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Guests at the 2007 Noche de Gala, including St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles (far left) and then Mayor of Avilés, Santiago Rodriquez (second from right) raise their glasses in a grand toast to the friendship of the two cites.

Noche de Gala Commemorates 489th Birthday of Pedro Menéndez

16th Century Ball Celebrates City’s Spanish Cultural Heritage

To commemorate a 489th birthday, you need a special party and the Trust for Historic Preservation has just such an event.

On Saturday, February 23 the Menéndez Noche de Gala, one of St. Augustine’s most anticipated annual events will celebrate the birthday of the city’s founder, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Born in 1519, don Pedro would be 489 years young this year. He will be with present in memory and spirit only, of course, but it’s a great bash anyway.

The black tie or 16th century period attire party takes place in the magnificent three-tiered ballroom of the Lightner Museum where guests will gather surrounded by priceless art and sculpture to witness the resplendent decorations and colorful ceremonial entertainment. The event, now in its 13th year, has earned a tradition of elegance, with fine dining and dancing for all guests participating in the memorable evening.

As in the past, the evening promises to awaken the senses and dazzle the heartstrings of all who join in this enchanted pageantry of splendor and romance. Tickets are limited and must be obtained in advance. Cost for the Noche de Gala is $160.00 for members of the Trust and $185.00 for non-members.

Who was Pedro?

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who led the expedition from Spain that founded the city of St. Augustine, was born in the city of Avilés, in the northern province of Asturias, in 1519. He rose from less than the noble origins and through his mastery of sailing attracted the attention of King Phillip II, who promoted him to command the Spanish fleet.

When Phillip decided to strengthen Spain’s colonial presence in Florida and the Caribbean, he named Menéndez Governor of Cuba and Florida and assigned him responsibility to exterminate a French settlement on the St. Johns River, located on land claimed by Spain. Menéndez sailed from Cadiz, Spain on June 29, 1565, with eleven vessels and over 1,500 settlers and soldiers. After some preliminary skirmishing with the French ships, Menéndez founded St. Augustine on September 8, 1565 thus completing his mission by carrying out the King’s orders.

In 1573, Menéndez returned to Spain to take command of a gigantic fleet that Phillip was preparing for a naval strike against England and the Netherlands. Menéndez died suddenly, however, at Santander on September 17, 1574, before he could accomplish his last mission for the King.

A statue of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés stands prominently atop a high pedestal in front of the historic Alcazar Hotel, which now contains the municipal offices of the City of St. Augustine and the Lightner Museum. A gift of the people of Avilés in 1972, the sculpture is an exact replica of the statue that stands near the tomb of Menéndez in his ancestral home of Avilés.

Statute of Menendez (left)  stands just a few blocks from his birthplace

in his home town of Avilés, Spain. A replica of the statute in front

of St. Augustine’s City Hall (right) was a gift from the City of Aviles in 1972.

Celebrating the City’s Spanish Heritage

In addition to recognizing Menéndez’s birthday, the Noche de Gala has become the city’s annual celebration of its 16th century roots in Spanish culture. Alone among cities in the United States which date their founding and continuous existence from the 1500s, St. Augustine recognizes the significant role that Spain played in the colonization and settlement of the nation. The Noche de Gala emphasizes the city’s unique claims upon American history and celebrates the contributions to our nation’s cultural heritage that the Spanish people have made.

The cultural ties to Spain are emphasized even more by official governmental representatives who regularly attend the event, including the Consul General of Spain in Miami, representing the Government of Spain, and delegations from Menéndez’s hometown of Avilés, Spain. 

St. Augustine was the capital of the only colony in the United States settled by people who spoke Spanish and did not share English traditions. It is that distinction which sets St. Augustine apart from all other urban places in the nation.

Department of Heritage Tourism

The City of St. Augustine produces the Noche de Gala through its Department of Heritage Tourism. The department administers the city’s decade long program of preservation, restoration, and interpretation of numerous historic sites. The department’s primary mission is preserving the historic resources entrusted in the city by the State of Florida, the maintenance and expansion of the interpretation program centered on those resources, and the pursuit of the program to restore a significant part of the colonial city. In accomplishing this mission, the department must generate support for historic preservation from private sources that value the city’s historic resources, especially resources that reflect the historical and cultural contributions of Spain and Spanish speaking people.

The department manages the Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum, an interactive living history museum containing nine structures located in the heart of St. Augustine’s famed Restoration Area on St. George St. The museum annually attracts some 30,000 students from throughout Florida. The Department also exhibits a 3,000 square-foot museum of archaeology and history in Government House.

In years past, the highlight of the season in St. Augustine was the annual costume Beaux Arts Ball, which was first held in 1949 with much fanfare on the evening of February 26, in the Casino of the Hotel Alcazar. The ball was named after the annual masquerade ball held by the students of the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris. The program for the event stated “whenever there are people concerned with the fine arts the Beaux-Arts Ball is the medium which brings them together for a gala and a festive occasion and to further the projects in which they are interested.” The St. Augustine Record rightly observed that the “success of the ball in the beautiful Lighter Museum Casino Saturday night has laid the foundation for future successful events in other years, thus meaning much to St. Augustine and its social program during the winter seasons.”

        (From Lost Colony: The Artists of St. Augustine, 1930-1950, by Robert W. Torchia. Image for this year’s invitation to the Noche de Gala is “Beaux Arts Ball,” by Louise J. Shanks, 1949, and used with permission of the St. Augustine Art Association.)