Somewhat surprisingly, the oldest building in Florida predates the arrival of Europeans, but was still built by the Spanish.
Indigenous peoples have called the land we know as Florida home for some 14,000 years but we know of no permanent buildings made by them. The Spanish first landed and began a settlement in St. Augustine over 450 years ago, but while it’s the oldest city in the US, it doesn’t contain the oldest building. That honor goes, rather appropriately, to a transplant.
The St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church (also known as Monasterio Español de Sacramenia – the Spanish Monastery of the village of Sacramenia) is a 12th century Cistercian monastery. Built between 1133–1141, it predates the oldest structure in St. Augustine by nearly 500 years.
Its namesake, St. Bernard de Clairvaux, is not to be confused with the Italian monk St. Bernard of Menthon, after which the dog breed is named. Bernard de Clairvaux was French Burgundian. He was influential in the Catholic Church for expressing new ideas in theology and in assisting the establishment of many Cistercian monesteries throughout Europe.
The Spanish monastery was founded by King Alfonso VII of Castile and León. At the time, Cistercian monasteries were built using a traditional Romanesque architectural style. It was located near the small town of of Sacramenia in the Segovia Province of Spain. The monastery operated for nearly 700 years until it was closed in 1836 and sold off to serve as horse stables.
Eventually, much of the former monastery was purchased, dismantled and moved to the US by the wealthy newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. This included the cloister, chapter house and refectory. The church connected with it remains in private hands and was declared a Spanish national monument in 1931. Hearst’s 1926 purchase of the buildings was illegal according to the Spanish government, but at the time Spain was enduring one of its many times of civil unrest and Hearst took advantage of the situation.
Each of the buildings were carefully dismantled and packaged in wood crates for shipment to the US. The 10,751 crates made their way to the port of New York. They were then supposed to cross the country by rail and be reconstructed at Hearst’s estate of San Simeon, located on the central California coaat. This ultimately didn’t happen because of many financial issues that beset Hearst. The crates wound up sitting in storage in Brooklyn, NY.
Well after World War II, the monastery parts were bought by Raymond Moss and William Edgemon in 1952. They moved them to Miami and had the monastery recompleted. The buildings were made up of some 35,000 pieces – what they described as the “greatest jigsaw puzzle of all time”.
Their plans were to create a unique Florida attraction – The Ancient Spanish Monastery. To this purpose, Moss and Edgemon added elements from other Spanish buildings including a 15th century chapel built originally by Beltran de la Cuevas, 1st Duke of Albuquerque. The process took nearly two years and reportedly cost one and a half million dollars.
The attraction sits in the midst of 20 acres (8 hectares) of Spanish-style formal gardens with many tropical plants. The chapel contained a French Gothic style altar and the monastery served also as an art gallery with sculptures, paintings, armor and more.
In 1964, the monastery was purchased by Bishop Henry I. Louttit for the Episcopal Diocese of South Florida. The Diocese managed the monastery as an attraction and place for weddings and church meetings. Later, due to financial issues, the property was sold to Colonel Robert Pentland Jr., who donated it to the Episcopal parish of St. Bernard de Clairvaux.
As of 2020 the Ancient Spanish Monastery continues to serve as a working church as well as an attraction. It’s popular for weddings, both on the grounds and in the chapel.
It’s one of Florida’s most unusual attractions. It’s wonderful that it has been able to continue to be used both for its religious purposes as well as a place where people, regardless of religious affiliation, can visit to learn about history and experience something unique in Florida, and indeed, the country.