DE MESA SITE, REVISITED
James M. Smith
Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board
For over a year's time, from the spring of 1977 to the spring of 1978, the
deMesa-Sanchez House became the focus of two archaeological projects, the first
undertaken by Kathy Deagan and the 1977 edition of the Florida State University
field school (1978), and the second under the aegis of the Historic St. Augustine
Preservation Board and John Bostwick (1978). The stated objectives for both
excavations centered on the following three considerations:
"1. The determination of the evolution of the deMesa-Sanchez
House architecture, including the sequence and dating of
floor plans and construction features.
2. The determination of lot element patterning through time.
3. The determination of the dietary and material patterning
associated with a lower-middle income criollo household"
Though an eye was cast toward each of these objectives during the fieldwork,
only the first was fully realized. In both Deagan's-and Bostwick's reports, a
large portion of the data is bound up in the evolution of the deMesa-Sanchez
House, which simply means that much of the time during fieldwork was spent
chasing after foundations and floor levels and then determining their relative
chronological dates. To achieve this end, a variety of trenches were placed
within the interior of the present day structure and an intermixture of trenches
and test squares across the remainder of the deMesa lot (fig. 1).
Deagan established a set of different factors to date the various architec-
tural features. These include: 1) similar above sea level elevations, 2) similar
methods of construction, 3) definable relationships between floors and wall foot-
ings, and 4) terminus post quem provided by artifacts in the fill beneath the
Ei Excavated Areas
Fig. 1 -deMesa Site
10 0 5 10
floors (1978:11). The primary dating techniques used in the two reports are
essentially confined to the third and fourth criteria. Within the deMesa-Sanchez
House a series of tabby floors were laid down one above the other through time.
Between each of these earth fill was used to make a fairly level base and to
provide a continuous bed. Both organic and cultural material occurred in large
quantity in the fill levels, strongly suggesting that the various builders simply
took earth from somewhere on the deMesa lot, shoveled it onto the tabby floor
being replaced, and poured a new floor directly above it. The intervening fill
and its cultural material thus provide a basis to date the overlying floor by the
artifacts' terminus post quem, particularly the ceramics. This in turn allows
the individual floors to function as a dating tool by their relationship with the
various wall footings. If a floor was poured over a wall base, the floor must
postdate the wall; if a floor was laid directly abutting a wall, the two elements
were in use at the same time; and finally if a wall cut through a floor, the wall
must postdate the floor. (See fig. 2).
S t.p.q. 1813 Tabby floor
... ..... ... Wall base ... .
st n -p c. i1800 a- - o- Fi- s o Fill
...._ ^.: !:.:;' :-. ;:.. t.p.q. 1800 .
. ::. :C.c1760 : :
L Fl" g. 2
Beyond the two site reports, the excavations also spawned a small number of
student papers. These include analyses of a First Spanish Period well (Huston
1977), the glass material culture (Wirth.1977), 3 Gaule Indian burials (Gest
1977), the faunal remains (Reitz 1977), and the European-Chinese ceramics
II. The Archaeology of the deMesa-Sanchez House
The Pre-1750 Period (fig. 3)
Very little cultural activity occurred on the site before Antonio
deMesa's arrival in the late 1740's. This "pre-deMesa era" is defined by a meager
group of three different features; a hard-packed clay floor, a short section of
oyster shell wall, and five individual burials. Both the clay floor and tabby
footing are poorly documented by the archaeological record; neither having any
associated material culture nor datable context. The information from the five
burials, all apparently Guale Indians, is a bit more enlightening. Gest (1977)
and Bostwick (1979) claim that the five individuals were all members of a single
extended or even nuclear family (based on common skeletal malformations) who died
on approximately the same dates from supposedly similar causes. Further, Gest
speculates that this "family" was conscripted to work on the Castillo by the
local Spanish government and in the process fell victim to one of the periodic
epidemics that swept through St. Augustine's Indian population during the late
17th century. This scenario rests on historical and not archaeological data.
But for its part, the archaeology has no better interpretation to offer.
g. 3 deMesa Pre-1750
SA 7- 6
10 0 5 10
DeMesa House c. 1760
With Antonio de Mesa's ownership, the site gained its first clearly definable
buildings and features, arranged in a fairly standard late First Spanish Period
pattern. As shown in fig. 4, the excavations uncovered three integrated archi-
tectural elements; .a small single room house, a larger, partially enclosed
central courtyard, and a small, detached rear kitchen. Each of these components
was interconnected to provide an overall, single continuous architectural unit.
The house itself was a one room, 16.7 by 26.5 ft. coquina structure, built
at some time prior to 1760. The single room plan is predicated upon the absence
of any below ground interior division. Also, no flooring material (tabby or
packed earth) was found that dated to this period. A large, tabby floored court-
yard, 23.3 by 35.0 ft.,extended directly from the rear wall of the house eastward
to the edge of the kitchen. It was enclosed on three of its four sides with the
south and southwest exposures left open. At a distance of.about 8 ft. from the
kitchen wall a circular stain cut through the courtyard floor. Although not
fully excavated (the wall dividing rooms 106 and 108 sits directly above it), the
stain has all the earmarks of a well pit. In addition to this feature, Bostwick
(1978:12) mentions locating a post hole in the courtyard somewhere along the back
wall of the house. Its exact placement has unfortunately been lost along the
way, but the presence of a post in this general area does suggest the possibility
of a rear loggia with a shed roof arrangement. The final element of the deMesa
plan concerns the detached rear kitchen. For reasons unknown, only one of its
coquina walls was fully traced, indicating a north-south dimension of slightly
less than 12 ft. with an associated interior tabby floor.
