The Tragedy In US History Museum

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Sometimes, all it takes is a man with vision -- and a complete lack of taste.

The Tragedy In The US Museum sign L.H. "Buddy" Hough was such a man. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Buddy was suddenly inspired. Why not create a museum dedicated to all the bad things that have happened in United States history?

He quickly secured Lee Harvey Oswald's bedroom furniture and anything else he could get connected to the Kennedy assassination, including a car that Kennedy had once ridden in previous to the shooting, and a wax figure of Oswald himself.

Other morbid memorabilia secured by Buddy included a train whistle from "the wreck of the old 97," a mummy, and what were supposedly the death cars of Jayne Mansfield and Bonnie & Clyde (although, actually, the Mansfield car was the wrong make and the other car was apparently a prop from the Bonnie and Clyde movie).

Building permits were issued and Buddy began turning the house at 7 Williams Street in Saint Augustine (where he and his wife also lived) into a museum. It was a good location, near the tourist district and on the road to the long established Fountain of Youth attraction.

A local TV station dropped by and Buddy happily told them all about what he was building. That's when the old boys in power in Saint Augustine learned about his plans and were horrified. How gauche. How crass. How can we stop this?

Tragedy in the US Museum It's hard to believe, but the city that gave us the very first permanent Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum actually decided that there was something that was just too tacky even for them.

That's when Buddy had to take them to court. I'll let Judge Carroll pick up the story (from L. H. (Buddy) HOUGH, Appellant, v. Vincent J. AMATO et al., Appellee, No. I-495, Court of Appeals of Florida, First District, 212 So. 2d 662; July 11, 1968):

At all times material to these proceedings the plaintiff has owned property on Williams Street in the City of St. Augustine, St. Johns County, Florida. Almost all of that street consists of business or public attractions. St. Augustine, we judicially know, is one of the great tourist cities in the United States.

At the time when the plaintiff purchased the said property and, until May 28, 1965, his property was zoned by the city as "local business," which zoning permitted as one of its authorized uses the operation of a "museum."

On January 5, 1965, an associate of the plaintiff appeared before the St. Augustine City Planning Commission and advised that the plaintiff planned to open a "Museum of Tragedies in U.S. History" at his property on Williams Street and requested the commission's permission therefor. Within a few days the chairman of that commission advised the City Commission of St. Augustine of the said associate's appearance and the plaintiff's plans for a museum on his said property. In addition, there was no doubt about the plaintiff's said plans for the museum, because for five months prior to May 28, 1965 (when a new zoning ordinance was passed, as discussed below) he described his plans on television.

During the first four months of 1965 the plaintiff obtained four building permits and began remodeling his said property on Williams Street. He made numerous repairs on the property for a total cost of nearly $2,000, which property he had purchased for $17,000. In addition, the plaintiff expended several thousand dollars, so that his total investment, including the land acquisition, amounted to more than $30,000.

Then, as the appellant puts it in his brief, "came the crowning blow." On April 4, 1965, he was ready to open his museum and filed an application for a use permit to open the museum, but a ruling on his application was deferred several times until May 28, 1965, when the City Commission of St. Augustine at a special session, held without notice and without a hearing, adopted an ordinance designated as "Emergency Ordinance 210-A," the chief effect of which was to delete "museums" as one of the uses theretofore permitted on the property zoned "local business" in Zone 3, the zone in which the plaintiff's said property was located.

There is testimony to the effect that the City Commissioners who passed the said emergency ordinance on May 28, 1965, admitted that the only emergency facing them on that date was the possibility that the plaintiff would open his museum.

On June 6, 1965, the plaintiff's application for a use permit to operate his museum was denied for the sole reason that the intervening enactment of Ordinance 210-A did not permit such a use on his property.

There can be little doubt that the members of the City Commission adopted Ordinance 210-A for the sole purpose of preventing the plaintiff from opening and operating his museum, well knowing that up to the moment of such adoption the plaintiff was authorized by an existing ordinance to operate a museum and that the plaintiff had been investing large sums of money, as well as time and effort, in reliance on the then-existing ordinance.

Buddy had to go all they way to the Florida Supreme Court, but he won. The museum was allowed to open.

Tragedy in the US Museum For years the city held a grudge. Callers to the Saint Augustine Chamber of Commerce that asked about the museum were told, with disdain, that the place had closed -- even though it was still very much in operation. The tourist trams hurried by without stopping, and they never did want to list his museum in the area tourist brochures.

Finally, in 1996, time and age did what the City could not. Buddy Hough died, and his widow gave up the fight. An auction on April 4, 1998, disposed of all the exhibits and a "For Sale" sign went up on the building. The Tragedy in US History Museum was history.

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Photos by the author.

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