Lost Jacksonville. Downtown Hotels: The Grande Dames

May 29, 2016 88 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Jacksonville Florida was once considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and its downtown was simultaneously home to one of the largest theater districts in America and an African American Cultural district in LaVilla whose vibrancy provided the genesis for the Harlem Renaissance. Visitors and tourists came from all over the world to visit its beautiful and unforgettable charm, and they were hosted in hotels that defined the downtown experience. Join MetroJacksonville as we revisit the Grande Dames of the Jacksonville Hotel District.

It would have been quite forgivable, at one point near the turn of the Century, to assume that the charming city of Jacksonville Florida existed for no other purpose than to be beautiful.

It was, after all, one of the most liberal cities in America, with a proud tradition of extremely forward thinking politics and Progressive instincts.

After the Civil War, it was as if the shackles had come off of the city and the excesses of the Gilded Age had left the gorgeous location unsullied by the either its crass materialism, its callous social darwinism or its fevered Great Awakening.

Blessed with gifted musicians and artists, a cultured citizenry, astonishing racial practices, and the leadership of intellectuals and a liberal minded business community it had become a mecca for travellers, the wealthy and a burgeoning creative community that would lead the country in experimentation and accomplishment for the first quarter of the 20th Century.

Visitors were flocking from every corner of the United States to be a part of the vibrant city culture, and its downtown was bursting at the seams with entertainment, music and a unique framework of structures and industries that perfectly served this phenomenon.  

The tourism was an onslaught of new money and ideas. The Clyde Line operated steamboats into Jacksonville from East Coast seaports, including New York City and after Henry B. Plant opened the “Waycross Short Line” in 1881, direct rail travel from the North took off.

The winter population grew to four times the number of its summer residents. During the 1884-85 season, 60,000 visitors overwhelmed its hotels, resulting in the construction of numerous elegant new resorts.

In 1889, the second Sub-Tropical Exposition opened and resuscitated the city’s reputation after a devastating yellow fever epidemic. It featured both Grover Cleveland and Frederick Douglass.

This massive explosion of creativity and energy was directly reflected in the density and number of the Grand Hotels that sprang up throughout the core.  In the first half of the last century, Jacksonville's downtown was not only home to scores of rooming houses, dozens of small inns and rooms-for-let, but it was also the proud court of no fewer than 21 grand hotels or Grand Dames. This is not including the gorgeously appointed Brothels and Sporting Houses of Houston Street and LaVilla.

These gracious institutions formed the backbone of the Jacksonville Society and were the cradle of the Golden Age of the City.  To begin with, a Grand Dame was more than just a place to sleep for rent--Each of them had some combination of the following:  

Formal Dining Rooms, for banquets and social functions.
Elegant Ballrooms for dances and nightlife.
Public Restaurants featuring full service fine dining.
Cocktail Lounges.
Concert Halls.
Lobbies or wrap around porches for socializing.
Many featured special sitting rooms for listening in on "Radio" or "Wireless Transmissions".

These Hotels were simply epic.  And Jacksonville's Downtown was one of the great places for them.  Not only would these brilliant establishments bring prosperity and tourism to the city, but they would eventually attract the attention of some of the great pioneers of the Hotel Industry, like the Robert Meyer Hotels Chain (an exquisite group of truly luxury hotels) which owned the luscious Windsor Hotel in Hemming Park and later the seemingly eponymous Robert Meyer Hotel of Civil Rights fame.

It would also give rise to a local Hotelier magnate---Robert Kloeppel, who owned and operated the legendary George Washington and Mayflower Hotels as well as his lesser known Hotel Jefferson.

Consider this map of the most famous of the Great Ladies of the Hotel Industry:

These Hotels were equipped with restaurants and public dining, but they were surrounded by concert halls and theaters that featured some of the most experimental and creative performances of their time--an era that spanned Vaudeville, the Little Theatre Movement, Jazz, Blues, Soul, and early film.

And keep in mind that the movie theaters in Jacksonville werent simply the motion picture houses of today.  Jacksonville was one of two places in which Film was being explored as a creative medium, and the movie palaces were actively in the process of developing the art form that would change the world.  It was no accident that Paramount would come to control so many of them, or that the company would open subsidiary offices in Jax...Films were being produced here, and Paramount was trying very hard to be able to control all distribution.

New York-based Kalem Studios was the first to open a permanent studio in Jacksonville in 1908. Over the course of the next decade, more than 30 silent film companies established studios in town, including Metro Pictures (later MGM), Edison Studios, Majestic Films, King Bee Film Company, Vim Comedy Company, Norman Studios, Gaumont Studios and Lubin Studios.

Our local theaters were showing films that were planned, written, shot and edited here in Jax, including the first Full Length Technicolor film, The Gulf Between, in 1917.

It was the custom of the era to eat dinner at one of the Hotel Dining Rooms and then go out to catch a show in the theater and entertainment districts.

Most people today are stunned when they see how many theaters were within walking distance in the downtown.  Consider this map of the major theaters (this doesnt include the private concert halls, or the many stages within the hotels themselves, just the houses specializing in entertainment:

In addition, Jacksonville had the privilege and good fortune to have an African American creative district of shocking vitality and explosive talent. A roll call of the contributions that came originally from Jacksonville or art forms that Jacksonville artists and performers were experimenting with---- often before the rest of the nation scarcely knew existed--is astounding.

Composers and musicians like John Rosamond Johnson and Eugene Francis Mikell; touring companies such as Patrick Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels and Eph Williams’ Silas Greene from New Orleans Company; and vaudeville houses, such as Frank Crowd’s Globe Theater, are included among them. Nationally recognized figures, including Billy Kersands, “Ma” Rainey, and “Jelly Roll” Morton worked for a significant amount of time on LaVilla’s stages.

