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Passion Projects

Community-backed restorations keep Jacksonville's history alive

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Past the Maxwell House plant and beneath various expressway ramps stand Old St. Luke’s Hospital and the Florida Casket Factory; they’re not exactly hidden, but years of roadway construction and development have made it difficult to find them. The Jacksonville Historical Society occupies the former hospital site, which dates back to 1878. It seems fitting that a structure raised by way of charity should house an organization dedicated to seeing these buildings preserved. When I arrive at JHS, I approach the back porch, press a buzzer and wait.

The building’s facade is both charming and deceiving; it stands alone and seems unoccupied. After I enter the threshold, the building and its tenants welcome me. I’m led to Dr. Alan Bliss’ office—a large room with pale dogwood-painted trim. A glass-encased 1800s steamboat model rests on his desk; it’s one of a handful of well-kept antiques placed in plain view.

Bliss is the executive director of JHS. He’s finishing up a housekeeping email when I arrive; one of downsides of hosting events at Old St. Andrews Church is having to share it with other organizations.

“The city owns the church and the Merrill House, and they lease them to us, and we’re responsible for most of the maintenance on them,” Bliss said. “So, I pay to air condition them, to treat the termites, to polish the floors—you name it.”

Each year, JHS compiles a list of endangered buildings. Fire Station Number 5, which has stood vacant in Jacksonville’s Brooklyn neighborhood since 2008, has been on the list for years. It might’ve survived for generations, had it been built on a less attractive lot. The Downtown Investment Authority put the property up for grabs in November, after the city received development plans to realign Forest Street, thereby providing better access to the future FIS headquarters.

“[DIA] put the breaks on demolition in the hope that there would be some, you know, last-minute rescue plan that some perspective investor or property owner with enough resources to underwrite the cost to relocate the building would step forward and come up with a plan,” Bliss said. “Right up until early December, there were still conversations about that.”

He spoke with many organizations and developers who expressed interest in buying and relocating the century-old building. In the end, however, no one came through. Fire Station Number 5 is scheduled to be demolished before the end of the month.

For more than 90 years, JHS has advocated for the preservation of the city’s historic buildings and increased awareness of how our past shapes our present. I wanted to know what made Fire Station Number 5 less worthy of being preserved than Annie Lytle, the famously abandoned elementary school that finds itself on almost every abandoned building list and video. As it turns out, not much. According to Bliss, Annie Lytle could be in danger of being demolished if someone were to submit development plans. But, in its own twisted way, Interstate 95 protects the former school from getting too much attention from outsiders. The next building most at-risk of being demolished has yet to reveal itself, but there are plans to restore the Wells Fargo Center, a.k.a. the old Independent Life building.

“We didn’t see that one as being on the endangered buildings list, because it’s been under responsible ownership, and it hasn’t been constructively abandoned,” Bliss said. “We didn’t see any immediate likelihood of a redevelopment plan for that property but, as it turns out, the redevelopment plan includes saving, and converting and adapting the historic building, so that’s all to the good.”

Despite our local government’s tendency to demolish unnecessary buildings, it seems Jacksonville’s historic preservation organizations are doing something right. JHS helped form the Jacksonville History Consortium in 2003. Representatives from the groups’ approximately 40 organizations meet quarterly to discuss and collaborate on programming, research and resources. Bliss says the DIA has also proven supportive of these organizations’ initiatives by helping exceptional builders, such as Danis Construction Company and Lovejoy Window Works, bring at-risk buildings back to life.

“[JHC organizations] support Downtown redevelopment, and we support historic preservation as a part of that, because historic buildings add to the authentic fabric of any downtown,” Bliss said. “And I think that the [DIA] is sympathetic to that; I mean, they have clearly put their money where their mouths are more than once, most recently with a transfer of resources from the Historic Preservation Trust Fund to the development team that has rescued the Barnett Building and has a plan in place to rescue the Laura Street Trio.”

Speaking of projects, JHS is raising funds for the first phase of its Casket Factory renovations. This phase involves gutting the interior second floor of the building and replacing it with 4,500 square feet of updated archival space for tens of thousands of one-of-a-kind photo negatives, among other historically significant items. JHS plans to complete this phase before the end of the year with a $300,000 budget.

“Right now, I have a matching grant in place from the Delores Barr Weaver Fund. Mrs. Weaver will match any contribution to the Casket Factory project, dollar for dollar, up to $50,000, and I’m about halfway to that goal now,” Bliss said.

Patrons who wish to help JHS reach this goal are invited to donate and become members in person or online. Regardless of financial contributions, Bliss encourages everyone who enjoys these essential pieces of Jacksonville’s story to thank the people who pour their souls into executing first-class projects, including the Cowford Chophouse and Haydon Burns Library.

“When a developer does throw her or himself into a project of historic preservation, you have to have a really good reason for wanting to do it, and often times it comes down to a labor of love; it’s a project of passion,” Bliss said. “A lot of times, people will drive past an edifice that’s been restored and take it for granted, and we shouldn’t. That project, wherever you see that happen, was at some point somebody’s pride and joy and the culmination of an immense amount of work and effort and sometimes financial risk, so we should honor and respect those projects when they are executed successfully and executed in responsible ways that wind up in the long-term preservation of a building.”

The public is invited to join JHS and its members at its next monthly speaker series on Thursday, Jan. 23.

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