St. Augustine Historian Lectures in the Renovated Water Works Building


Historian David Nolan addressed an audience of nearly 100 people on May 5 in the Historic St. Augustine Water Works Buildingrecently renovated by the city and rented a few months ago by the St. Johns Cultural Council.

Nolan’s “Cultural Lights of St. Augustine,” a conference in partnership with the Friends of the Main Library and the Cultural Council, spotlighted famous authors, artists, and musicians who have lived in or visited St. Augustine over the years – and have left their mark on the cultural landscape of the oldest city in the country.

He recalls attending other cultural events in the Water Works building when it served as space for the St. Augustine Garden Club, such as a Tom Paxston concert in the 1960s. The singer-songwriter had well-known songs such as “The Last Thing on My Mind”, “Bottle of Wine”, “Whose Garden was This” and “Ramblin’ Boy”.

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“I always think of him when I pass by along San Marco Avenue,” Nolan said.

Nolan also spoke on the same stage 30 years ago for a Garden Club event, celebrating the 200th anniversary of William Bartram’s ‘Travels’, published in 1779, which highlights his travels in the southern states United States, including St. Augustine and St. Johns County, and his encounters with Native Americans between 1773 and 1777. The sites he visited here are part of the Bartram Trail, with historical markers in these areas, as well as schools, parks and neighborhoods named after William Bartram.

Nolan said author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was an admirer of Bartram. Rawlings moved to the St. Augustine area when she purchased a house in Crescent Beach that was originally built in the 1930s.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is best known for her book, "The Yearling." Photo courtesy of the Florida Memory Project

“But Marjorie not only lived there, she bought it with money from ‘The Yearling,’ which was the No. 1 best-selling novel of 1938 and the No. 6 best-selling novel of 1939, and which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,” Nolan said.

“She lived in Cross Creek, which is in the proverbial ‘middle of nowhere’ and when she had some money she did the first thing Floridians do, she bought herself a house on the beach. It was a simple cottage at Crescent Beach.

Rawlings had previously rented the cabin and had written one of his favorite stories there, “The Pelican’s Shadow”, which was published on January 6, 1940 in The New Yorker.

“She was visited there by a sort of who’s who of international literature…Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Dylan Thomas.”

A friendship blooms

Author Hurston was born in Alabama but grew up in Eatonville, Florida. She visited and lived in St. Augustine many times during the 1920s through the 1940s. She depicted the racial struggles of the early 1900s in the American South. The most popular of his four novels is “Their eyes looked at God”, published in 1937.

His autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road”, was completed just before the attack on Pearl Harbor and revised in St. Augustine. The book won the 1942 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, sponsored by Saturday Review magazine, for its contribution to race relations. He was tapped by the wife of a local dentist in St. Augustine.

Zora Neale Hurston moved to Eau Gallie in Melbourne, Florida in 1929 and wrote "Mules and men," published in 1935.

“Zora had many skills, but typing wasn’t necessarily one of them,” Nolan explained. “So one day at a sporting event at Florida Memorial (a college in St. Augustine where she taught briefly), she leaned over to a man next to her and said she was looking for someone. one who could type. This man was Dr. Rudolph Gordan, a local black dentist, and he told her that his wife could type.

So Rosie Gordon Mills, who lived to be about 100 years old, had been visited by many authors over the years, who wanted to tell her about Hurston. More than 30 books have been written about her since her death in 1960.

Nolan spoke of Hurston’s well-known friendship with Rawlings, which was documented in a play called “A Tea Party with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston”, written by English teacher and Florida A&M playwright Barbara Speisman in 1986. .

Nolan told the story of Rawlings inviting Hurston to tea at Warden Castle (now Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum), which was owned by Norton Baskin, who became Rawlings’ husband in 1941.

“Norton ran a hotel in Ocala and Rawlings became an investor in Castle Warden,” Nolan said. “They opened it and got married in St. Augustine at the old St. Johns County Courthouse, which is now a parking lot at the corner of Charlotte and Treasury streets.”

Hurston had invited Rawlings to speak to his class during summer school at the Florida Memorial. As a thank you, Rawlings invited Hurston for tea.

Zora Neale Hurston was an author and anthropologist from Eatonville, Florida, who through her work depicted racial struggles in the early 20th century in the South.  Hurston died in 1960 and many of her works were not appreciated until more than 15 years after her death.

“And then Marjorie came back and said ‘Oops,’ because the castle caretaker was a separate hotel and one of the happy hour regulars was General Edmund Kirby Smith’s daughter,” Nolan explained.

“So she went to her husband and said, ‘I may have created a little trouble’, but Norton said he would have someone take Hurston to the elevator and walk away. go before the Confederate general’s daughter comes in…”

This plan was changed when Hurston went to the hotel kitchen and was taken to Rawlings’ apartment, where they chatted and quickly became friends.

Notables of St. Augustine

Nolan’s lecture also included an overview and history of artist Martin Johnson Heade, who lived in St. Augustine before Henry Flagler arrived, and continued in Flagler’s artist colony. His paintings now sell for over a million dollars at auction.

He talked about illustrator Randolph Caldecott, who is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in St. Augustine. The British author and illustrator came to Florida due to poor health and died aged 40. The Caldecott Medal was established in 1937 by the American Library Association and annually honors illustrators of children’s books.

Nolan also talked about black artist Jacob Lawrence, who was in St. Augustine at the WWII training facility at Flagler College, and became famous for his War series artwork.

Musical figures in St. Augustine included composer Frederick Delius, who came to St. Augustine in 1884 to direct an orange grove and was influenced by African-American farmworker music, and later became a famous composer in Paris.

Performer Ray Charles was a student at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind from 1937 to 1946, often struggling for leaving campus and performing in bars in the Lincolnville neighborhood of downtown St. Augustine. A piano he played around this time is on display at the Lincolnville Cultural Center and Museum.

The late Ray Charles performs at the piano during the recording of "Ray Charles: 50 years of music, uh," a musical gala to benefit the Starlight/Starbright Foundation in Pasadena, California on September 20, 1991.

Nolan lectures on historical, architectural and literary subjects. He received the Council of Florida Libraries’ annual author’s award for his first book, “Fifty Feet in Paradise.” In 1995 he collaborated with artist Jean Ellen Fitzpatrick and photographer Ken Barrett to produce “The Houses of St. Augustine”, a bestselling book about the ancient city and its historic buildings.

He was one of the founders of ACCORD, a group designed to honor participants in Saint Augustine during the civil rights movementand in 2009, he received both the Governor’s Points of Light Award for outstanding community service and the President’s Volunteer Service Award, presented by President Barack Obama on the 45th anniversary of the passage of the civil rights.

The Water Works building was originally constructed in 1898 as a pumping station and used until 1926 for this purpose. After that, it was converted into a community center, which housed the Little Theater of St. Augustine, the St. Augustine Art Association, the St. Augustine Garden Club, and the Fire Camp Girls over the years.

Community and artistic events will take place in the space, coordinated by the SJCC. Upcoming events include A Classic Theater’s “The Immigrant,” on stage May 6-8 and May 13-15. Learn more about


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