Beyond this evidence relating to the deMesa occupation, Deagan and Bostwick
also uncovered a substantial portion of a larger structure known as the Escovedo
House. The exposed portions of its tabby wall foundations and floor partially
define a two-room structure, measuring 33 ft. in length with its short axis or
gable end (of unknown width) fronting St. George Street, directly south of the
original deMesa property. -Escovedo apparently was built and inhabited about the
same time as deMesa.
I i *
DE MESA c. 1760
Fig. 4 SA 7-6
DeMesa House c. 1780 The British Period (fig. 5)
By 1780 the deMesa House had undergone a good bit of Anglicization. The
initial one room design was changed to a three room, tabby floored plan as the
house was expanded southward by nearly 12 ft. over the now demolished Escovedo
House. This expansion did not alter the integrity of the original structure, it
merely stuck another room onto the long axis, added a partition through the in-
terior, and provided a 6 ft. wide entry into the house directly from the street.
The only other modification to the central core occurred along the exterior side
of room 103's east wall, where a chimney base was built in the same location as!
the present doorway.
The central courtyard from the 1760 plan also underwent some alteration,
though in a more subtle than substantial manner. During the British Period this
section changed from its original large, open "room" function to a non-
architectural space used in part for trash disposal. Broken barrel tiles, English
ceramics, and packed earth overlaid much of what was once deMesa's courtyard
floor. Although the exact limits of the debris' scatter were never clearly
defined, it apparently extended from the rear of the house to approximately the
kitchen's western edge through the area roughly corresponding to rooms 105 and
107. Not only does this material suggest an English disposal pattern at work, it
also clearly denotes the use of barrel tiles at the site as a roofing material on
one or more of the original buildings. With the appearance of Stout or Walton
the tiles were stripped off and discarded onto the courtyard floor. Whether or
not, as Deagan suggests (1978:22) they also define a specific work space, is, for
now, only conjectural. As a final note on the courtyard area, a new section of
tabby floor was poured along the rear edge of the southern addition in what is
today room 104. Its purpose or function is to date unresolved.
The kitchen stayed in about the same location as its 1760 predecessor. But
now, instead of being built entirely of coquina, only the north wall remained
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stone while the original west and south walls were torn down and replaced by a
wood frame construction. As before, the east wall of the kitchen was not defined
during the excavations, though its tabby floor indicates at least a 7 ft. width.
DE MESA c. 1780
Fig. 5 SA 7-6
4 0 2 4
DeMesa-Sanchez House 1785-1800 (fig. 6)
With the return of St. Augustine to Spanish control, the site followed suit
under Juan Sanchez's ownership and returned to a more Hispanic treatment of its
architectural space. At sometime during this 15 year span, the house lost its
Anglo three room plan with the removal of an interior wall (room 103), thus
fashioning an asymetrical two room core minus its street entry a design that
incidentally incorporated the original deMesa structure in its entirety. The
house also gained a two room east wing, giving it an overall "L" shaped configu-
ration, along with a new tabby floor throughout both its interior and exterior
limits. As for deMesa's original courtyard, it was now enclosed along its
northern portion by the two room addition while its remaining open area was con-
verted into a fairly large covered loggia with coquina piers supporting a
probable shed roof.
To the rear of the house the kitchen continued to be detached, but its place-
ment was shifted eastward by 14 ft. from its previous location. After a brief
stint as a frame structure, Sanchez rebuilt the kitchen entirely of coquina in a
much larger 14.2 by 17.8 ft. format, using bare earth as the flooring surface.
Pottery fragments imbedded in the floor indicate that it remained earthen until
sometime after 1820 (late hand-painted pearlware providing the terminus post
By 1800, the deMesa-Sanchez House had taken on the basic outline that it
displays today. All the elements were in place, and it simply became a matter of
enclosing and connecting together the various parts into a single architectural
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DE MESA 1785-1800
SA 7- 6
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DeMesa-Sanchez House c. 1820 (fig. 7)
Of all the various building phases that the deMesa-Sanchez House has undergone,
the 1820 plan is lhe least well documented archaeologically. The loggia of the
previous Sanchez .ra was now enclosed with coquina blocks laid between the exist-
ing piers at sometime before 1815. Bostwick (1978:16) suggests that this process
occurred in two stages; the present room 104 became enclosed between 1803 and
1813, based on the absence of ironstone in the fill beneath the new tabby floor
(a rather unreliable dating technique),and then room 107 underwent a similar
alteration at some point after 1813, based this time on the presence of ironstone.
