The first time I met Walter Whetstone, he invited me into his home and told me to look around, while he sat in a chair on the sidewalk and watched traffic. Though it was the middle of summer and unbearably hot, Walter wore a suit and tie.
I’d wondered countless times what this strange block in Northern LaVilla could possibly be. From a balcony hung mannequin arms, and the innards of a piano adorned a brick wall. An adjacent building bore barber poles and brightly colored masks, while tall tin sheets emblazoned with quotes from famous architects rose in the yard that spanned between buildings. A handmade sign at the top of the second story at the corner of Jefferson and Union Streets identified the place as “The Whetstonian.”
But though my curiosity had finally dictated I make a visit, it felt invasive to wander inside alone. Walter had said this magical place was his home. I was a complete stranger. When I demurred, he waved a dismissive hand and said, “Go on in!” So I did.
Soon he came into the red-brick main building behind me and pointed out the partitions that once separated a restaurant, a bar, and a pool hall. Behind a heavy wooden bar, a furnace and barbecue pit recessed deep into the walls. The ceiling was copper. By another bar in the center of the long room were blackface statuettes, paintings of jazz bands, and hundred year-old ceramic whiskey jars. Long unused saxophones and trumpets hung from the ceiling.
After a long life of delivering Western Union and selling life insurance, Walter Whetstone saved this block from the demolition Mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance plan had scheduled for LaVilla. In the Whetstonian, Walter’s created a montage of lost LaVilla that offers the barest hint at how much Jacksonville lost when it destroyed this largely black neighborhood once recognized as one of the great black cultural centers of the South.
“There’s a lot of black history in here,” Walter told me, “including me.”
As to the name, he explained, “If Smithson can have his Smithsonian, then Whetstone can have the Whetstonian.”
Another time I visited Walter, he wore a “Whetstone Chocolates” ball cap. He said he’d visited the factory in St. Augustine and told them, “You’re Whetstone Chocolate, and I’m Chocolate Whetstone.”
The smaller Whetstonian building is a ’60s-era bank, but the main two-story structure dates to the late 1920s. If walls could talk, these would tell of the decades when LaVilla was the most dynamic and culturally robust district in Jacksonville’s history and the years of civil rights struggles with Jacksonville’s often brutally racist white power structure.
Finally these walls would tell of the decline of LaVilla after suburban flight. In the 1970s and ’80s, Walter said, “People drank all kinds of stuff in here, and they smoked all kinds of stuff too.” If that meant pot in the ’70s, it meant crack in the ’80s.
“Now just imagine all this,” Walter told me as I wandered through this magical museum that first hot summer day, “multiplied by everything that’s disappeared in LaVilla. Because this building is still here. But almost everything else is gone.”