Despite retraction of a state grant late last year, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum has completed restoration of the original U.S. Coast Guard barracks built on the grounds during World War II.
Constructed in 1941 in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the headquarters played a vital role in the defense of St. Augustine and the country, thwarting a potential attack by a German U-boat spotted off the coast by guardsmen in April 1942.
The barracks themselves housed as many as six men at a time and included bunk beds, a small kitchen and living space and a bathroom. It remained in service until sometime in the 1950s.
In recent years, the little white building with the shingled roof had been used as research offices for the Lighthouse & Maritime Museum’s archaeology division.
Plans for its restoration go back several years. Earlier in 2017, lighthouse staff were informed they were approved for a grant application to move forward with the project. However, the state’s Historical Commission later moved the barracks restoration down on its list of priority grants. Thanks to a $500,000 grant through the Florida Division of Historical Resources (which will go toward other projects at the museum as well) and private donations, renovation work began this year. In keeping with the military history of the lighthouse grounds, the effort to raise money for the project was called “Bonds for Barracks” — much like war bonds were sold to raise money for the war effort.
The latest addition to the museum’s displays was officially opened to visitors on May 31, complete with period swing music that streams from a Victrola, giving visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the Coast Guardsmen — or “Coasties,” as they were called — who lived there.
“We want to help tell the story of the Coast Guard’s response to World War II in this area,” said Brenda Swann, director of the museum’s interpretive division.
During World War II, the St. Augustine Lighthouse stood as a protective beacon against the threat of enemies. The lighthouse was dimmed because its beam was being used by the German subs to spot allied ships making runs up and down the coast.
The guardsmen lived there served as lookouts at the top of the lighthouse or conducting beach patrols on horseback or by Jeep, according to Swann.
The Coast Guard used the Hotel Ponce de Leon in downtown St. Augustine as an additional training center and barracks, hosting recruits from across the country.
The second phase of the barracks project is to it display the thousands of objects and photos the lighthouse has kept in its archives. Some of those artifacts include Coast Guard-issued soap, uniforms, letters sent home to parents from guardsmen and oral histories from the people who lived in St. Augustine during World War II.
In the meantime, a temporary exhibit showcases the art of civilian and U.S. Coast Guardsmen who depict the everyday life of a Coast Guard officer. Swann believes the permanent exhibit should be in place by spring 2020.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum also recently restored the green-roofed building used by the Coast Guard as a Jeep repair facility and garage, adjacent to the barracks. It now houses a visitor cafe.
© 2018 The St. Augustine Record, Fla.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.