14 St. George Street, St. Augustine, FL
Near Old City Gate, nestled in the historic district of downtown St. Augustine, sits the Oldest Wooden School House in America. This tiny, one-room classroom has survived centuries of war, disease, and development, making it one of the country's most accessible monuments to the history of American education.
A walk through the grounds is like taking a step back in time, not just because of its detached kitchen or simple outhouse, but because of the other things that were left behind. Remnants of the past that have stayed hidden in plain sight, a grim reminder of the price we’ve paid for progress.
What else has remained at the old school house?
The truth is, there is no shortage of hauntings in St. Augustine, especially in the historic district, but few areas have the notoriety of St. George Street or Old City Gate, where many original buildings—including the Oldest Wooden School House—are still standing.
The property as we know it now is not much different than when it was first built in the early 18th century. The children have been replaced with stiff, speaker-box mannequins, and the building itself has been anchored to the earth to withstand hurricanes, but the foundation remains the same, down to the cedar walls and coquina chimneys.
In fact, the upstairs room, where the school teacher and his family had once lived their modest lives, has gone completely untouched for many years, blocked off from the rest of the building in case anyone dares venture off from their popular tour.
If you were to ask management, they’d simply explain that the stairs are too old and too fragile, entirely unsafe for the day to day trampling of eager tourists. To be fair, they are probably right, especially when you consider the child-sized dungeon hollowed out beneath the steps, where unlucky students were left to think about whatever misdeed they had committed.
But if you did manage a peek into the dark, long forgotten room upstairs, a viewpoint made possible by a mirror hung on the adjacent stairway wall, you might have the sudden, inescapable feeling that something doesn’t feel right about the old school house—and the locals would agree.
They say that, ever since opening to the public, there have been sightings of a lone figure standing in that second story window. A woman, dressed in white, with her hair pulled back into a tight bun, standing motionless as she looks out over St. George Street, as if waiting patiently for someone to return.
No one knows for certain who the spirit is. Some say she is the wife of the original school teacher, Juan Genoply, standing at her bedroom window and watching out for the children like she did all those years ago.
Others fear that she might be the mother of a student long passed. Perhaps one of the naughty children who never fully learned their lesson, left too long down in that dungeon beneath the stairs, now trapped forever.
Maybe she is just another one of St. Augustine’s wandering spirits looking for a place to call her own. It’s difficult to say, especially considering the long history of death that has hung over the ancient, troubled city.
The school house itself is only a few feet from the Huguenot Cemetery, where countless people who fell victim to the 1821 yellow fever epidemic still rest, and only a hop, skip, and a jump from some of the most notoriously haunted spots in America, like the St. Francis Inn, where another woman in white has been seen for decades.
Many psychics and paranormal researchers have looked into the stories and investigated the property, but so far little more has been uncovered. All we know is that, like many other buildings in St. Augustine’s historic district, the Oldest Wooden School House continues to be a place where the past has refused to let go.
In its first incarnation, the building was nothing more than a guard house, built in the early 18th century during St. Augustine’s first Spanish Colonial Period, when war with the British was ongoing and the threat of pirates was a daily concern.
The actual construction date is uncertain, but it’s known that it must have been built between 1702, the year the British burned every square inch of the city to the ground, and 1716, when the property first appeared on tax records.
The original structure was a one-room, single-story building, made out of bald cypress and red cedar logs that had been bound together by handmade wooden pins and iron spikes, the kind of timeless, sturdy craftsmanship that was built to last.
It was humble, even for its time, with a detached kitchen made of wood siding and a coquina chimney, an old well for drinking water, a small-plot vegetable garden, and a secluded, pit-dug privy tucked away behind a privacy fence.
It was the kind of place that someone could raise a family and call home. Especially after the school house’s first teacher, Juan Genoply, added on a second floor, creating living quarters for him and his family as they transformed their private home into a school house for Minorcan refugees.
Juan Genoply, a Greek carpenter from Mani, was part of a group of 1,403 Greeks and Italians, known as Minorcans, who came to New Smyrna, Florida in 1768 as indentured servants to work an indigo plantation.
After nearly ten years of abuse, starvation, and illegal servitude, the 600 who survived moved north, finding refuge in what was, at the time, a British occupied St. Augustine. They were permitted to camp at Old City Gate, on the north end of St. George Street, which later became known as the “Minorcan Quarter.”
In 1780 the Kitt House, formerly a guard house, was purchased by Genopoly, who was living as a free citizen under British rule. There he lived with his wife and eventual four daughters, cementing himself within the American dream and doing his best to live out a normal life despite the difficult circumstances he had endured.
Being both an immigrant and a refugee, Genopoly understood how important it was for the Minorcans to learn English if they wanted to be successful in Florida. Unfortunately, many of them never got the chance, which meant neither did their children.
In 1788, he decided to transform his house into a co-ed school where he could teach Minorcan children reading, writing and arithmetic. The class size grew, and he eventually built a second-floor living quarters for him and his family so that the bottom floor could be dedicated entirely to the children’s education.
Juan Genopoly died in 1820, but the school house remained, his daughters continuing the Genopoly tradition by staying on and teaching there for many years. The last class to graduate was in 1864, but an official reunion wasn't hosted until 1931.
That year, several students of the Genopoly school house gathered together for the first time in decades to assist in the public opening of St. Augustine’s newest tourist attraction: the Oldest Wooden School House. They arranged the classroom in its original order, and went into great detail with the historians about what it was like to be a student there—the good and the bad.
Today, visitors from all over the world can view this piece of American history. The grounds and the school house—with exception of the second floor—are available for daily tours, showcasing artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries that include textbooks, school supplies, and period furnishings.
There is also a garden decorated with busts of famous educators from the Americas, as well as a fruitful pecan tree that has been growing on the land for an estimated 250 years.
If the strange and unusual is more what you are looking for, we recommend stopping in to say hello to the boy trapped beneath the stairs, or even taking a peek up into the second floor.
For those who are feeling even braver, there is always the chance that you can catch a glimpse of the woman in white standing at her window, especially at night. You never know, maybe you were the one she’s been waiting for.
The house is located on St. George Street near old City Gate—previously the “Minorcan Quarter.” Tours are available Monday through Friday.