St. Johns is one of Florida’s two original counties, created along with the Florida Territory in 1821. It is named for Northeast Florida’s principal river, which has also gone by such designations as Welaka, Rio de Corrientes (“river of currents”), Riviere du Mai (“river of May,” hence the naval base at Mayport in Duval County), and San Mateo (still reflected in the name of a Putnam County village). In 1590 the Spanish established the mission of San Juan del Puerto at the river’s mouth, and during the British occupation of Florida the name was anglicized to St. Johns.
The county seat of St. Johns County, St. Augustine, is the oldest continuously-occupied European settlement in the United States, having been founded by Pedro Menendez August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, author of the Civitas Dei. Casa Monica, built in 1886, was one of the first Moorish-style structures in the city. Franklin Waldo Smith was the architect, builder, and owner. The building was constructed of poured concrete, a method Smith developed in order to achieve design elements from buildings in the “mysterious East” without importing stone to build the massive walls. Mr. Smith’s exotic buildings won immediate acclaim. They were the first buildings of their kind in the United States. The building had three towers, two with battlements, the third with clay tile hip roofs. Balconies with ornamental ironwork and larger balconies with wooden turned spindle posts complement the look. The Cordova Street facade originally consisted of a three-story arcade.
Unable to support the venture, Smith sold the hotel to Henry M. Flagler in 1889. Mr. Flagler changed the name to Cordova and annexed the building to his Alcazar Hotel across the street. The hotel prospered for a while but finally closed in 1932 because of the depression. It was eventually sold to St. Johns County. After seven years of extensive remodeling, including replacing the arcade with classical columns, the building reopened as the St. Johns County Courthouse.
Pictured to the right is the new St. Johns County Courthouse. Built in 1888 as a luxury hotel, it was purchased by St. Johns County and rebuilt in 1967 at a cost of more than one million dollars.