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St. Augustine - America’s Oldest is Florida’s Bestest

Written by  Professor Barry Goldsmith

In Florida, eschew the Magic Kingdom for a city whose history is part of two real kingdoms, Spain and Great Britain. St. Augustine showcases America’s Spanish and British Colonial Pasts - and even the past of Imperial France. Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Prince Charles Louis Napoleon Achille Murat, lived in St. Augustine’s “Murat House.”

(Murat was married to George Washington’s niece.) Some sites here are so old they belong in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! For example: America’s oldest house, the 16th-century Gonzalez-Alvarez House; America’s Oldest Wood Schoolhouse (1716); The Avero House, (St. Photios Church) home to America’s oldest Greek Orthodox colony (1768); Aviles Street is the oldest documented street in the US. St. Augustine is even home to America’s oldest permanent “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”! St. Augustine has historic forts: Castillo San Marcos, 17th century, Fort Matanzas, 18th century - and the recently discovered ruins of Fort Mose. In 1693 Spain granted freedom to slaves from British colonies  and Fort St. Mose became their home in 1738 - thereby the first legally-recognized, free-African settlement (in what was to become) the US. St. Augustine even has great (pre-statehood) American buildings. The Markland Mansion (1839) can go head to head in antebellum style with any great pre-Civil War Southern plantation. If you like New England’s coastal city Newport (RI), you’ll love St. Augustine. Like Newport, St. Augustine has many colonial buildings - Spanish colonial (and one British colonial - The King’s Bakery). If you like the Gilded Age mansions on Newport’s coastal bluffs, you must visit St. Augustine’s great Gilded Age architecture - not merely mansions, but Gilded Age hotels- including one you can actually book. St. Augustine’s three most famous Gilded Age hotels were built by a railroad baron, Henry M. Flagler, who was a founder of Standard Oil (along with John D. Rockefeller). Flagler’s elegant Ponce de Leon Hotel (1888) had its electricity installation personally supervised by Thomas A. Edison and its glass designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. (Today’s it’s Flagler College). Alacazar Hotel (1887) is today’s Lightner Museum - featuring a desk that belonged to a Napoleon as well as a famous Carpeaux sculpture. Casa Monica Hotel was recently restored and once again welcomes guests who can personally experience America’s Gilded Age extravagance - except this time with 21st-century air-conditioning.

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