Words and Photos by Ambar Ramirez
You’ve likely driven past them on your way to work, the beach or shopping centers. You may have even entered one of these buildings without realizing that you were stepping into the past, into a structure much older than yourself. But as the years go by, the lesser these buildings become recognizable and the risk of being demolished and completely erased from our history increases.
In May of this year, the Jacksonville Historical Society (JHS) released a list of Jacksonville’s most endangered historic properties. Each year JHS releases this list to educate residents about our city’s history through its endangered buildings. Talk about an oxymoron. But as I sifted through the PowerPoint presentation the organization posted on its website and YouTube, I began to really think about what a loss it would be if these buildings were demolished and their history erased.
Why are these buildings important to the city? What makes these buildings endangered? And what can we do to save them? These are the questions I had when I met with Alan Bliss, CEO of the Jacksonville Historical Society, in one of the only libraries dedicated strictly to Jacksonville and its history, located at the Jacksonville Historical Society headquarters. (I know, I didn’t think I would ever have to use the word “Jacksonville” so much in a sentence either.)
“They [buildings] help tell stories about the past. They help draw people’s attention to the fact that in the 21st century, we, here in Jacksonville, stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us, generations of them, and the events of their lives and the places that they occupy and the buildings that date back, even just 40, 50, 60 years,” Bliss shared. “But it’s not just about the storytelling. It’s not just about reminding people of the past. Every building when it’s built and through its life and then its preservation experience has to make economic and financial sense. It has to be sustainable. And so economic development really depends in part on historic preservation.”
Take Riverside and Avondale, for example. Less than 50 years ago, the historic neighborhoods faced a “wholesale demolition,” Bliss noted. The state had plans of demolishing a path of homes and businesses to create more accessible roads. It was then that Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP) was founded. And according to Bliss, it took property after property and property owner after property owner to eventually take an interest in preservation. One by one, these properties that were on the brink of demolition were turned into homes and businesses. And now, the historic district has some of the highest property values compared to anywhere in Duval County.
But while Riverside and Avondale were saved for the better years ago, the same cannot be said for the buildings on the most recent endangered list.
“Not every endangered building is abandoned, and buildings get on to our list for a number of different reasons. Sometimes they are abandoned, and sometimes they’re in an advanced state of neglect,” Bliss explained. “And so finding a sustainable use for an old building is really one of the major challenges. And so it’s going to be hard to find a sustainable new use and adaptive use for the old building. That’s what puts it at risk.”
While I can think of a million ideas of what these endangered buildings could be used for, there are financial and property owner restrictions to be tackled. And so lastly, the answer to the question that I am sure is on all of our minds at this point of the story: What can be done, especially by local residents, to save these buildings?
“I believe that everyone in Jacksonville should belong to the Jacksonville Historical Society,” Bliss said. “More than that, though, I think that it would be helpful that people would let their city council members hear from them about their appreciation for historic education and knowledge about Jacksonville’s past council members and others involved in local government. Believe me, they listen to what their constituents say they care about.”
Following is a list of some of the better known buildings currently considered endangered with some suggestions for possible alternatives.
Mount Olive A.M.E Church (841 Franklin St.)
The structure was first built in 1887, but the small wooden church would soon become too small for the large congregation. Abraham Lincoln Lewis, building committee chairman, selected plans drawn by Richard L. Brown, Jacksonville’s first Black architect.
Upon arriving at the site, I was immediately drawn to the large stained glass windows (though some were broken) and the steep staircases that led to the front door. While I can see it being brought back as a church, it would also make a great museum space.
Snyder Memorial Methodist Church (226 N. Laura St.)
This one hit a little too close to home as it is quite literally right next to “Folio” headquarters. Everytime I pass the large stone structure with its detailed stained glass windows, I look for a way in. (Can you blame me?)
Built in 1902-1903, the church is one of the first churches to be rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1901. While the building is owned by the City of Jacksonville, it has remained vacant for the past decade. I personally would love to see this space become a nightclub, but if that’s too unrealistic of an expectation, I’ll settle with it becoming a museum. As long as I get to step foot in it, I’ll be happy.
