Miss Louisa Fatio, a “most estimable and popular lady” as noted by a visitor to St. Augustine in 1856 was born Luisa Phelipa Patricia Fatio on March 17, 1797 in St. Augustine. She was the first child of Francis Philip Fatio Jr. and Susan Hunter. In the 1864 census, she was described as being 5’ 2” tall, with blue eyes and light complexion.Louisa’s grandfather, Viscount Francis Philip Fatio Sr., moved his family to British East Florida in 1771. He was granted vast parcels of land by the British government along the St. Johns River, northwest of St. Augustine, in the area which he named New Switzerland. By the time of his death in 1811, Fatio owned 10,000 acres of land with 12 miles of riverfront where, with the help of dozens of enslaved people, grew cash crops and produced naval supplies.
Because of their social status and wealth, Miss Fatio and her siblings were educated and taught various languages. However, the affluent Fatios were not immune to Florida’s war-torn ways. Indeed, the New Switzerland plantation house was burned down during the Patriot War of 1812. The Fatio family, which by now included 7 children (including 15 year old Louisa), abandoned the area. They endured harrowing and perilous times until ten years later, when a house was rebuilt in New Switzerland.Miss Louisa Fatio remained unmarried her entire life. Although there are rumors she had a British officer fiancé, there is no name or written evidence of this suitor. Because she was unmarried, she was expected to live with her family. However, Miss Fatio not only lived on her own — she controlled her finances and worked for a living. She also raised her sister Leonora Fatio Colt’s children with the help of sister Sophia.
By 1840, travelers started arriving to St. Augustine. Without crossing the Atlantic, Americans could enjoy the pleasures of a semi-tropical climate and, in St. Augustine, get the feel of an old Spanish town. Not all tourists visited for pleasure. During this era, pulmonary diseases were widespread throughout the nation. With little knowledge on how to treat their patients, doctors encouraged invalids to spend the winter in warmer climates. Thus, invalids began to fill boarding houses and hotels.Miss Fatio took advantage of this situation to get into the boarding house business. In 1839, she started managing a boarding house for Kingsley Beatty Gibbs, Zephaniah Kingsley’s nephew, in the Bayfront. By 1850, she had set up her own boarding house on St. George Street. A year later, she went to work at Miss Anderson’s boarding house on Hospital (today Aviles) Street. Four years later, she purchased the building and property for $3,000.00. Soon after Miss Fatio renovated the second story of the west wing of the house, adding additional rooms to rent. She renamed it Madame Fatio’s Boarding House, better known today as the Ximenez-Fatio House.
On January 1st of 1861, Florida seceded from the Union. In April the war started. Only a year later, Union forces occupied St. Augustine. For the rest of the war the town remained in Union control, while the countryside was Confederate territory. Living in a small town, neighbors tried to make life bearable for each other by sharing what they could. Regardless of which side of the war they supported, the town scraped by together.Where the Fatio household stood in this conflict is not part of the historical record and very little documentation is available on how Miss Fatio fared. Her sympathies might have been with the Confederates — just as her father and grandfather had before her, she owned people and her business benefited from slavery. However, in 1864, Miss Fatio took the Oath of Allegiance to the Union government. It is a testament to her character that she was able to hold onto her property and keep her business alive through America’s bloodiest war.
The Reconstruction period that followed was difficult as the nation recovered from the horrors of the war. By the 1870s, the tourism industry in St. Augustine was recovering fast. Records show that Miss Fatio was able to employ two servants — Louisa Williams and Lewis Williams, who were not related. These former enslaved people had been liberated in St. Augustine in 1863. In contrast to the empty streets of decades past, the city began to fill up with tourists. To secure a room in a prestigious boarding house like this one, it was important to make reservations before arrival and send ahead letters of recommendation. Most guests would arrive in mid-November and leave early May, paying between $15.00 and $20.00 per week.
“The house on Hospital Street was a large white mansion, built of coquina, with a peaked roof and overhanging balcony” is how American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson described Madame Fatio’s Boarding House during her stay here in 1873. The House and Louisa Fatio were immortalized in her story The Ancient City, which was published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine. Soon after the story’s publication in 1875, Miss Fatio died. She was seventy-eight years old. The house was inherited by the Colt children, who had lived most of their lives in the house.