Downtown Frankenstein: The Beginning

December 6, 2015 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

To understand Jacksonville, (at least as far as its early development goes) it is impossible to underplay the importance of business, merchants, and commercial interests in the fabric of its history. (this article was originally published in 2006.

Of course you can say this about any city, but Jacksonville is a particularly keen example of the principle of  natures first green being Gold.  After all, consider the fact that it is the largest city of a State which has been host to more than a few Pirate Governors----The State of Florida.  Piracy and bootlegging was the foundation of the state economy and, while not polite, it would be hard to argue that anything has really altogether changed.

And Jacksonville can hardly have claimed to have been hiding like a trembling virgin behind maidenly frocks during Florida's piratical Hay Days, hardly not!  In fact, one of the more famous Pirates ever to hold the high office of Governor was a Jacksonville native, and his progeny have enjoyed favored status in the city for several generations.  They have lived to see practically every other county and highway named after their enterprising grandfather, with perhaps his grandest local namesake  being the Napoleon Bonaparte Broward Bridge, also known as the Dames Point Bridge.  It should come as no surprise that until very recently they were Springfielders.

There is a very good reason that our landed gentry are all sailing ships in bare feet on the Ortega River.  Titter inducing though it might be, it is no accident that the silk stocking crowd in Jacksonville hail from an island which features an inlet called "Smuggler's Cove."

Even during the Civil War, the City of Jacksonville saved itself by virtue of its Mercantile instincts easily getting the better of whatever confederate passions might have brewed within the hearts and breasts of its officially at war citizens.  With Georgia in flames as a backdrop, Jacksonville fired its most deadly missile of all straight into the advancing maw of the enemy:  Hotel Discounts!

Our Chamber of Commerce, emboldened by a little corn whiskey and represented by the city's best hoteliers, stopped the yankees short with generous offers of hospitality as they disembarked onto our docks.  (Of course, the soldiers eventually did a little burning a year later, and the confederates operated out of Jacksonville in the meantime, but it was the thought that counted)  Although Jacksonville changed hands a couple of times, it did so without any battles being fought in the actual city.

The outright mercantilism didnt stop with municipal diplomacy during the Civil War for Jacksonville.  Reconstruction brought the Railroad money and Bond Swindles which swelled local pockets with enough money to invest in tourist schemes.  By the turn of the century the city was a well known location for excellent trade because of the er ,....ahem.....shall we say.....lax port policies and the advantageous hegemony of a small nest of railroad companies operating out of the railyards downtown.

Intersection of Bay and Laura Streets in 1908 

Jacksonville began to see that there was long term profit in brokering trade from overseas to the domestic markets, and the city began to specialize in merchant marine activities and the waterfront downtown turned into a gigantic series of wharfs and shipyards which wholly dominated the center of the city with robust river activity, local vessels running all manner of goods (both the legal and the highly profitable variety) with a vast network of ferrymen controlling the river crossings of goods and people.

It seems nearly impossible to ponder, but even after the Great Fire of 1901, the city had attained the status of a major city even before the bridges were built or the modern interstate highway system was even devised.  In 1915, the downtown of Jacksonville stretched from what is now called the Prime Osborn Convention center all the way down to the foot of the Matthews and Hart Bridges.  Dense, largely commercial neighborhoods crowded this huge area in a way that can no longer be seen as literally HALF of it has been razed to the ground, to make way for the football stadium, the Coliseum, Metropolitan Park, and a rolling cemetary of parking fields and the other half has been culled since then, pulling down more than 60 percent of the buildings which made up that larger, greater downtown.

Main Street in the 1920's 

The city was compact and dense with highly snooty neighborhoods in both Springfield and the Southwest developments of Avondale.  Regular folk lived everywhere else, but especially on the city's more workingclass east and north sides.

Not even the Great Fire of 1901 slowed down the commercial growth of Jacksonville, because its money just kept floating in on the ships. (and quite often, under and behind hidden compartments and trick floors)  Which brings us to the just past century.  In terms of architecture, the Great Fire couldnt have possibly come at a more propitious time as it allowed the city to be rebuilt with modern architects like Henry Klutho creating one of the largest inventories of Praire School of architecture outside of the midwest, and bragging rights for the Cadillac and Caviar Set ever since.  (And presently the BMW and a Bob Hairdo Set)


Adams Street (intersection with Main Street in center of photograph) in the 1930s

While Klutho is mostly remembered as our revered architectural diety, at the time, he was quite the fellow and had his fingers in a number of little pies.  He was the civil engineer who created the beautiful series of retention ponds along Hogan's Creek and in so doing solved the areas serious problem of flooding. (until a clever park planner completely screwed that up in one of the many 'improvements' of the 60s---now it floods again)  He was also deeply involved in the Motion Picture industry that had its first home in Jacksonville before it a little nowhere place called 'Hollywoodland'. 

But in the Klutho Era, Jacksonville started becoming recogniseable to its modern residents.  The Acosta Bridge was opened on May 15, 1924, with a number of Ferrymen led dynamiting attempts that were not limited to the Bridge itself, but also graciously extended to the home of the President of the City Council, St. Elmo Acosta.

With the completion of the double track  Railroad Bridge in 1925, replacing the earlier single track span completed on January 5, 1890.  Downtown exploded.

Forsyth Street in 1940