Workers Unearth Relics at Site of New St. Augustine Hotel

Fri July 11, 2003 - Southeast Edition
Cynthia W. Wright

Construction began on a new hotel in the 15th century historic district of America’s oldest city, St. Augustine, FL.

On March 25, crews broke ground on the $6.2-million Hilton Garden Inn, located between Fort St. Augustine and the Bridge of Lions. 

The two-story, 73-room hotel, complete with an underground parking garage, is situated on the bayfront. Compass Group Inc., Amelia Island, FL, is heading up the project.

“This structure will be one-of-a-kind. When completed, April 25, 2004, there will be 19 inter-connected buildings with hallways and courtyards. Each will be different so that it looks like a village out of the 15th century.” said Ken Kazia, project manager of Compass Group Inc.

“Our policy is to put everything on our subcontractors.  They supply their own equipment. We neither rent, lease or own equipment. We only have a superintendent and an assistant on the job site, but workers are there five to sixdays per week.”

St. Augustine is one of the few cities to have an archaeology ordinance, affecting approximately a third of the city. Carl Halbirt, city archaeologist and steward of its past, worked in conjunction with construction crews to preserve what they could of ancient treasures.

“This project actually offered an opportunity to explore this area, which had not been possible before,” said Halbirt. “We learned a lot about how this city developed.

“Before construction began we dug holes inside the Monson’s floors. We found a series of old colonial house foundations with multiple levels of floors. There were over 200 archeological features — trash pits, wells and remnants of activities.

“Once construction started we were monitoring the work.  There was great cooperation between all concerned. As construction workers uncovered objects, we excavated and documented them. There was a military breast-plate from an enlisted man’s uniform dating back to the second Seminole war [1835 to 1842]. We also discovered hundreds of broken, yet reconstructable pottery vessels which previously had been rare in that area. 

“Many artifacts will go on display either in the city, or the new Hilton Garden Inn,” Halbirt added.

“We also unearthed historic Baya Lane, one of the alleyways that ran east/west, and was about half the width [8 ft. wide] of commercial streets. It had been buried and covered in the early 1900s.  It has been reconstructed, along with some other historic structures, from old photographs. We also found archeological deposits associated with Charlotte Street which is on the West side of the site.”

Jerry Dixon, head of Dixon Associates, designed the building to overcome objections, and make it aesthetically pleasing.  It took two and a half years to get approval.

“St. Augustine is not only hugely historic, the Monson had been the location where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested in June of 1964, when the old inn had been humming with civil rights activities.

“We remained true to the ambiance of the past using similar details,” recalled Dixon. “During the first Spanish period, the buildings were one-story and usually stuccoed with coquina. The British arrived and added wood second stories. The Spanish returned needing larger houses, and added on to the originals.

“No building has been more than 2,500 square feet.  That’s footprint now. We were grandfathered because there was an existing structure of 45,000 square feet.

“We’re using masonry block, but do have some coquina, and we have some wood siding on the second floor. Colors will be appropriate to that era. We took into consideration that restrictions do not allow the tallest peak of a roof to exceed 35 feet. Credit goes to Hilton for allowing us to modify appearance to fit the scheme while meeting its high standards,” Dixon said.

“Owner Kanti Patel, recognizing the importance of history to his community, also was highly cooperative with the plan.

“Another challenge was that also in this district you can’t provide off-street parking. That’s in place in order to preserve old buildings.  We designed the first underground parking in the district.  It will basically be below sea level. It can be compared to an underground boat with a waterproof barrier that will hold vehicles. Bentonite, a type of clay made especially for this kind of project, will be implemented.” 

Residents’ concerns of preserving the city’s heritage, while developing in a manner that satisfies almost everyone, is being accomplished with this construction. A construction that’s making history.