Ruins of Jacksonville: The Florida Life Building

September 14, 2009 46 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

It has been called Jacksonville's purest statement of a "skyscraper" and was one of Jacksonville's earliest 'green' buildings. Today, many feel this neglected architectural masterpiece may be better off tumbling to the ground.

About the Florida Life

Florida Life Building
117 North Laura Street
Date: 1911 - 1912
Architect: Henry J. Klutho
Builder: Frank Richardson

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 exhaltation 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.

Source: Page 68, Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage Landmarks For The Future

Photos of the Florida Life Building in the 1920s.

The Florida Life Today

The Laura Trio consists of the Marble Bank Building, the Florida Life Building and Bisbee Building. Most everyone associated with the trio over the past decade — from the City to the Police and Fire Pension Fund to the Kuhn Companies — agrees the Marble Bank Building is the gem and other two can be taken or left, but preferably razed.


"There are challenges with the Laura Trio. The negative is now another two years have elapsed and the buildings are sliding back. In today’s economy, the rehabilitation of two of the three buildings appears to be a financial no-go. To make it economically feasible, one of the two buildings (Florida Life or Bisbee) needs to go."

An example of a narrow historic highrise being combined with modern construction in downtown Washington, DC.

Another Washington, DC example of preserving an older structure by integrating it into a larger feasible project.

With a little creativity, vision, blood, sweat and tears, the Florida Life Building can live on and serve as a direct architectural link between Jacksonville's past and future generations.

Article by Ennis Davis