Laura Street Trio: A History

The distinction of being the founder of Jacksonville unquestionably belongs to Isaiah D. Hart, and he lived to see the town develop into a place of more than 2,000 people. At one time or another, he owned nearly all the land now known as old Jacksonville, and also the most of Hogan’s Donation (Springfield). He outlived all the early settlers and died in 1861. He was buried in a vault on a plot of ground at the northeast corner of State and Laura Streets, and his resting place was marked with this inscription:

Hart tombstoneWhen I am dead and in my grave,
And these bones are all rotten;
When this you see, remember me,
That I may not be forgotten.

After the fire of May 3, 1901, his remains were removed to Evergreen Cemetery and the old vault in the city was destroyed. Three of Jacksonville’s streets bear the names of I. D. Hart’s children: Laura, Julia, and Ocean.

Jacksonville has rebounded from fires and wars, and today there is a move afoot to revitalize downtown. Major efforts are being put forth to restore the once majestic grandeur of the Laura Street Trio and the Barnett Bank Building between Adams and Forsyth Streets.

The Laura Trio

The Chicago-style Bisbee Building was designed by H.J. Klutho in 1908-09. The Florida Life Building, also designed by Klutho, was Jacksonville’s tallest building in 1912 and is known as the city’s purest statement of a skyscraper. The Marble Bank was completed in 1902 as the Mercantile Exchange Bank.

National Bank Jacksonville FloridaPast Forsyth Street Customs House PO_1900sOld Florida National Bank (Marble Bank)

Built in 1902 as the Mercantile Exchange Bank, it was purchased three years later by the newly organized Florida Bank & Trust. The new banking firm expanded the building to its present size, retaining the Neo-Classical Revival style. The entire facade is sheathed in marble, including six massive columns also made of marble. In 1916, the interior of the building was completely gutted and redesigned by the New York architecture firm of Mowbray & Uffinger. A grand banking room was created, complete with a spectacular skylight, coffered ceiling, and classical plaster detailing, at a cost of $135,000. During the 1950s, two dropped ceilings that covered the skylight and plaster ornamentation were added. In 1978, the Jacksonville National Bank, then owner of the building, commissioned architect Robert Broward to guide the restoration of the interior to its 1916 splendor. The false ceilings were removed, the skylight was uncovered, and the beautiful plaster detailing was once again revealed. Both the bank and the architect received awards for this dramatic restoration and at the time, the Marble Bank had become a leading example of the preservation consciousness of Jacksonville’s business community.

Bisbee Building

This building was originally constructed to be only twenty-six feet wide, one-half of its present width. The novelty of it being Jacksonville’s first skyscraper made the office space highly sought after, and the building was completely rented before construction was finished. William A. Bisbee directed the architect H.J. Klutho to double the size of the building. The east wall of the original narrow tower was removed and an additional vertical section was added, resulting in its present configuration. The ten-story building was Florida’s first reinforced-concrete frame high-rise office building. According to Klutho, this system was so new that the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company refused to make a construction loan until full engineering data were submitted, and their own architect was dispatched to Jacksonville to go over the figures. The Forsyth Street facade is faced with polished limestone and terra-cotta, and features broad plate glass Chicago-style windows, a copper cornice, and various abstract geometric ornaments. This building is an early example of Klutho’s affinity for the high-rise architectural concepts that were pioneered in Chicago.

Florida Life Building

Construction on this building began a month after the start of Klutho’s St. James Building (City Hall), and it was completed two months before. Both buildings were constructed of reinforced concrete. The architect was no doubt very proud and busy to have two such great architectural works rising simultaneously on the city’s skyline. Although the Florida Life Building was Jacksonville’s tallest for less than a year, it was and perhaps still is Jacksonville’s purest statement of a skyscraper. It is a narrow, beautifully proportioned tower that soars vertically, giving an impression of being much taller than its actual eleven-story height. The lower two stories form the tower’s base, richly adorned with glazed terra-cotta and originally featuring a suspended glass canopy over the building’s entrance, similar to that of the St. James Building. Broad plate glass Chicago-style windows accentuate the Forsyth Street facade, drawing the eye upward along the slender pilasters to a crowning burst of terra-cotta scrollwork, which in turn supports an ornate copper cornice and a parapet. The dramatic scrolled capitals at the top of the pilasters are evolved from the intricate ornamentation used by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, who is credited with being the “father of the skyscraper.” The Florida Life Building fulfills Sullivan’s definition of a skyscraper perhaps as well as any building ever constructed by Sullivan himself: “It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a dissenting line.” In 1914, a penthouse was added, “a pretty little three-room cottage,” and the rooftop was landscaped with grass and shrubbery. This was built as a residence for C.E. Clark, secretary of the Peninsula Casualty Company, which had its offices below and which was the sister company of the Florida Life Insurance Company, owner of the building. Klutho’s majestic skyscraper outlasted the Florida Life Insurance Company, which went bankrupt in 1915.

Barnett Bank Building

Barnett National Bank‘s growth followed Jacksonville’s skyline. It was founded in 1877 by William B. Barnett and his son Bion, as the Barnett Bank, with $40,000 in working capital. Within four years, it became the largest bank in Florida. Its name was changed in 1888 to National Bank of Jacksonville and in 1908 to Barnett National Bank. The bank grew steadily over its first fifty years, necessitating the construction of this $1,500,000 banking and office center in 1926. It remained the tallest building in Jacksonville until the Prudential Building was constructed in 1954.  Mowbray & Uffinger, nationally known bank architects from New York, designed it. The contractor was the James Stewart Co., which constructed Madison Square Garden in New York and the Mitsui Bank in Tokyo, then the largest bank building in the world. The Barnett National Bank Building is handsomely proportioned and reflects the eclectic influences of commercial architectural styles of the 1920’s. A two-story arcade faced with limestone makes up the street-level facade, and the building is topped with double-arched windows and a parapet with obelisks. A series of lion heads between the third and fourth stories are among the other interesting details.

Plans are to convert the former Barnett Bank Building into office, classroom, residential, and retail space. Southeast planned to lease the ground floor and mezzanine level to a retail tenant and develop the upper floors for office space, classrooms for the use of the University of North Florida and 80 apartments for students, building tenants, and other residents. The top floor would be a lounge and conference center.


april, 2022