Victorian Duplexes (316 and 320 Jefferson St.)
The twin two-story duplexes, influenced by the Queen Anne style, were built in 1906. The charming structure with its gable roofs and octagonal cupolas has been owned by the Clara White Mission since 2014.
In line with the non-profit’s mission, I feel these structures would make a great space as shelter for the homeless. Or at the very least, they could be used as meeting space for the organization or space for expanding their culinary arts and janitorial services job training courses.
Dr. Horace Drew Mansion (245 W. Third St.)
Built in 1909 by Dr. Horace R. Drew, a physician and grandson to Jacksonville pioneer Columbus Drew, this eclectic and somewhat eerie home in the Springfield Historic District with a lovely view of Klutho Park across the street.
While there have been some rumors of hauntings surrounding this residence, the only real threat this mansion holds is its bad condition. There were some attempts at restoration over the decades, but the mansion has been untouched for several years. Now hear me out, this mansion would make a great bed and breakfast. Not just any B&B, but one tailored to guests who love horror films and chasing ghosts.
Laura Street Trio (corner of Forsyth and Laura streets)
The large three-building structures sit on the corner of Forsyth and Laura Street and are hard to ignore if you work Downtown. Both “high-rises” were designed by Klutho: the Bisbee Building in 1908-1909 and Florida Life Building in 1911. The smallest and oldest structure in the trio, known as “Marble Bank,” was designed by Edwin H. Glidden and built in 1902. The buildings were bought by the City of Jacksonville in 2002. In 2011 the Atkins Group began renovations to include a Courtyard by Marriott and residences. Unfortunately, renovations have come to a halt as the developer seeks more funds from the city to complete the project.
Bliss explained. “The city council has a tough vote coming up ahead of it. The property owner of the Laura Street Trio is asking for a major, major direct appropriation from the city to execute that restoration project. It’s unprecedented, and it’s a lot of money. The council is going to have to really sort of examine their sense of how they value a project like that and decide whether the value of that investment of public money will come back to the people of Jacksonville more generally in terms of stimulating the growth of Downtown and Jacksonville’s identity.”
Old Duval County Armory (851 N. Market St.)
This fortress-like building was constructed in 1916 for the armory of the local National Guard. With a dramatic arched entrance and battlement towers, it’s hard to see the building as anything but what it was initially created for. Nevertheless, in 1973 the building became the City of Jacksonville’s Parks and Recreation Center but was left abandoned for the first time in 2010 when the department moved to the Ed Ball Building. With its many windows and presumably safe structure, I believe this would make for a great residence space. Plus, how cool would you look if you said you lived in an armory?
Genovar’s Hall (644 W. Ashley St.)
Genovar’s Hall was built by Sebastian Genovar in 1895 to house his grocery business and then later a saloon. But being that this structure sits on the intersection of Ashley and Jefferson streets, the space became the heart of nightlife for LaVilla’s Black community during the height of the jazz era. Wynn’s Hotel opened in this building in 1931 and quickly became a favorite lodging place for entertainers like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles. Today, the structure, owned by the City of Jacksonville, the bottom of the structure has been completely gutted, leaving little more than a roof and beams. Still, it would be a waste to see a place that was once so vibrant be destroyed. Due to its location and open floor plan, this would make for a great flea market or farmers market. At the very least, it could become a museum that honors its history as a LaVilla landmark.
Annie Lytle Public School (1011 Peninsular Place)
Also known as Public School Number Four, this structure was built in 1917. It originally looked over Riverside Park before I-95 and I-10 were constructed, completely isolating the school and making it too noisy for any further education to take place. The building has been abandoned since the 1970s and has faced many threats of demolition despite it being a historic landmark. The Annie Lytle Preservation Group has put up a brave fight to maintain the school until a viable use can be found for the building. To honor its original use, I think the space should continue to be a place of education but for the arts with additional art studios for local artists to rent out. We do have technology now such as headphones and soundproofing rooms, so we can toss out the idea of it being too noisy out the window.
Sadly, this isn’t even half of the properties listed as endangered by the Jacksonville Historical Society. To view the full list and to get involved, visit jaxhistory.org.