Peónia Lots Platted By Spanish Colonists
Old Town Fernandina is a community of “peónia” lots platted by the Spanish in 1811, sized 46.5 by 93 feet. It’s a rare place in the Sunshine State as the only Spanish town in Florida with the original site plat remaining. On earth, it’s even more remarkable, as the very last Spanish city platted in the Western Hemisphere.
According to the University of Florida, Fernandina’s “Old Town grid remains as one of the last and purest examples of the Law of the Indies planning Edict of 1573.”
The top photo above was taken from Old Town’s Fernandina Plaza, part of the Florida State Park system. This spot offers a panoramic waterfront view overlooking the Amelia River. The wooden bench was placed at the plaza in 2011 to commemorate Old Town’s bicentennial.
New Home Building In Old Town Fernandina
With the rising real estate market of recent years, there’s been a surge in new home construction happening in Old Town Fernandina. New homes have been built on lots that previously sat vacant for more than 200 years in this historic old neighborhood. (More about new construction in Old Town further is below).
$48,000 Grant For Old Town Review
In July 2020, the city of Fernandina Beach approved an updated review of Old Town Fernandina’s Spanish grid. The reexamination will also create a new publication with information about community protection guidelines as well as Old Town’s history. The University of Florida will complete the project, via a $48,000 grant through the Florida Department of Historic Preservation.
Old Town Preservation & Development Guidelines
Previous Old Town preservation guidelines dating back to 1999 had been completed by the University of Florida’s Preservation Institute (a program of the College of Architecture). Another update was done in 2013 by Thomason and Associates Preservation Planners.
Original Site Of Fernandina
For those unfamiliar with this northwestern area on Amelia Island, Old Town, located off North 14 Street is actually the original site of Fernandina. When David Levy Yulee was planning the first Florida cross-state railroad from Fernandina to the Gulf coast in Cedar Key, he found the Old Town settlement’s location unsuitable for building the rail line. Yulee was successful in persuading many of the town’s residents to move down river about a mile to where Fernandina’s popular downtown historic district is today.
Long before Spanish explorers arrived, however, native indians had a camp called “Napoyca” in the Old Town area. Oyster shell middens, remnants of Timucuan Indian life here, reveal the long story of human presence in Old Town. An archaeological dig in 2011 during the bicentennial year of Old Town’s establishment, 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 northwest area of Amelia Island, Florida.
Prior to the establishment of the town of Fernandina in 1811 at Old Town, according to the first Spanish census in 1787, one woman, Mary Mattair (and her children) were recorded as “the only residents of Amelia Island.” She had been the recipient of a land grant (150 acres) from the third Governor of British East Florida, Patrick Tonyn (1774 – 1783), before the British evacuated the area.
“Mattair’s initial grant on Amelia Island became the site presently known as Old Town Fernandina.” The property was described as being “along a bluff on Amelia Island overlooking the Amelia River.”SOURCE: HISTORIC PROPERTIES RESURVEY, CITY OF FERNANDINA BEACH, NASSAU COUNTY, FLORIDA (BLAND AND ASSOCIATES, INC. 2007)
The United States of America was formally recognized by Great Britain with the signing of the Second Treaty of Paris in 1783, that ended the American Revolutionary War, and Florida was returned to Spain. The British living in Florida had to depart the province within 18 months (unless they swore allegiance to Spain). Later, in 1811, the town of Fernandina was platted, named after King Ferdinand VII of Spain.
In 1816, Spanish Fort San Carlos was completed at this strategic site on the bluff above the river. But long before this, Spanish colonists first established a mission here in 1696. Today this area called “Fernandina Plaza,” and is now part of the Florida state park system. The surrounding grassy field is one block wide and offers panoramic views of the riverfront, a great elevated spot to watch a sunset. Beyond the sign (pictured above) is one of the new construction Old Town homes built in recent years. Another new home is being built on the opposite corner.
New Construction In Old Town Fernandina
There are building guidelines that prospective buyers of Old Town lots must follow when building a new home, to preserve the community’s character. This also applies to renovating the older homes in the neighborhood.
For those familiar with the historic neighborhood, one need only drive through Old Town Fernandina in the past two years to notice the new homes that have risen on the previously vacant Spanish-platted lots.
During the latest rising real estate market (since the Great Recession and real estate crash), it’s noticeable how many new homes have been built in Old Town by comparison to the previous market boom. There were fewer new homes built in Old Town during the last housing boom leading up to the prior market peak around 2006.
Old Town Fernandina Homes For Sale
As of mid-August 2020, there were two new construction homes listed for sale in Old Town Fernandina. One listed at $649,000 (2,160 SF, 4BR/4BA), the other at $715,000 (2,300 SF, 3 BR/2.5BA). An older, historic home (circa 1910), is listed for sale at $646,000 (2,666 SF, 4BR/4BA). Six vacant parcels are listed for sale, as of this writing, ranging in price from $128,500 to $515,000. The largest parcel is several lots (0.41 acre). Note that some of the existing homes in Old Town are situated on parcels that include two or more lots combined. (Property listing info is from Zillow as of 8/14/2020, is not guaranteed and is subject to change).
The “Captain’s House”
The most well-known historic home of Old Town, pictured below, is the 1888 “Captain’s House,” built by harbor pilot James Bell.
Imagine Captain Bell climbing into the tower with its fabulous view of the river to monitor the shipping traffic on the water. Wonderful architectural features include “fish-scale-shingles, gable dormers, cupola, bay windows, ornate hoods and cornices,” according to the Florida Building Commission.
The striking home (A.K.A. the Downes House after another captain who purchased the home in 1903), also stands out from the perspective of the water. It’s an interesting landmark seen from the Amelia River by those aboard the ships and boats passing by Old Town.
Others think of this home as “Villa Villekulla” or Pippi Longstocking’s house, since it received notoriety over 30 years ago when the movie was filmed here in the late 1980s. The historic home had been on the market for sale during 2019, and sold in February 2020 for $640,000.
Marinas Near Old Town
Two private marinas are adjacent to Old Town. Thus, some residents with boat slips can literally walk to access the waterways by hopping aboard their boats docked along Egans Creek. Nassau County’s Dee Dee Bartels public boat ramp is also in close proximity to Old Town.
Middle Passage Port Marker
Besides new construction homes being built in Old Town, something else new was placed on the high bluff during springtime 2020. A new historical marker and a bench. According to the Middle Passage Port Project, “The Jacksonville Jaguars Foundation provided funding for the Amelia Island, FL, marker in Old Town Fernandina.
The new sign describes a chapter of history when illegal slave traders unloaded ships at the riverfront here at the original site of Fernandina. The historical significance of this “Site of Memory” associated with the UNESCO Slave Route Project, is now recognized and explained to visitors.
Bosque Bello Cemetery
The community of Old Town also has a “side door” entrance to the Bosque Bello Cemetery, with its abundance of oak trees draped in Spanish moss, Southern magnolias and palms.
Created by the Spanish in 1798, the name translates to “beautiful woods.” Still today, this cemetery retains its stunning beauty with many old, native trees.
Westrock Mill Nearby
Next to the cemetery is Westrock, one of Amelia Island’s two paper mills. Another industry of yesteryear dating back to the early 1900s had been situated near Old Town. Three pogie (A.K.A. menhaden) processing plants operated on the Amelia River near where it meet Egans Creek. “These plants produced fish meal for fertilizer and animal food, and fish oil, which was used in the manufacture of soap, linoleum, water proof fabrics, and certain types of paints,” according to a CRA guidelines document on the city’s website.
Related Content About Old Town
City of Fernandina’s Master Plan for Bosque Bello, 2015