Abandoned Jacksonville: The Laura Street Trio

November 18, 2011 51 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

A look inside what may be the most historically significant corner in downtown Jacksonville: The endangered Laura Street Trio.

A Brief History of the Laura Trio Buildings

The Laura Trio during the 1920s.  Images courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

THE LAURA TRIO: The "Chicago-style" Bisbee Building (right) was designed by H.J. Klutho in 1908-09. The Florida Life Building (left), also designed by Klutho, was Jacksonville's tallest building in 1912 and is known as the city's purest statement of a "skyscraper." The "Marble Bank" (center) was completed in 1902 as the Mercantile Exchange Bank.

Old Florida National Bank (Marble Bank)

Old Florida National Bank
51 West Forsyth Street
Date: 1902 (original); 1905-1906 (addition); 1916 (remodeling)
Architects: Edward H. Glidden (1902); Unknown (1905-1906); Mowbray & Uffinger (1916)
Builder: M.T. Hallowes & Company (original)

This bank was originally constructed with the facade half as wide as it is today.  Built in 1902 as the Merchantile Exchange Bank, it was purchased three years later by the newly organized Florida Bank & Trust, the forerunner of today's Florida National Bank chain.  The new banking firm expanded the building to its present size, retaining the Neo-Classical Revival style.  The entire facade is sheathed in marble, including six massive columns also made of marble.  In 1916, the interior of the building was completely gutted and redesigned by the New York architecture firm of Mowbray and Uffinger.  A grand banking room was created, complete with a spectacular skylight, coffered ceiling, and classical plaster detailing, at a cost of $135,000.  During the 1950s, two dropped ceilings that covered the skylight and plaster ornamentation were added.  In 1978, the Jacksonville National Bank, then owner of the building, commissioned architect Robert Broward to guide the restoration of the interior to its 1916 splendor.  The false ceilings were removed, the skylight was uncovered, and the beautiful plaster detailing was once again revealed.  Both the bank and the architect received awards for this dramatic restoration and at the time, "the Marle Bank" had become a leading example of the preservation consciousness of Jacksonville's business community.

Source: Page 61, Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage Landmarks For The Future

Bisbee Building

Bisbee Building
47 North Laura Street
Date: 1908 - 1909
Architect: Henry J. Klutho
Builder: Southern Ferro Concrete Company and W.T. Hadlow & Company

This building was originally constructed to be only twenty-six feet wide, one-half of its present width.  The novelty of it being Jacksonville's first skyscraper made the office space highly sought after, and the building was completely rented before construction was finished.  Thus, the owner, William A. Bisbee, directed the architect H.J. Klutho to double the size of the building.  The east wall of the original narrow tower was removed and an additional vertical section was added, resulting in its present configuration.  The ten-story building was Florida's first reinforced-concrete frame highrise office building.  According to Klutho, this system was so new that the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company refused to make a construction loan until full engineering data were submitted, and their own architect was dispatched to Jacksonville to go over the figures.  The Forsyth Street facade is faced with polished limestone and terra-cotta, and features broad plate glass "Chicago-style" windows, a copper cornice, and various abstract geometric ornaments.  This building is an early example of Klutho's affinity for the high-rise architectural concepts that were pioneered in Chicago.

Source: Page 60, Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage Landmarks For The Future

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

Photographs Below Submitted to Metro Jacksonville by Nomeus

The Future

In May 2010, plans were announced to convert these long empty historically significant buildings into a mix of uses.  The $70 million project included converting the Marble Bank into an upscale restaurant, the Florida Life Building into 19 apartments, the Bisbee into 36 apartments and the nearby Barnett Bank Building into a boutique hotel.  In addition, plans included a new eight-story building with 42 apartments and a 250 space parking garage.

In June 2011, developers of the project mentioned that they had been approved for a construction loan and permanent financing through a private equity group, but that the project would not move forward without $5 million in tax credits.  If this proposal can become reality, this would be a major coup in the effort to re-energize downtown Jacksonville.

Photos by nomeus via www.flurbex.com

Article by Ennis Davis.