It’s no great secret to anyone who knows me that St Augustine “talks” to me. Some parts of the city talk to me a little more “strongly” than others, and one of the places where I enjoy listening is the Gonzales-Alvarez House; more commonly known as The Oldest House.
In the old city, it’s easy to hear voices, feel energies and become almost a part of the history that lies over St Augustine like a rare and cherished handwoven tapestry. The tapestry that is The Gonzales-Alvarez House is woven of stories of desperation, of prosperity, and of survival.
I have haunted this beautiful house on St Francis Street for years. I think I know every inch of it, for this house fills my thoughts so when I am not in the city and I often visit it more than once when I am. Of course I have read Miss Eugenia Price’s Maria, many people who visit The Oldest House do. But I have also spent hours in the St Augustine Historical Society Research Library, soaking up everything I could find about Maria, who is better known in St Augustine as Mary Evans Peavett. Getting to know Mrs Peavett has been a pleasure to me; she is one of my favorite St Augustine historical figures.
I never tire of visiting Mary’s house. It is beautifully kept and lovingly maintained by the St Augustine Historical Society. The house itself is a jewel in a perfect setting, a priceless and wonderfully preserved part of St Augustine’s history. The gardens are immaculately manicured and weddings are frequently held there. The Oldest House gardens are a perfect, romantic setting for a wedding.
Mary’s house whispers to me, and in some strange way I feel connected to it. I can always feel the presence of the people who lived in the house, not just Mary and Joseph Peavett, but Tomas and Francisca Gonzales, the first people we know of who lived in the house. Back then, early in the seventeenth century, the house was just a plain box with a flat roof on St Francis Street. But when Tomas and Francisca lived in it, it evolved from a wood structure with a thatch roof into a handsome 2-room coquina “mansion” with a flat roof and a tabby floor. Here, the Gonzales family lived until England took possession of St Augustine in 1763 and all Spanish residents were ordered to leave. Francisca, now an old woman, had to pack her belongings and help her grown children do the same, and leave the home she had lived in all her married life, for Havana.
What were Francisca’s thoughts as she prepared to leave the home in which she had raised her children? How did she choose what to take along and what to leave behind? I often wonder what went through her mind as she closed her door for the last time and walked up the street to a ship that would take her to a place she’d never been and knew nothing about. Even now, so many years later, my heart aches for her. Once again, history teaches us that nothing is ever permanent; nothing is ever a “sure thing.” No doubt Francisca expected to live out her last days in her house, surrounded by her family, and prepared for her final rest by the loving hands of her children. But a political event thousands of miles from her in a place of which she had never heard changed her life forever.
In 1775, the Peavetts bought the house and had it remodeled to their tastes. The tiny, flat-roofed, two-room coquina house where Francisca and Tomas had raised six of their ten children would not do for an important military man like Joseph and his wife Mary, who was a highly-sought-after midwife in the tiny colony. So the couple had a second story added, with a shingled roof. They designed their improvements so they could live privately upstairs, and they opened a tavern downstairs in the Gonzales family’s old living area. Together, Joseph and Mary accumulated a lot of land, a lot of slaves and a lot of money. When Joseph died in 1786, Mary was left quite wealthy.
Mary lost most of her wealth in the following few years when she married John Hudson, a n’er do-well and a compulsive gambler. She died in 1792; not poor but not as wealthy as she could have been, for John Hudson cost her most of the fortune she and Joseph had accumulated including the St Francis Street house. The house was auctioned to the highest bidder to help pay John’s gambling debts. That bidder was Geronimo Alvarez, baker for the government hospital.
Alvarez and his young wife, Antonia Venz, moved in. Tomas and Francisca were probably long gone by then, but their son, Hipolito Gonzales, returned to St Augustine. He never regained ownership of his family’s home but he witnessed the deed tranferring ownership to the Alvarez family. Most likely, he watched Geronimo and Antonia, and their children Antonio and Teresa, move into the house in which he grew up.
Antonia Venz Alvarez died very young, and Geronimo had to hire help to care for his children for he was becoming politically active in St Augustine. As his son, Antonio, matured, he also became politically active in his family’s city. Antonio Alvarez served several terms as city treasurer and also as mayor.
Geronimo Alvarez died in 1846, but he left evidence of his life not only in his house on St Francis Street, but also at his church: the bell in the topmost niche in the Cathedral of St Augustine is his gift to us all.
My favorite part of the house is Tomas and Francisca’s part, the downstairs small rooms. Hard to imagine, but a family of eight lived, worked, and died here. Francisca actually bore ten children but only six of them lived to adulthood. The St Augustine Historical Society has carefully preserved the “look” of Tomas and Francisca’s house. The simple tabby floors and sparse furnishings, sleeping mats and essential items for everyday living seem almost poverty-level on the surface but when you look beneath the surface you see that their very simple needs were straightforward and easily met. I love to visit the house in the afternoons, when sunlight slants through the windows onto the floor. I wonder if Francisca noticed the sunlight too, as she swept and tidied her family’s home.
Upstairs, Mary Peavett must be still silently moving through her house and sitting in her parlor reading one of her many books, for the rooms certainly look as though she has simply stepped out to go see if there is anything interesting for dinner at the town market. The Alvarez influence is here as well; the table in the dining room is set for an Alvarez meal. Upstairs, the influence of the other owners of the house can also be seen – the house has been carefully decorated and presented to represent each period in its history.
Out back, in the gardens, the small detached kitchen is a lovely example of a detached St Augustine kitchen. It is quite well-appointed for such a kitchen; and its oven was rather modern for its day. Paths through the garden invite a slow stroll and reflection on what it had to have been like to actually live in this house. With the addition of horses’ hooves clopping along the street as the sightseeing carriages pass by, it almost becomes necessary to drag yourself back into the 21st century.
It is a warm and intimate feeling, to be able to spend a short time in Francisca’s and Mary’s house; step across the floors they walked on, and almost hear their thoughts as you feel the air of the old house touch your skin. It is one of the best places I have found in St Augustine to get as close as possible to the people who helped the city survive, and live to tell its own stories.