Joe and Margaret Finnegan have never seen Lily even though they have owned St. Augustine’s historic St. Frances Inn for nearly three decades. Of course, Lily’s not a guest; she’s a ghost. According to the scattered reports of her activities, she seems a benevolent spirit even though, as ghosts go, she had a violent end. Yet given the 222 year history of the St. Francis Inn and the nearly 450 years since the founding of St. Augustine and Florida, the city had been in the maelstrom of clashing empires until Henry Flagler rode into town on his palace railway car in the late 19th century and invented modern Florida tourism.
Lily’s story, according to most accounts, occurs in the 1840s involving slavery and love. The two story coquina and stucco structure, which had served as a family home since 1791, was converted into an inn around 1845. As the story goes, the dashing young nephew of the owner fell in love with Lily, a slave. The attic became the location for their affair and, naturally, they were discovered. Facts are murky, but it seems that the nephew was sent away and possibly committed suicide. The despondent Lily is believed to have hung herself in the attic.
In the late1880s, the attic roof was raised and the space renovated into a third floor. A particular corner room seems to have occasional paranormal activity ranging from the television turning on in the middle of the night to jewelry moving from a dresser to a table and even bed covers being mysteriously turned down. When Joe and Margaret Finnegan purchased the inn in 1985 they were reluctant to capitalize on such accounts. Yet by the mid 1990s the ghosts of St. Augustine had become the toasts of the city, and today Miss Lily’s Room is often requested when reservations are made.
Miss Lily’s Room is just one of 17 exquisite and unique accommodations in the St. Francis Inn complex. The beautiful historic 1791 house is bordered by a verdant tropical garden set with wrought iron tables and fountains. To one side is a separate two story, two bedroom cottage complete with living room and kitchen. Behind the cottage are two additional late 19th century buildings, sandwiching the attractive swimming pool, constructed by John Wilson, a previous inn owner and prominent philanthropist. One contains the secluded and romantic Garden Hideaway and the other is the home of Joe and Margaret.
Directly across St. George’s Street, one of St. Augustine’s oldest roads, is the inn’s Wilson House, built for Mr. Wilson’s daughter Emily. This house now includes four rooms and suites. The cushioned chairs on the back porch are a favorite napping location for Zake, the inn’s resident cat, albeit strictly an outdoor resident. The inn’s parking lot is adjacent to the Wilson House and is a definite plus for guests considering the historic district’s narrow streets and strict parking regulations. The historic business core of the city is a few blocks from the inn. Two cottages behind the Wilson House on Cordova Street are available for long term rental.
Only six miles across the bay from the historic city, on Anastasia Island, are the inn’s beach accommodations. In 2004 Joe and Margaret purchased two cottages and a beach house within steps of the wide white sand of St. Augustine beach. Parking and bathhouse facilities are available at the cottage location for all inn guests wishing to spend time at the beach. An additional condo on nearby Camachee Island, and an oceanfront townhouse on Crescent Beach round out the wide selection offered by the St. Francis. Although full kitchens are provided at the beach cottages, all the amenities of the historic inn are still available, including the extraordinary complimentary food service.
An attentive and friendly staff of 14 oversee the many details that can make a guest forget they’re also visiting one of America’s great historic destinations. Janice, Mary and Nancy are responsible for the extensive culinary offerings including a breakfast buffet menu that varies daily and may include such dishes as five cheese strata, asparagus mushroom scramble, light as air biscuits and savory sausage gravy, lemon poppy waffles as well as fresh fruit, strawberry soup, homemade granola, juices, yogurts and, on weekends, mimosas and bloody marys.
If that didn’t satisfy, a daily happy hour offers complimentary appetizers, wine and beer. If one is still hungry after dinner at one of St. Augustine’s many fine restaurants, complimentary desserts are available from 8:00 to 9:30 p.m. A selection of fine teas, coffee, fresh fruit and snacks are offered at any hour. Every room is provided with a decanter of sherry in case a night cap is desired. The St. Francis seems committed to preventing any guest from feeling hungry.
Like the many owners over the years, Joe and Margaret Finnegan have an interesting history as well. Both are teachers of the deaf. They met while faculty members at the renowned Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. In 1978 they reluctantly left their beloved city to relocate to Philadelphia accepting positions at the equally renowned Pennsylvania School for the Deaf where Joe was appointed headmaster. In 1985 they decided to purchase the St. Francis Inn with every intention of moving back to St. Augustine. Yet their commitment to education led Joe to accept the position as C.E.O. of the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind. The St. Francis operated with resident managers until they finally returned in 1996. Although their passion for improving education for the deaf and the blind continues with Margaret teaching at Flagler Collage while Joe consults nationwide.
There are now over two dozen bed and breakfasts in historic St. Augustine but only one St. Francis Inn. Its location within the historic core of this fascinating Florida destination is reason enough to book a stay. Couple that with unique accommodations, remarkable food, an extraordinary staff, Joe, Margaret, Zake the cat – and Lily – and the St. Francis Inn becomes a reason unto itself to visit America’s oldest city.
The St. Francis Inn, 279 St. George St., St. Augustine, Fl 800-824-6062