The City of Jacksonville incorporated in 1859, two short years before the Civil War began and destroyed much of its nascent commercial district. Development was a long and slow process for the remainder of the century, often driven more by outside capital than the local sawmill and lumber trade. In 1868, local citizens successfully lobbied the Freedmen’s Bureau to construct a school for black youth. Stanton Institute opened the following year. The Board of Trustees christened it “the best school building in the state.” At the same time, northern capitalists financed the construction of the St. James Hotel, the fanciest of several downtown hotels catering to a blossoming tourist industry.
Tourism dollars propelled Jacksonville’s growth through a period of national recession in the 1870s. Twenty-five daily trains served over 100,000 tourists a year by 1885. Street cars, telephone lines, and electric lights connected downtown to the newly developing suburbs of La Villa, Brooklyn, Riverside, Springfield, and East Jacksonville. But the tourist boom did not last forever. A yellow fever epidemic killed over 400 people in 1888, Henry Flagler‘s railroad bridge over the St. Johns carried tourists further south beginning in 1890, and the economic Panic of 1893 dried up the little remaining enthusiasm for wintering in Jacksonville.
In 1901, Jacksonville’s Great Fire leveled downtown from the corner of Beaver and Davis east to Hogan’s Creek and south to the river. Stanton Institute, the St. James Hotel, and some two-thousand other buildings were reduced to charred rubble. The young architect Henry Klutho resettled in Jacksonville to take advantage of the building boom that followed. In 1910, Jacob and Morris Cohen acquired the St. James Hotel’s lot and commissioned Klutho to design a landmark department store. The resulting St. James Building, completed in 1912, is Klutho’s masterpiece of the Prairie style.
Klutho’s influential style reverberated throughout the Northbank. After four years under his tutelage, young architects Earl Mark and Leeroy Sheftall left Klutho’s practice in 1911 to start their own. Their first major commission was the Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge at 410 Broad Street. Black masons raised funds for over a decade to construct the building, conceptualized in the aftermath of the Great Fire as a hub for the black community, providing office and retail space for black-owned businesses in the era of Jim Crow and segregation. Mark and Sheftall produced a five-story, reinforced concrete building in the style of Louis Sullivan’s iconic Wainwright Building in St. Louis, ornamented with Masonic and abstract symbolism that define its horizontal divisions.
Opportunity in the black community was limited, but local citizens pushed hard for equal access to education. James Weldon Johnson, Stanton’s most illustrious graduate, returned to the school as principal in 1894. Under Johnson, Stanton expanded to become the first high school for black youth in Jacksonville. After the Great Fire, the city rebuilt Stanton, but not to the same standard as the Duval High School for white students. Johnson called the new Stanton building a “hideous structure,” saying that it “looked more like a mill or granary than a school house.” It lacked indoor plumbing and the roof leaked continuously. In one of the first cases of civil rights litigation in the south, activists forced the School Board to build a new school on the same site at 521 Ashley Street. Stanton High School was completed in the fall of 1917.
The Great Depression, caused in part by speculation in the Florida real estate market, announced the end of the Northbank building spree. Construction did not recover until after the war years of the 1940s. By then, shopping malls in the new suburbs of Arlington and Southside hampered efforts to build downtown. Nevertheless, Mayor Hayden Burns‘ “Decade of Progess” in the 1950s produced a new courthouse, city hall, coliseum, and civic auditorium on the Northbank.
Urban renewal began in earnest under Mayor Hans Tanzler‘s newly consolidated city government. With big money on the line, Tanzler succeeded in clearing legislative obstacles to allow Jacksonville access to the same federal dollars bankrolling redevelopment throughout urban America. In 1970, the Hogan’s Creek Renewal Project included the demolition of 600 structures deemed unsafe. In 1971, the Downtown Development Authority was granted bonding and eminent domain powers. The School Board closed Stanton the same year, moving students to a new location on 13th Street. Over the next several decades, hundreds of neglected historic buildings fell to the wrecking ball to make way for promised development that rarely materialized.
Urban renewal’s failure was clear by the late 1980s, when a Chamber of Commerce white paper warned that downtown was “spiraling towards disaster.” But despite all the abandoned buildings, the downtown tax base was still supporting suburban growth. The city would not be able to balance its budget without stopping the economic decline on the Northbank. In the 1990s, Mayor Ed Austin‘s “River City Renaissance” included $24 million to purchase and renovate the recently vacated St. James Building for use as a new City Hall, reinforcing downtown as the center of government and finance.
In the year 2000, citizens voted in a tax increase to fund Mayor John Delany‘s “Better Jacksonville Plan,” which included funding for a new arena, baseball park, library, and courthouse. Today, revitalization efforts continue to lure citizens to the Northbank with daily entertainment programming at Hemming Park, a once-a-month Art Walk, and a burgeoning nightlife district.