weeks. Living
in relative isolation, they depended only upon the material items and foodstuffs
which were known to exist in St. Augustine in the year 1750.
In programming this experiment several guidelines were set forth.
The 1750 family, it was felt, would most likely be lower class, of mixed blood,
and would enjoy little social and occupational mobility. Even though depending
somewhat upon relatives and neighbors, a family would have to be largely self
sufficient. The Catholic faith would be a binding force as well as a principal
form of entertainment. Leisure, however, was strictly limited. Life was
bleak, a continual struggle to survive.
In eighteenth century St. Augustine, food subsidies, or situados, from
the Spanish government provided staples such as rice, grains, and salted meat.
The situados were not always dependable so residents were forced to supplement
their diets with local seafoods and the produce of kitchen gardens. A typical
meal was usually prepared in one pot and took the form of a stew, or gruel.
The structure of the family was traditional. The husband consistently
played the dominant role and was responsible for the security and welfare of
his family. The wife and children remained subordinant.
Throughout the torturous summer weeks the participants attempted to
exist within this framework. Their trials and activities were recorded and
observed by staff advisors as well as by hundreds of visitors that passed through
the area. The reactions of the public ranged from sincere interest to complete
horror. As for the participants, despite the cultural shock they experienced and
the routine problems with which they wrestled, in the end they agreed that the
final results of the project were more than worth the effort.
Robert W. Harper III
1. Robert I. Steinbach, "Martin Martinez Gallegos, unpublished report,
Jan., 1974, Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board.
2. Albert Manucy, The Houses of St. Augustine (St. Augustine 1962), p. 50.
3. "A Private Library", El Escribano, Vol. VIII, No. 3
(July, 1971), pp. 166-67.
4. "A Bitter Pill for the Widow Cendoya", El Escribano,
Vol. IX, No. 2 ( April 1972) pp. 74-76.
5. Grace Hardendorff Burr, "Furniture", The Hispanic Society of America
Handbook (New York 1938), pp. 246.
6. E. Boyd, Popular Arts of Spanish New Mexico, Museum of New Mexico
Press (Santa Fe, 1974) p. 21.
7. Remarks in Francis Harper, ed., Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas,
Georgia and Florida from July 1, 1765 to April 10, 1766 (by) John Bartram,
in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, NS XXXIII,
part 1 (Philadelphia, 1942), pp. 51-55.
8. Boyd, p. 12.
9. "En Busca del Origen del Rebozo, Artes de Mexico, Ano XVIII, No. 142
(1971), p. 6.
10. Michael J. Sherman, Robert H. Steinbach, "Man of the 70's: Coping
with Change, Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board and Flagler
College (1973), pp. 4,5.
11. Ibid, p. 6.
12. Ibid, p. 7.