Riverfront Enclave: Historic Old Town Fernandina
By Wendy Lawson
Historic "Downes House" (Where Pippi Longstocking Movie Filmed)
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. (April 22, 2011) — A little world of its own, Old Town Fernandina is a snug enclave of dwellings at water’s edge, located on a bluff above the Amelia River. The waterfront neighborhood near the northern tip of Amelia Island on its western side includes historic homes dating to the mid-1800s. It’s a community of “Peonia” lots platted by the Spanish back in 1811, and just celebrated its 200th year during a special bicentennial celebration. This historic town’s design is what “New Urbanism” communities in contemporary times aim to replicate.
It’s the proximity to the water and the heritage that seems to attract newcomers. Folks living here can literally get from bed to boat in a matter of minutes by foot. For those who appreciate history and love getting out on the water, whether for pleasure cruising or fishing, Old Town is an ideal location to drop anchor, with two marinas on Egan’s Creek located alongside this historic area (Tiger Point and the 14th Street Marina).
Natives who lived off the land and water thousands of years ago, the Timucuan Indians, chose the Old Town site for settlement. In contemporary times, those with a penchant for historic preservation and restoring significant old homes, have revived the former dwellings of ship captains and river dwellers who settled here in the mid-19th century and made their livings from the water. Later in the 20th century, some Old Town residents were Pogy fishermen or employed by the nearby paper mill.
Oyster shell middens, remnants of Timucuan life here, reveal the long story of human presence in Old Town. A recent archaeological dig unearthed an artifact thought to be approximately 4,000 years old. The top layer of soil, about 12 inches deep, (largely oyster shell discards) represented 1,000 years of former life in this northwestern area of Amelia Island, Florida. Today, anyone taking a river cruise at low tide will still see an abundance of live oyster beds along the muddy riverbanks at Old Town’s doorstep.
Fernandina’s Old Town site is very unique, being the only Spanish town in Florida with the original site plat remaining. Old Town was also the very last Spanish city platted in the Western Hemisphere. According to the University of Florida “the Old Town grid remains as one of the last and purest examples of the Law of the Indies planning Edict of 1573.”
THE HISTORIC TOWN LESS TRAVELED, OLD TOWN FERNANDINA, HOME TO THE RIVER DWELLERS
With Old Town tucked a bit off the beaten path, the main tourist traffic of Fernandina Beach lands on Centre Street, a bit south on the river, the “downtown” historic district known for its Victorian-era architecture and anchored by the Fernandina Harbor Marina.
Far less traveled are the coquina roads of Old Town (surfaced with a sedimentary rock and shell mix). Marking 200 years since its establishment, Old Town Fernandina has just celebrated its bicentennial in April 2011 with an event-packed day of activities focusing on the area’s Spanish heritage (read more about the wonderful bicentennial celebration further below). This small community up river about half a mile from the tourist corridor of Centre Street is actually the original site of the city of Fernandina (which was later moved a bit down river to its present location). Old Town Fernandina is another historic district on Amelia Island (on the National Register of Historic Places), in addition to the downtown Fernandina historic district.
OLD TOWN, LONG HISTORY OF PAST CIVILIZATION ON AMELIA ISLAND
Fernandina Plaza in Old Town Fernandina has the longest history of past civilization on this northeast Florida barrier island. Spanish colonists established a mission here dating back to 1696 (read related article, “Moments in History, Gregor MacGregor Captures Amelia Island.”) And as noted above, long before Spanish explorers arrived, as early as 2000-1000 B.C., the Timucuan Indians recognized its bounty, establishing a camp here.
Constructed of wood and earth, the Spanish Fort San Carlos was built on the riverfront here in 1816. Today, a large grassy lawn, known as Fernandina Plaza (designated a Florida State Park in 1941), offers one of the most scenic waterfront views available on this barrier island. While Fernandina Plaza is a state park, don’t expect park benches and picnic tables — you won’t find any here. It’s a wide open, empty lawn offering an amazing waterfront view with a historical marker.
WATERFRONT LIVING IN OLD TOWN, IDEAL FOR MARINERS
One need only step out onto the rear porch of the historic Riverside Cottage in Old Town, with its amazing view of the Amelia River (see photo gallery), to understand the lure of this special spot on Amelia Island, Florida.
Another example of Old Town waterfront living is the wonderful riverfront view from the front porch of the historic Captain Sharpe House (see photo gallery).
