by LIZA MITCHELL
Behind the crumbling facades of the city’s long-abandoned buildings, pieces of our history remain tucked between the walls, like dusty volumes in a forgotten library. Author and city planner Ennis Davis set out to unlock those stories, exploring the empty shells that dot the city’s landscape in his new book, Reclaiming Jacksonville.
The mission of the book is just as the title suggests. By giving voice to the former schools, the factories, the hotels and the commercial buildings long silenced by time and decay, Davis hopes to protect and preserve some of the River City’s most treasured landmarks. His research provides a glimpse into the past and can hopefully provide a future for the many faded storefronts and vacant spaces featured in his book.
“There are some significant structures in Downtown and the surrounding areas with some interesting and unique stories,” Davis says. “I wanted to put those stories together from a different point of view, put the focus on the history of what it was and what it looked like in its heyday compared to what it looks like now after decades of blight. If one person sees these sites and their history, perhaps they will be inspired to come in and give it new life.”
Davis will be on hand from 5 to 8 pm on May 2 to sign copies of Reclaiming Jacksonville at the Main Library. One of the book’s featured photographers, Nomeus, will host a photo exhibit of the properties featured in the book during that evening’s Art Walk.
The book highlights 14 properties that prospered decades ago. As Davis discovered in his research, the inside didn’t always match the outside. The proprietors of the Jacksonville Brewing Company on Moncrief Road turned to making ice cream and a concoction known as “Near Beer” to circumvent the restrictions placed on them during Prohibition.
The owner was a German man who made his way to Jacksonville via St. Louis to fill a void in the horse gambling trade. When he opened the Jacksonville Brewing Company, the building was situated to face the horse track rather than the street front. Today, the building sits silently with its back to the street, just as it sat years ago.
“My favorite buildings have always been the industrial sites. I’ve always said that Jacksonville is somewhat different from the rest of Florida because of its Midwestern traits,” Davis says, citing the American Motor Export Company and Florida Machine Foundry among Jacksonville’s most unique commercial properties. “You always hear about the restoration of places like Springfield, but you rarely hear about the commercial and industrial spaces.”
Davis is a 2001 graduate of Florida A&M University with a Bachelor of Architecture degree and is employed as an urban planner with Ghyabi & Associates. He is also actively involved with Metro Jacksonville, an online forum for increasing public awareness of city issues and encouraging a positive dialogue.
Reclaiming Jacksonville was the natural response to a popular series that ran on Metro Jacksonville providing a historical timeline of the city. Davis seized the opportunity to expound on the idea and help reclaim our city’s past while restoring a sense of pride in our history.
“Jacksonville has kind of forgotten its past. These landmarks are Jacksonville. They are the history of Jacksonville. Once you wipe out that history, you can’t get that back,” Davis says. “Anyone can go out and build a Town Center, but you can’t rebuild a 5 Points. Why build a Holiday Inn when we’ve got the Ambassador Hotel? We are missing the real picture here. Without these buildings, all of these stories would be erased.”
by LIZA MITCHELL