In fact, the earliest documented professional performance of the blues was in, of all places, Jacksonville, Florida, on a stage was at the Colored Airdome on Ashley Street---making Jacksonville the first professional Home of The Blues.

Civil Rights leaders, James Weldon Johnson and Asa Philip Randolph, whose money, fame, influence and leadership proved so pivotal to the Harlem Renaissance were here in Jacksonville before the Harlem Years (as was Zora Neale Hurston, John Betsch and so many others)

Contrary to popular assumptions, these stages were playing to mixed audiences, and there were just as many white faces in the crowds of LaVilla as there were brown.

Consider the map of the following legendary locations in LaVilla:  It is but a sample of what was going on this neigborhood, but it does include the places where actual history happened.

Now imagine what this city was like with all of the above maps combined.  The density and the sheer numbers of these establishments is breathtaking.  Keep in mind that all of the hotels in red are offering their own in house entertainment.  Not included are the opera houses, the bars, the private restaurants, the civic associations, the church venues with their frequent community music performances, or even the fact that the steamships themselves were equipped with nightclubs and restaurants that were also open to the public.

So imagine how the family of means spent a typical evening in Jacksonville in the mid teens to the 1920s.  Dinner was served Prix Fixe at one of the grand hotels.  Afterwards, one would stroll down the street to whichever theater, stage, concert hall or performance seemed best.

Even amongst the Great Ladies, there were four of them whose reputation stands out across the  decades, and they were considered the four corners of Jacksonville Society during the era:

Primary amongst them was the Windsor.  It was the most blue blooded and it catered to the uppercrust.

It was followed in esteem by the Mayflower.

Next on the totem pole was the George Washington, followed by the Carling/Roosevelt.

Here is a list of the Grand Dames of Jacksonville's Golden Age.  Several of them changed hands and names over the years (as is noted on the map provided above by the slashies).

The Hotel Jefferson
905 West Adams Street, Jacksonville, Florida - A Kloeppel Hotel
125 Rooms with combination tub and shower baths.  Modern as the best.  Electric eye door. Air Conditioned Lobby and Coffee Shop.  Garage connected with Lobby Entrance.
100% Air Conditioned...Free Room TV and Radio...A Modern Hotel featuring "Family Plan" Rates...(No Charge for Children under 14 in Room with Parents.)...Excellent Coffee Shop and Cocktail Lounge.

The Hotel George Washington, on the corner of Adams and Julia Streets in Jacksonville, Florida, was a 15-story luxury hotel that was in operation from 1926 to 1971. The local firm of Marsh and Saxelbye served as architects. In its later years, it was one of only two luxury hotels in the downtown area. By the 1960s, it was the only five-star hotel in the area after the demise of the Hotel Roosevelt.

On Armistice Day 1925, local businessman Robert Kloeppel announced to crowds in downtown Jacksonville that a luxury hotel would be built. Other investors built the Hotel Roosevelt (then called the Carling Hotel) to compete with Kloeppel, and both hotels were constructed throughout 1926. On December 15, the George Washington was complete. The mayor at the time, John Alsop, along with the current and former Florida governor, were on hand for ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Radios were installed in every one of the 350 rooms so visitors could listen to opening-day festivities, broadcast by radio station WJAX. Kloeppel spent $1.5 million dollars of his own money to construct the hotel. The "Hotel George Washington" sign, built on the rooftop, was the first neon sign in Jacksonville.

The Hotel George Washington, in its heyday, was the center of cultural activities in Jacksonville. The George Washington Auditorium, built in 1941, was the biggest concert hall in town at the time (replacing the Duval County Armory), big enough for classical music events and cotillions. The Hotel housed a steak house, a cocktail lounge, a dance hall called the Rainbow Room, a Rexall drugstore and a barber shop. Charles Lindbergh stayed at the George Washington while visiting Jacksonville.

The Beatles were scheduled to stay there, but due to a mix-up regarding hotel occupancy, they were denied rooms. On September 11th 1964, the Beatles flew from Montreal to Jacksonville, Florida, in a trip that had been time delayed due to recent and extensive hurricane damage along the Florida coast, affecting the Jacksonville area. When attempting their arrival into Jacksonville, the Beatles were detoured to Key West, and were booked into the Key Wester Motel. It was then learned that the Hotel George Washington in Jacksonville would be unable to provide them with rooms at the last second.

Not allowing the difficulties of their arrival and their stay to stop them, the Beatles still appeared for the press conference at the Hotel George Washington, and their concert at the Gator Bowl. With civil rights being a heated issue in America in 1964, the Beatles had refused to accept the booking at the Gator Bowl until they received assurance that the audience would not be segregated by race. While eating with the press, Ringo stated, "We usually eat in the room, but seeing the hotel's got no room for us, we have to eat here." Due to the damage from Hurricane Dora, approximately one quarter of the people who had already purchased tickets were unable to attend the concert.

In 1964, most of the businesses which operated from the Roosevelt's ground floor moved into the George Washington. Despite the new infusion of business, behind-the-scenes turnover caused the George Washington to fall into disrepair. In 1963, original owner Robert Kloeppel sold the George Washington to dog track magnate Bill Johnston, who in turn sold the hotel to other investors in 1969.

After 1969, one by one, the businesses inside the ground floor went out of business. The hotel was closed in 1971 and torn down in 1973. Currently, the site is occupied by the new federal court building in downtown Jacksonville.

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