Cathedral Square, an important route in the history of Saint Augustine
The state of Florida is considering giving up its authority over two of the oldest streets in the state – Cathedral Place and King Street. They are also two of the oldest streets in the United States, bordering St. Augustine Square, which has existed at least since 1598. The square was created to be a public gathering area, market space, and place for parades of horses.
The City of St. Augustine and the Florida Department of Transportation are discussing the issue of “transferring jurisdiction” for Cathedral Place and King Street to the city. Public hearings were held recently.
Cathedral Place, in the center of Old St. Augustine, was a thoroughfare for years before taking on the appearance of a street. Before pavements and a clearly defined platform, today’s Cathedral Square was visually and practically part of the treeless square. The walls of the buildings or the walls that fenced the private lands directly and harmoniously adjoined the Plaza.
The two blocks of Cathedral Place had different histories until the late 1800s. The block between present-day Charlotte Street and St. George Street has been a public thoroughfare for 425 years. For centuries, the public walkway ended on the west side of what is now Rue Saint-George as the enclosing wall of the Governor’s House stretched across what is now Cathedral Square. Beyond the fence of the Governor’s House was an orchard and gardens in today’s platform. In 1763, an assessor counted 120 lemon trees on the grounds of the governor’s house.
When the Roman Catholic Parish Church of St. Augustine was completed in 1797, where it still stands today, the facade and entrance door of the church and the square met. The church facade has been an important feature of the passageway/street. Although rebuilt or remodeled over the years, the facade would no doubt still look familiar to locals who attended the first services in the church 225 years ago.
The Diocese of St. Augustine was created in 1870 to include all of Florida east of the Apalachicola River. The new bishop. Augustin Verot, chooses the parish church of Saint-Augustin to become the church of the bishop of the diocese. In this new role, the church was now a cathedral. The church building had been called a cathedral before it was one by visitors or writers who did not understand that not all Catholic churches were cathedrals.
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As an unintended consequence, the street in front of the church building became known as Cathedral Place.
An early morning fire in April 1887 ravaged the north side of Cathedral Place. The flames started in the Hotel Saint-Augustin, which faced the bay and the Plaza, and leaped all the way to the cathedral. The roof of the church has collapsed, leaving only the outer walls of coquina (shellstone). The cathedral was rebuilt and a bell tower was added, designed by James Renwick, the famous architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
In three years, Cathedral Place would double in length. The wall of the Governor’s House (then known as the Post Office) would be removed and the street extended to Cordova Street.
Henry Flagler wanted the area surrounding his grand Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College) to “combine with the refined atmosphere of his luxury resort,” in the words of Thomas Graham in Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine. While the Ponce de Leon Hotel was under construction, Flagler negotiated with the Catholic Church to purchase the land (actually an entire block) that ran from St. George Street to Tolomato Street. But there was little access to the land.
In the early 1890s, Henry Flagler could get just about anything he wanted in St. Augustine. In July 1890, the St. Augustine City Council passed an ordinance “extending and laying out Cathedral Street from St. George Street to Cordova Street” and creating access to the lot.
Cathedral Place is only two blocks long, but has a long history.
Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.