UNITED STATES CUSTOMS OFFICE IN GOVERNMENT HOUSE
ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA
On August 11, 1821, John Rodman of New York City arrived in
St. Augustine to take charge of his duties as the first American Collector
of Customs in the newly acquired territory of the United States. Previous
to this appointment he was District Attorney for a European business ven-
ture which suited him for this job along with his familiarity with "continen-
tal law" and his proficiency in foreign languages as St. Augustine was
still very much a Spanish town.
Almost from the first day Rodman engaged in a dispute with Captain
John R. Bell, the Senior Army Officer, regarding the occupancy of
In the meantime William G. D. Worthington of Baltimore arrived
to take up the duties of Chief Civil Official on August 20. Worthington
was plainly distressed at the denial of an office or a dwelling for his family
and joined in the dispute which was eventually carried to President Monroe.
In the final decision the recommendation was made to devote the
building exclusively to offices for the civil department.
From the volume of correspondence written on the controversy,
very good descriptions of the building and garden are available.
On December 18, 1821, Abraham Eustis in a letter to the Secre-
tary of War reported the building and lot of the Custom-House on the
corner of Charlotte street and the Plaza were then occupied by the col-
lector, Mr. Rodman.
Apparently the use of the house adjacent to the Customs House by
Rodman and his family was a source of irritation to William P. DuVal,
territorial governor, especially since it pained DuVal to be obliged to rent
an office for $15. 00 a month, the chief difficulty being Rodman's occupancy
of the public building adjoining the Customs House. Soon afterwards the
practice of providing living quarters for civil officials came to an end in
Public buildings inherited from the Spaniards were almost in ruins.
In 1833 the building underwent substantial repairs and remodeling by Elias
Wallen, local contractor, using, in part, the design of Robert Mills,
ar chite ct.
Oi'lx, ] O1 IX
In 1866 the Collector of Customs was Pedro Benet whose family
went back to the second Spanish period of Florida. His two grandsons
were the distinguished Pulitzer Prize winners, Stephen Vincent Benet
and William Rose Benet. During his office as Collector he reported the
structure to be "in a very bad condition", and in 1868 the Treasury De-
partment made repairs amounting to $2, 000, which was the least that
could be done to preserve it.
Benet was succeeded by Eleazer K. Foster who was also the
Custodian of the courthouse. For a long period Foster and William P.
Dockray, clerk of the courthouse, were constantly engaged in one con-
flict or another, each accusing the other of a variety of misdeeds and
once a physical altercation took place over Dockray's keeping his horse
in the building. Soon afterwards Foster left the position and Andrew J.
Goss was the new Collector of Customs.
In 1869 the Treasury Department had considered to dispose of the
building, yet in 1873 the Department authorized spending $10, 000 for
remodeling, utilizing the plans of William M. Kimball and before the end
of the succeeding decade the government became a major commercial
landlord in St. Augustine renting space in the old courthouse.
Prior to this remodeling the populace felt the structure too large
for the government, suggesting a variety of uses for the building, tem-
porary and permanent such as meeting rooms, school, offices for state
and local government and housing for "homeless person" which in this
case meant slaves recently freed. The school board made a request for
leasing the building for a school, agreeing to make necessary repairs,
and in fact did become one of its numerous tenants. At one time the pro-
moters of the railroad considered buying the property for a terminal.
By 1876 the new Collector of Customs was Andrew J. Goff and in
1879 Thomas F. House assumed those duties. House spent much time in
writing the Treasury Department with the recommendations of requests
for leasing of space in the building.
Francis E. Witsell became the new Custodian in 1882 which saw
the renting of two rooms to a Young and Company for a bank.
By 1888 the Custodian was Fredrick B. Genovar followed by
H. J. Ritchie in 1890. The Post Office, Collector of Customs and Corps
of Engineers were the only government agencies housed in the building
at that time. Undoubtedly the expanding business of the Post Office due
to the city's new image as a winter resort, and the engineer's needs soon
required the empty space. The Board of Trade and the Grand Army of
the Republic were the only other tenants. The latter is attributed to
northern veterans wintering in Florida.
OH IX i 0,1 1X
On May 28, 1898, permission was granted to the Corps of En-
gineers in Charleston for a terminal location of a telephone line con-
necting St. Augustine Lighthouse Station with St. Augustine. The east
room at the head of the Customs House department stairs and across
the hallway from the Collector's office was designated as such location.
This room was also known as the "Store Room. "
Ritchie was succeeded by Thomas B. George in 1900 following a
dispute as to the authenticity of information on a plaque which appeared
on the building. Somehow Ritchie was blamed for passing along the
HISTORIC ST. AUGUSTINE