Then there’s the Swearingen House, flanking Egan’s Creek near the marinas, built for a harbor pilot (now owned by an architect). Julia Starr Sanford (Starr Sanford Design of Amelia Island) developed a master plan for the Old Town lots, renovated the Swearingen House, and has new home designs suitable for Old Town’s Peonia lots (and has also designed additions to existing historic homes). An architectural photographer was a host at the Swearingen House during the bicentennial celebration day tour (and he welcomed visitors to take photos of the interior).
For those who love historic homes, “Tidewater Amelia,” is an ideal coffee table book, offering a stunning, comprehensive collection of interior photos of historic homes and buildings of Amelia Island, Cumberland Island, St. Marys and Fort George Island, by Jan H. Johannes. Along with their fascinating history, this in-depth presentation of 186 pages includes six homes of Old Town (and can be purchased at book stores in downtown Fernandina).
Impossible to miss when passing through Old Town is the Captain’s House (also known as the” Downes House”). This historic home borders the Fernandina Plaza and can clearly be seen from the river boats passing by, with its high tower and gabled dormers. Locals often call it the “Pippi Longstocking” house since the late 1980s when the movie was filmed on location at the home. (It’s currently undergoing a major renovation, and was not available for tour at the bicentennial.) I couldn’t help but notice the empty lot next door offering the same beautiful waterfront view, with a “For Sale By Owner” sign, asking $198,000. There are also other Old Town lots and homes available for purchase (anyone in the market for a property can call an Amelia Island Realtor for more information).
& SQUARES CALLED A “PEONIA” IN THE LAW OF THE INDIES
The Old Town lot grid is comprised of square and rectangular blocks. There are two sized lots for building homes, Peonia (sized 46’6” by 93’) and smaller media Peonia lots, 46’6’ squares. While some homes of this river town date back to the 1850s, a few newcomers have built homes in the past 20 years, including replicas reflecting historic architecture. The Victorian Sea Cottage with its carriage house is fine example of a home built in Old Town in 2001 honoring the area’s history. Along with new construction, the owner’s implemented authentic features such as old doors, leaded windows, and wood salvaged from other historic homes of the correct period
1811 TO 2011, OLD TOWN FERNANDINA BICENTENNIAL
There was a big local effort to pull this event together including folks who live in Old Town (particularly Mike and Jennifer Harrison), a force of volunteers, the Amelia Island Museum of History, and participation by many local organizations. There were educational activities and a nature tour. Visitors had the rare opportunity to tour three ship captains’ homes and two cottages of the mid-19th century, as well as the Victorian Sea Cottage built a decade ago (noted above) and the adjacent Spanish cemetery, Bosque Bello.
Live Spanish music and dancers entertained on the riverfront stage with the magnificent backdrop of a sailboat regatta, their white sails gleaming against the blue waters of the Amelia River. The costumed Fernandina Pirates Club were out in force, invading and roaming the plaza along with historic re-enactors welcoming folks to homes and recalling the history and stories of Old Town. Members of the Florida Public Archaeological Network busily dug in the ground, slicing through layers of time. The Amelia Island Boules Club played Petanque on the crushed shell surface of a street alongside the plaza, a ready-made surface ideal for their game. Amelia Island Trolleys provided free shuttle rides around Old Town, with Fernandina Beach High School students aboard, volunteer tour guides. Captain Kevin McCarthy of Amelia River Cruises , brought folks back and forth all day between the Fernandina Harbor river to a marina dock at Old Town, giving free ferry rides to kids and seniors and just $5 bucks round trip for everyone else. Kudos to all these folks who helped orchestrate this high quality, educational event here on Amelia Island. I wouldn’t be surprised if this island one day adds another festival to its annual calendar showcasing Old Town Fernandina. The 2011 celebration attracted around 3,000 people. An Old Town Festival could mirror the excellent agenda of the bicentennial celebration day.
For those who relish history but have never ventured into this old town less traveled, remember to see it when visiting Amelia Island. Those with a keen interest in historic preservation may also like to review an in-depth study by the University of Florida College of Architecture, Preservation Institute: Caribbean, “Old Town Fernandina Preservation and Development Guide” (a downloadable PDF file on the city of Fernandina’s web site). Anyone with an interest to further investigate building a new home in this historic district will naturally have to follow some strict building design guidelines in place to preserve this significant slice of America’s past. Also visit the Old Town Fernandina website for further information.
DIRECTIONS TO OLD TOWN FERNANDINA ON AMELIA ISLAND, FLORIDA
To drive to Old Town, turn onto North 14th Street from Atlantic Avenue in Fernandina Beach and continue past the entries to the paper mill and Bosque Bello Cemetery. Old Town is on the left, just before the 14th Street Bridge and the two marinas on Egans Creek — Tiger Point Marina and the 14th Street Marina.