LaVilla: Jacksonville's First Incorporated Suburb

August 3, 2006 34 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Although its not promoted as well as it can be and is often swept under the rug in many cases, our city has a rich and interesting history. One of the most interesting areas of town is LaVilla. While not much remains of this section of downtown, many significant events took place in what as Jacksonville’s original suburb.

 Once a regimental campsite for the Second Florida Infantry, during the Civil  War, LaVilla was an incorporated city of 3,000 residents by the time  Jacksonville annexed it in 1887. Because of its strategic location, it became  the home of the city’s main railroad terminal, which led to the birth of the  city’s first red light district on Ward Street (Houston Street) and a  significant warehouse district along Bay Street. The community was also the  location of a small blaze that ended up becoming the Great Fire of 1901, the  third largest urban fire in US history (behind Chicago and San Francisco).
 The area north of Duval Street was one of Florida’s first black urban  neighborhoods. In the 1920s Ashley Street became the “Great Black Way”. A street  lined with entertainment establishments that played host to famed jazz & blues  greats such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday. Former  residents of LaVilla include Ray Charles and James Weldon Johnson.
 Like many historic neighborhoods, for various reasons LaVilla fell on hard  times. However, unlike Springfield, it wasn’t given a chance to revitalize  itself. In the early 1990s the city demolished most structures along with the  heart and soul of Florida’s first African-American city with an ill-fated urban  renewal project that has resulted in the empty lots and non-pedestrian friendly  stucco office structures that exist today.
 Despite the death blow, a few remnants of this community still remain today.  They include:
 This high school was the first example of civil-rights litigation in  Jacksonville and one of the earliest in the South. Originally the school board  planned to build a substandard school structure, which was typical during the  Jim Crow era. Stanton trustees sued the school board and the result was this  block wide brick building completed in 1917. In 1971, the school was closed and  today it remains underutilized. One of Stanton early administrators was James  Weldon Johnson. While at Stanton he wrote the popular song “Lift Every Voice and  Sing”. After leaving Jacksonville, he moved to New York where he became a  nationally known composer, author, poet, diplomat, and civil rights orator.
 This structure was constructed in 1895 for Sebastian Genovar’s grocery business.  In 1902 the building became a saloon. By the 1920’s the upper floors became the  Wynn Hotel, a popular lodging place for Louis Armstrong. Armstrong preferred the  Wynn, over the larger Richmond Hotel, because it was on the street (Ashley)  where all the action was. During the 1940’s two metal horse hitching rails in  front of the building became known as “the rails of hope”. This was a spot where  young musicians would hang out waiting for jobs. One of those was R.C. Robinson  who live a block away at 633 Church Street. Eventually Robinson became known as  the one and only Ray Charles. Today the structure is in the process of being  restored by the Nu Beta Sigma chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. Plans  include converting the 10,000sf structure into office space, an art studio and a  jazz-themed restaurant.
 Constructed in 1886, this building is one of three downtown structures east of  Broad, built before the Great Fire. While Tampa is known as Cigar City because  of Vincente Ybor, Jacksonville had 15 cigar plants itself around the turn of the  century. El Modelo is significant because in 1893, Jose Marti, founder of the  Cuban Revolutionary Party gave a fiery speech at this location to build support  for liberation of his homeland. After 50 years of operation as a hotel, the  building was renovated into office use and remains one of the largest nineteenth  century commercial buildings in Jacksonville.
 Completed in 1919, the Jacksonville Terminal was the largest railroad station in  the South. At one point it handled 142 trains and 20,000 passengers a day. The  rail terminal was designed by Kenneth Murchinson, who modeled it after New  York’s famed Penn Station. On January 3, 1974 the last train left the grand  terminal which fell victim to decreased rail travel. In 1985 it was converted  into the Prime Osborn Convention Center. Today, many downtown advocates would  like to see a new modern convention center built elsewhere and the structure  return to its former glory….a major transportation hub.
 Designed by Klutho protégé’s Mark & Sheftall, this five-story building remains  one of the city’s most impressive Prairie-style buildings. Completed in 1916 to  serve as a meeting center, office space and retail shops for the growing black  community, its design is reminiscent to Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building in  St. Louis. Jacksonville’s first black owned bank, Anderson Bank was located here  and it still is the home of the Most Worshipful Grand Union Lodge. It was  remodeled about a year ago.
 The Richmond Hotel was constructed in 1909 and was known as the finest hotel for  black citizens prior to desegregation. Guest over the years included Duke  Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. The three-story  hotel had 48 rooms and a tea room at street level. Today the upper floors are  boarded up and the first level is a furniture store.
 The Ritz is the last Theatre still standing in LaVilla. However, the only  remaining part of the original 1929 structure is the NW exterior walls. During  the 1990’s the site was rebuilt as the Ritz Theater and LaVilla Museum. Many of  the events briefly discussed here are explained in further detail at the museum  on the corner of Davis and State Streets.
 Constructed in 1914, this structure was built in the heart of what was once a  sizable jewish community in the area of Duval & Church Streets. The impressive  (now demolished) B’nai Israel was located across the street. Today it remains as  the only reminder to the jewish community that lived in the area from the late  1800s to 1920s.

