Fernandina Beach House Investigation

Fernandina Beach is on Amelia Island, the southernmost of the Sea Islands and at the northernmost point of Florida’s Atlantic coast.  Once a bustling 19th century port, today it’s a quaint town with small shops and Victorian-era houses. Just north of Fernandina Beach lies Old Town, the town’s original site before it was moved in 1853. It was here a few of my classmates and I spent a February day investigating the age of an old house slated for demolition.

Old Town was platted in 1811 according to the Law of the Indies, an urban plan used by Spain for its colonial towns. According to a windshield survey in the 1980s, this house may have dated to the island’s Spanish rule, which ended in 1821. Thus, it was referred to as “The Oldest House in Fernandina.” A man bought the property in 2002 for $150,000 and planned to raze the dilapidated house to build a new one. In 2005, the house was found to be the former home of key figures in the black community in the early 1900s, and there were cries to restore it for use as a Gullah history museum. The owner was patient and agreed to give time so funding could be found to move the house.

But all the talk to preserve the house was just that — talk. In January, the demolition permit was issued and the University of Florida was allowed to come in and determine once and for all if 801 Somerulus was as old as advertised.

Here’s a news article.

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Isn't it great looking? To be fair, it had not be occupied since at least the mid-1980s.

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The house was situated on Plaza San Marcos, the square the town was platted around.

The house was situated on the Plaza San Marcos, the open land the town was formed around in 1811. Its location was one of the reasons it was believed to have been so old. However, the house was situated facing away from the plaza, indicating a later construction date.

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Here's the orginal map with a yellow dot showing where the house was located. Photo courtesy of http://www.oldtownfernandina.org.

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The corner posts had mortise and tenon joints.

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The wood block piers had been squared by hand. Apparently a large snake called this area home.

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More timber framing with carpenter's marks were found in the upper story.

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The fireplace bricks were kilned by hand and held together with lime mortar. Notice the bead board to the right.

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Machine-cut lumber and cut nails.

To sum up, the house was believed to be from the early 1800s because:

  • it was located along the plaza;
  • hand-sawn wood blocks were found in its foundation;
  • it had mortise and tenon posts;
  • it had mortise and tenon framing in the attic;
  • and it had hand-kilned bricks in its fireplace held together with lime mortar.

It may not have been the oldest because:

  • it was situated facing away from the plaza, not toward it;
  • the foundation blocks could’ve been reused;
  • the mortise and tenon posts could’ve been reused;
  • the mortise and tenon rafters weren’t situated in the order of their numbers, indicating they had been reused;
  • the bricks could’ve been reused;
  • the house had some balloon framing, a popular post Civil War construction technique;
  • it was full of cut nails, another post Civil War development;
  • and most of it consisted of 20th century construction materials such as beadboard.

But the clincher for it being a later construction date was when we found out a powerful hurricane in 1898 did a lot of damage in Fernandina and leveled many houses. Fernandina being on an island, the residents no doubt would have reused materials when rebuilding. Armed with this knowledge, we were confident that while the house  had parts that could’ve dated to the Spanish period, it was probably built around 1900.

Bonus: When putting this entry together, I found photos of the house being deconstructed. It’s good to know that despite the house’s awful condition, a lot of the materials were salvaged.

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Courtesy of SJ Mowery.

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Who knew there was such an amazing frame underneath? Courtesy of SJ Mowery.

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Going. Courtesy of SJ Mowery.

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Going. Courtesy of SJ Mowery.

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Gone. Courtesy of SJ Mowery.

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