Though Bostwick's scheme may indeed be correct, it would seem more likely that
the entire loggia was modified into an interior space during a single building
phase, instead of two, around the 1813 date. Also an exterior chimney was added
to room 101 along the south wall by the early 1820's. And for the first time, the
kitchen remained unchanged from its previous plan.
DE MESA c.1820
Fig. 7 SA 7-6
4 0 24
DeMesa-Sanchez House c. 1835 (fig. 8)
The last step in the development of the site (at least for our purposes)
occurred prior to 1835 when the once detached kitchen was now joined to the main
body of the house. In the course of losing its dependency status, the kitchen
gained nearly 8 ft, in width, a large interior hearth and chimney, a loggia along
its southern face, and a probable wooden floor. The only other observable change
took place in the original core of the house where the solid coquina wall in the
area of room 101 (the south wall of deMesa's house) was removed and two wooden
frame partitions added, producing a neoclassical symmetry within this section of
the ground floor plan.
DE MESA c.1835
Fig. 8 SA 7-6
4 0 24
III. Some Final Thoughts
Le Corbusier once observed that man is architecture's content (in Glassie
1975:117). Although the archaeology of the deMesa-Sanchez House has dealt pri-
marily with its below ground evolution, it still offers us a glimpse, however
brief, of the people.who built and inhabited it between the 1750's and the 1830's.
All houses, from the most modest to the most palatial, hold in common two inter-
related aspects. They express to the world passing by a type of bond linking
their occupants to the larger community at hand through a sharing of similar
design and style. Architecture, whether it be First Spanish, British, or
Victorian clearly states the membership of its builders-occupants into a com-
munity that has dimensions of both time and space. And secondly, houses serve as
mediators or an intermediate step between the people living in them and the
surrounding natural environment. The choice of building materials, be they wood,
stone, brick, or concrete, and their arrangement into architectural shapes reflect,
in no small part, the way in which a group perceives and exploits its natural
The initial plan of the deMesa House with its one-room design, open rear
courtyard, and detached kitchen delineated a communal living arrangement. Space
was viewed in terms of openness; the whole gamut of domestic activities sleeping,
eating, cooking, procreating, etc., all occurred in a common area. Within this
setting, personal privacy took a back seat to communal living. The Renaissance
of Europe and its cult of the individual had not yet bulled its way into
St. Augustine's isolated corner of the Spanish world. Space and its ordering into
a man-made environment was still being seen, at least by deMesa, through medieval
The effects of St. Augustine's shift into the British sphere was not lost on
the town's material culture, including its architecture. By 1780 the deMesa House
had undergone a radical transition in its spatial usage in a sense jumping out
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of its medieval mold and catching up to the 18th century. The original one room
scheme was now expanded to three. The once open, communal design became subdivided
into a more specialized, segregated, and symmetrical form as the increased desire
for privacy began to find expression through the architecture under Walton's
and Stout's control the separation of us from them (Glassie 1975:122). Not only
did the overall function of the house change, but the courtyard also underwent
revision in its use. It no longer operated as an "open" unenclosed extension of
the house; instead it provided a convenient place for dumping the domestic trash
without any concern for its former architectural role. But this Anglicization
didn't last for long.
As the English and Spanish continued to play musical chairs with St. Augustine's
colonial status, the house by 1785 mirrored the return once again to Spanish hands.
The symmetrical three room plan with its street entry was discarded by the new
owner Sanchez in favor of a two room central core along with the addition of a
two room wing and tabby floored loggia. By the early part of the Second Spanish
Period the house plan came to represent something of a compromise (on a larger
scale) between the earlier Spanish and British styles. On the one hand it reflected
an acceptance of space being allocated into smaller, less communal units; but on
the other it did not organize these units into any symmetrical format.
In its final two building stages, spanning the 1820 to 1835 period, the house
continued to express a seemingly relentless movement toward closure, segregation,
and symmetry that had been first set in motion during the Walton-Stout era. The
once open loggia became incorporated as an interior room; the previously detached
kitchen was added onto the rear of the house; and a formalized three-room, central
hall plan was adopted for the original section of the ground floor. In a 75 year
stretch, the initial three elements of the deMesa site, its one room house, rear
courtyard, and detached kitchen, had evolved into a single, unified architectural
form. Viewed against time, the house defined a growing desire for individual
and private space. The sense of community shown by the 1760 plan was by 1835
completely rejected in favor of a more personal and specialized architecture.
1978 "Further Excavations in the deMesa-Sanchez House 1977-1978,"
MS on file Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board.
1978 "1977 Excavations of the deMesa-Sanchez House Interior,"
MS on file Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board.
1977 ."Archaeology and Physical Anthropology of Three Burials at
the deMesa Site SA 7-6, St. Augustine, Florida," MS on file
Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board.
1975 Folk Housing in Middle Virginia: A Structural Analysis of
Historic Artifacts. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
1977 "British, French, and Chinese Ceramics at SA-16-23, SA-7-6, and
SA-26-1," MS on file Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board.
1977 "Faunal Remains From the deMesa Site in St. Augustine," MS on
file Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board.
1977 "Glass at the deMesa Site, SA 7-6," MS on file Historic St.
Augustine Preservation Board.
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