Walk into the St. Francis Inn’s spacious courtyard and you feel instantly at peace. The lush green canopy overhangs the tall stonewalls, casting serene shadows on the space. A bright red wooden swing with plush pillows beckons from the corner. Near the building’s entrance a small fishpond murmurs gently. Lounge on the swing, bask in the sun, relax to the murmur—and you may just fall asleep in the quiet, sheltered space. When you wake up, there will always be hot coffee, gourmet tea and fresh fruit waiting for you in the inn’s lobby. Outside the courtyard, the cobblestone streets of Florida’s St. Augustine will be equally peaceful, perturbed only by occasional cars and trolleys that drive tourists through the historical sites, including famous homes, Castillo de San Marcos and the Pirate & Treasure Museum.
It wasn’t always like that. The oldest European settlement in North America, St. Augustine had a long and tumultuous history, marked by war battles, long-lasting sieges and pirate attacks, among other hardships. In the 18th century, the town was a stronghold for the Spanish empire, guarding its trade routes along the Atlantic coast—a highly coveted prize for the English fleets and the pirate ships. When English privateer Robert Searle attacked and plundered St. Augustine in 1668, it became clear that the city needed better defenses. So the king of Spain ordered to construct a stone fort instead of the old wooden one. In 1672, the city’s governor put the first shovel in the ground to begin construction of Castillo de San Marcos—a fortress built with a local stone called coquina because it was formed by the remains of shellfish—or “cockle” in Spanish.
Castillo de San Marcos provided a safe shelter for the St. Augustine’s residents when enemy ships appeared on the horizon or laid siege. Nonetheless, the fear of invasion were so high that the king also ordered all houses in St. Augustine to be built like fortresses to protect the residents from unexpected attacks. That’s why St. Francis Inn is built like a miniature citadel. When this historic building was first constructed in 1791, St. Augustine’s evening atmosphere was very different. By nighttime, the shutters would be drawn and the gates closed. The city’s residents would retire for the day with their arms and weapons in close reach because no one knew what the night would bring.
St. Augustine’s story began in the spring 1513, when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León disembarked on the stretch of land he named Florida. Ponce de León was looking for gold and the fountain of youth—a mythical spring that Europeans believed could reverse aging in anyone who drank or bathed in its waters. De León found neither one of his targets and sailed on, naming the area Florida, possibly because he was smitten by the land’s blooming beauty or because it was Easter Sunday—in Spanish La Pascua de las Flores, the festival of flowers. More than 50 years later, another Spaniard, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived here to establish Presidio of San Agustin—a military settlement. Castillo de San Marcos became famous for its impenetrable walls, which stand strong to this day. It had its first trial in 1702 when the English fleet led by James Moore pummeled it with cannon fire for over 50 days. And while the English troops burned and destroyed everything around it, they still couldn’t take the fort. In 1740 governor James Oglethorpe attempted another siege with similar results.
The memory of these battles was still strong when the inn’s original building was forged in 1791—the fact reflected in its fortified architecture. Its first owner, Gaspar Garcia was granted the land parcel by the King of Spain and built the building as his home residence. A Spanish army sergeant, he was prepared to face an enemy at any time. For the next 50 years, the house changed owners several times, first Spanish and later English—after Spain ceded Florida to the British. Most of the owners were military figures, some with curious history. The legend states that one of its owners, colonel Thomas Henry Dummett who owned a sugar plantation in Barbados, escaped the mutinous eastern Caribbean island hiding in a sugar cask his slaves carried onboard a ship.
It was Dummett’s daughter who first turned the family residence into a lodging house in 1854. Over the next century and a half, the inn changed owners many times and hosted a number of notable guests, including famous writers, some of whom were nominated for and won Pulitzer Prizes. The inn also had many names. It has been known as The Teahan House, The Hudson House, and The Graham House, among others. Finally, in 1948 it was called the St. Francis Inn.
Today, the inn, which also operates a 18th century cottage and a beach house, doesn’t have to keep its guard and everyone is welcome. In the mornings, it greets travellers with hearty breakfasts and a vast selection of gourmet teas. In the afternoon, it hosts wine tastings while children can splash in the back area pool or bounce on the red swing. After sunset, guests make s’mores from marshmallows as they gather around the courtyard fire, while the smoke slowly floats in the air like the ghosts of the tumultuous past. If the inn’s walls could talk, they would have told many stories of family dramas, violent battles and historic conquests. But they keep their secrets, leaving guests to use the best of their imagination.
Photos by Lina Zeldovich
Top photo: St Francis courtyard