St. Augustine is a city of superlatives, most of which contain the adjective “oldest”. It’s also a prime example of the old adage that in real estate, the three most important things to remember are location, location, location. The intersection of Tolomato Lane and St. George Street would seem to be a prime location, yet visitors find the spot occupied by a slightly ramshackle wooden house that has defied modernization. Surrounded by faux-colonial buildings that contain gift shops, snack bars, art galleries and a hotel, a small true relic of the city’s past has managed to survive the twentieth century.
A clapboard sign proclaims this to be the “oldest wooden schoolhouse in the United States”. While the fact that this was ever a school in the strictest sense is debatable, the structure is undoubtedly the oldest wooden frame house in the city. In its long history it has been a residence, a store, a cafe, a studio, a museum and a guardhouse, but no history of education in St. Augustine mentions the role of this house. While there are no clear records of the home ever having been used solely as a schoolhouse, one of Gianoply’s descendants- Mary Darling, apparently ran a kindergarten out of the house in the early nineteenth century. During the Civil War, more formal classes were also taught here.
Much of the building’s history is murky. Constructed by a Menorcan carpenter named Juan Gianoply, it is at least 200 years old. An earlier dwelling appears on St. Augustine’s tax rolls in 1716, however it is almost certainly not the cottage that stands at 14 St. George Street today. Even the most casual observer can see that the style of architecture is more of the British period (1763-1784) than the early Spanish. A visitor to the town that existed before 1765 would have been appalled at the squalor and the lack of proper housing anywhere. The early Spanish governors of the colony lived in crude huts that were little better than lean-to’s. The omnipresent coquina block and tabby building materials were limited to military use and the Castillo itself. It was not until the arrival of the British that ample timber and iron began to be available for common dwellings.
The Menorcans migrated north to St. Augustine from New Smyrna in the spring of 1777 after rebelling against the conditions of their indentured servitude. Marginalized and discriminated against, they settled in a group along the city wall, forming what became known as the Minorcan quarter. Gianoply purchased the empty lot on St. George Street in 1778 and a single-story home at this address was listed in “fair condition” by a Spanish map ten years later. Perhaps it was just a lucky coincidence that a small pecan sapling had begun to grow behind the house. Maybe Gianoply planted it to help provide his family with food in the years to come. However it happened, the pecan tree still grows in the garden of the homestead and still bears hundreds of pecans every season.
After Gianoply married, he expanded the house by constructing a second floor, making the building its present story-and-a-half height. Constructed of red cedar planks and cypress timbers secured with wooden pegs called “tree nails”, everything was made by hand, down to the wrought iron hardware, split cedar shingles and finishing nails. Gianoply added a tabby floor, burning oyster shells for lime to make mortar. The building had no running water and an outdoor privy. Drinking water was drawn from a well and the kitchen was detached from the main building because of the risk from fire. This arrangement also helped to prevent unnecessary additional heat in in the main house during the long, hot summers.
Standing in the dim, musty ground floor room I can almost hear the horses passing by on St. George Street of 170 years ago. This room would have been busy with soldiers looking for shelter from the rain or cold, smoking their pipes and drinking coffee by the fire as they watched the city gates just thirty yards away. It was a time of unrest, the Seminole War. Plantations had been raided, the sugar mills to the south burned, white settlers killed. You can still sense the tension of the times. The cottage was almost eighty years old then, being used as a guard shack for the US Army sentries protecting the town from attack.
Fast forward five decades. In 1904, it was willed by the last member of the Gianoply family to neighbors, who used it as a novelty shop. The Kearns were the first to bill the property as the “oldest wooden house”, then later, the “old schoolhouse”. The shop also doubled as a residence as late as 1914, when the last Kearns child was born at home. Shortly thereafter, a tea room began operations on the premises. Records indicate that the site being used as a photographer’s studio during the 1920’s. The property was purchased by Walter Fraser, then mayor of St. Augustine, in the late 1930’s. It opened to the public as a tourist attraction in 1939.
The old house is said to be haunted by a young woman who lost her daughter there in the early 1800s. Purportedly, there have been sightings of a woman in period dress, her dark hair pulled into a bun, looking out the second-floor window. Orbs have been photographed inside the building on both floors. A psychic made contact with the spirit in 2004 and reported that the spirit woman is still in mourning because her daughter died when she was away. Passersby report seeing the woman at the second-floor window, looking out past the old city gates as she waits for her husband to return. It’s possible they are seeing a mannequin set at the spot for effect.
I saw nothing of ghosts or light anomalies, but I did feel the weight of history in that house. On this small patch of ground, time passes more slowly than out on the street. If there is something supernatural about the property it would be that ability to suspend the advance of years at will. It is this continuity that keeps the past alive here on St. George Street.