Colonial is a common adjective used to describe American houses. Yet which colonial do we mean? Normally we are referring to English Colonial Houses. Yet, from Florida to California, our colonial history is primarily Spanish, not English. Our oldest continuously inhabited city, St. Augustine, Florida, and early Southwest missions were built by Spanish conquerors, colonists, and missionaries.
In 1565, nearly fifty years after Cortez’s conquest of Mexico, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine. At first utilitarian concerns dominated this outpost and houses were little more than huts. Later, after the fire of 1702 which leveled the city, houses were built in more durable materials. Diverse tradesmen using old traditions developed a beautiful, commodious, environmentally sensitive architecture wholly new yet related to their Spanish classical heritage.
Deriving from both Roman and Moorish traditions in Spain of inwardly-focused houses, and accounting for defense, houses were built directly into high street walls and were originally entered through a garden gate that led to a side or rear entrance. Later houses were several rooms wide and deep and two to two-and-a-half stories with principal rooms on the breezier and safer second floor, often wrapping around a loggia or garden porch. Pitched or hipped roofs had shallow eaves with little or no cornice trim, while some of the earliest houses had flat roofs.
Larger windows were wisely placed in east façades for morning light; smaller ones south and west shading from the hot sun; and often none to the north protecting against winter winds. Openings aligned for maximum air circulation and early houses relied on interior shutters to enclose windows, while wooden sash multi-paned windows were used later. Ground floor street windows were protected by shutters or a screen of turned wooden spindles, sometimes projecting a few feet into the street on low walls.
Along with high street walls, characteristic to St. Augustine were loggias and balconies. Loggias, outdoor areas within the mass of the house, provided a shaded area for adjacent rooms to capture light and breezes without being unduly warmed by the sun. Shaded in summer and protected in winter, loggias naturally cooled and warmed adjacent rooms along the private garden façades. Smaller balconies projected about five feet from the second floor wall on the public street façade, providing a safe, private view of the street as well as shade.
While first using palm for roofs and techniques from local Seminole Indians, later builders used durable local materials to form walls of tabby (a mixture of oyster shells, sand, gravel and lime) or locally quarried coquina, both often covered with lime wash. Local rot-resistant woods, such as Cypress, made clapboards, roof shingles, balcony supports, railings, grilles, and plank or paneled doors. Evidence shows clay tiles were used for roofs as prosperity increased, but it is not known how widely. Wrought iron nails, hinges, and knobs ornamented doors and shutters. St. Augustine’s architecture was one of extreme contrasts thick solid walls and delicate screens, bright sunlit surfaces and dark deep shadows.
What is known of St. Augustine’s colonial architecture comes from extant buildings much modified over the years, period texts, and archaeology. Much can never be known, but what is known shows how useful and adaptable traditional architecture can be. Adapted from Spain for a new place, the traditions of St. Augustine met universal human needs for shelter, safety, economy and beauty. The definitive text on St. Augustine’s residential architecture is Albert Manucy’s The Houses of St. Augustine 1565 – 1821. These books and more on America’s traditional domestic architecture and classical architecture may be found at my online bookshop.
Copyright for all images and text, unless in the public domain or otherwise noted, Christine G. H. Franck, Inc.