Living History at the Colonial Quarter

by Bailey McCune

image1Taking up two acres of historic Saint Augustine’s downtown district, Colonial Quarter offers guests an immersive experience through three centuries of Saint Augustine’s history. The attraction hosts several authentic architectural structures, most notably a Spanish ship (currently being built), a blacksmith’s shop, and a soldier’s home, amongst several others. While guests are free to roam and explore as they please, the Historical Adventure Tour (which is included in the price of admission) provides a guided journey through the attraction along with a spirited narration of Saint Augustine’s storied history. Interestingly enough, Colonial Quarter, too, has its own history. Originally opening in 1963 as the Colonial Spanish Quarter, the living history museum was forced to reconceptualize after the city closed it after losing $750,000 in 2011. After a multi-million dollar investment, Colonial Quarter opened in 2012. From then until present it still remains one of Saint Augustine’s signature attractions. Despite its reinvigoration, Colonial Quarter is severely stunted in its potential for growth. This is due to two specific factors; its limited real estate and the plethora of competing historical attractions.

Colonial Quarter’s location directly on Saint George Street makes it perfectly accessible to the abundance of tourists that frequent the popular shopping and sight-seeing destination. In exchange for its prime location, however, Colonial Quarter is significantly limited in size. Despite being a relative norm amongst the majority of Saint Augustine’s attractions, it proves especially challenging for Colonial Quarter. As previously mentioned, the attraction is already quite full with architectural structures where guests can explore. Unfortunately, that limits the potential for newer and exciting attractions which translates to a lack of repeat visitors. If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all. One way to combat this issue would be to reorganize the pathways so that guests move chronologically and coherently through the various landmarks and demonstrations. As it stands, guests exploring without the aid of a tour guide are forced to wander aimlessly from point to point due to the unorganized pathways which can further lead to confusion in regards to the chronological fluidity of the exhibits. By simply adjusting the location of the pathways and the exhibits, it would not only allow for easier historical comprehension but could potentially make space available for more exciting attractions.

The other factor inhibiting Colonial Quarter’s ability to progress comes from the fact that it is forced to compete with the excess of other attractions within the area. Despite its well-intentioned mission of preserving and sharing Saint Augustine’s history, this, of course, requires financial backing. It is a business, after all. Being in close proximity to several of Saint Augustine’s other leading attractions, Colonial Quarter is obligated to contend with them for guests’ patronage. This is a fact well known to Colonial Quarter, as demonstrated by several subtle jests towards the competing businesses that our tour guide made. Fortunately, Colonial Quarter has adapted to this challenging by diversifying its business with its two restaurants, the Taberna Del Caballo and the Bull and Crown Publick House, along with the concerts that it hosts on its main stage in order to attract tourists and locals alike. Still, Colonial Quarter has the potential to be much more than what it currently is. Although the historical demonstrations and structures are interesting, the entire attraction lacks any true spectacle. The Watchtower serves as its visual cue, but it deserves nothing more than a glance. The pathways are illogical and poorly maintained along with the seating arrangements for the demonstration areas. Perhaps before looking towards the horizon Colonial Quarter should improve its current assets. Despite this highly critical analysis Colonial Quarter, it does have one feature that makes it stand out amongst Saint Augustine’s other historical attractions. Colonial Quarter’s strongest attribute lies in the quality of its guided tour.

image2As previously mentioned, the option for the guided tour is included in the price of admission. Tours meet every 1:30 hours from 10:30-3:00. The dynamic tour guide not only educates but entertains guests as he or she guides them through the facility. The tour stops at several (but not all) of the major sites within Colonial Quarter while promoting further exploration after the tour. It also includes two demonstrations of ironworking and flintlock pistol firing. Although the tour is very euro-centric, there are several mentions of the other groups of minorities that inhabited Saint Augustine. The tour concludes with a walk under all of the flags that flew over the city, making for a nice transition from past to present. The material itself is quite brief due to the fact that the tour is roughly forty minutes. Even so, it still allows for a basic comprehension of Saint Augustine’s story while not consuming the entirety of the tourists’ day.

Colonial Quarter is just a microcosm of Saint Augustine’s historic district as a whole. Indeed, Colonial Quarter is very much designed for the tourist in mind. Sharon Gmelch broadly defines tourism as “temporary travel for the purpose of experiencing a change” (Gmelch 5). Saint Augustine’s most attractive feature is its history, as demonstrated by the fact that tourism makes up the largest sector of the city’s economy. Therefore, preserving Saint Augustine’s historic identity is of paramount concern. Fittingly, this has caused a rift between the tourists and the locals that populate the town. While tourists come to the city to immerse themselves in history, locals are forced to cater to their presence in the present. This includes purposely avoiding the historic district all-together. On the other hand, many locals depend on the tourists for their income. The commodification of Saint Augustine’s history has seemingly nullified it as a source of local identity and instead shifted it as a means of economic gain. Based on this, the interpretation of Saint Augustine changes. To a tourist, Saint Augustine is seen as a historic relic. To a local, Saint Augustine is a product to be sold. This is where the value of historic attractions such as Colonial Quarter come from. They satisfy the needs of both the tourist and the local. Saint Augustine, like Colonial Quarter, is living history. It preserves the past while maintaining the present. In doing so, Saint Augustine has a future.

Resources:

Sharon Bohn Gmelch, Tourists and Tourism: A Reader, Waveland Press (2009).

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