As mentioned earlier LaVilla was primarily a residential community. While most  homes were of the shotgun variety, Monroe Street was once lined with large homes  such as this. Today it and two other single-family homes facing Jefferson are  the only residential structures remaining in this once proud community.

 This building served as the first hospital for blacks in Jacksonville.  Constructed in 1885, it was moved a block from its original location in  preparation for another low rise office structure planned to built in its place.  Plans include refurbishing the building and converting it into a
 Located in the parking lot of the Prime Osborn Center this 1919 locomotive spent  most of its working life pulling passenger trains from Jacksonville to Richmond  with top speeds of 80 miles per hour. In 1960, it was the last of the P-5  locomotives still in service after diesel engines had replaced most of the  others.
 This fire station was built in 1944, at the corner of Jefferson and Duval  Streets. This is where the recent “noose” incident took place.
 Known as the “Miracle on Ashley Street”, the Clara White Mission has operated in  the former Globe Theater building since 1932. This site was also the home to  Hollywood Music Store, a place frequented by dozens of African-American legends,  from Count Basie to Ella Fitzgerald to James Brown during its heyday. Its still  serves as a home to the Roosevelt Barbershop, which as operated continuously in  this location since the 1940s.
 Today, as shown above, only a few significant structures remain providing a  direct link between present times and the historically rich community that once  existed. Despite the destruction and recreation of the community into a  horizontal office park, hope still lies in the vast amount of vacant land still  held on to by the city today, as well as older structures awaiting new uses.

 Once upon a time, in a land far away, this site was supposed to house a grand  new County Courthouse. In preparation for this, six blocks of buildings were  leveled for a sprawling courthouse campus resembling offices in Deerwood Park.  As the wind blows, today the site reminds us more of an urban prairie and is a  perfect monument of what can happen when firm decisions can’t be made in a  decent amount of time.

 These three shotgun houses are all that remain from LaVilla’s early days, east  of I-95. They were originally constructed on Lee Street, in the vicinity of  where James Weldon Johnson once lived and where black civil war units once  camped. They were saved to serve as a reminder of LaVilla’s history. It is our  hope that they are one day restored, instead of left to rot in their new  location off Jefferson Street.

 During LaVilla’s heyday, West Forsyth Street was a bustling district. Today its  known for its surface parking lots (many of which are nothing more than  demolished building foundations) and its early bird parking specials.

 Having a school in your neighborhood is a good thing. However, poor land  planning for this one further ripped into the soul of this community. The  LaVilla School eliminated a large section of the LaVilla street grid and came  complete with large surface lots between the buildings and the sidewalks,  another departure from historic layout of this community. This picture shows a  well landscaped lot, but there’s little reason for pedestrians to use the  sidewalks.
 This the latest building to rise in this historic neighborhood. Once complete,  the 6,089sf theme restaurant is expected to create up to 100 full time jobs.  Unfortunately, we once again missed the opportunity to design a structure that  respected its urban surroundings. Unlike the Ritz Theater and Urban League  Buildings (both hug the corner of Davis & Union Streets), this structure is  setback a good distance to allow for a surface parking lot between it and the  sidewalks.
 This office building on Davis Street, is a good example of the new structures  that replaced this neighborhood. While it comes up to the street, it turns its  back to the street and opens up to a massive surface lot on the other side of  the block. Nothing about these structures encourage pedestrian movement other  than the walk from their front doors to the parking lots fronting them.

 Houston Street (Then called Ward Street) was the home of the city’s red light  district around the turn of the century. After the Jacksonville Terminal opened  in 1919, the area evolved into a warehouse district. Today, like the rest of the  area, it’s a shell of its former shelf. However, its still littered with small  brick industrial buildings creating the potential for authentic warehouse lofts.

 While parts of this tour may seem to focus on the negatives of urban renewal,  it’s important to remember and understand the past. This way we learn from our  mistakes, instead of continuing to repeat them. As redevelopment continues in  the core and downtown seeks out an identity for itself, it will be important to  consider, respect, promote and capitalize on our region’s history, instead of  sweeping it under the rug or outright attempting to erase it.