Walkable Commercial Districts: 8th & Main

September 12, 2011 44 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In our series of focusing on Jacksonville's long-overlooked historic, walkable commercial districts, we visit Springfield's 'central business district': 8th & Main.

8th & Main History

8th & Main was originally intended to be a tourist attraction at the end of a new streetcar line into Springfield.  Instead it would develop into a commercial, transit-oriented district serving the needs of the rapidly growing residential community around it.

In May 1882, the Springfield Company was formed by several prominent Jacksonville citizens, including S.B. Hubbard, Johnathan Greeley, and William McDuff.  Coupled with the extension of the trolley line out Main Street (then known as Pine Street), brought about the first real surge of development to Springfield.  The streetcar line was built in 1882 from Bay to 8th Street by Mr. B. Upton, who leased it in 1884 to Mr. G.A. Backenstoe.  With visions of a profitable resort at 8th & Main, Backenstoe built a skating rink, dinner hall, and restaurant.  When profits failed to materialize, the line was sold to the Springfield Company.  With the street railway serving Springfield exclusively, the suburb's population grew to 356 by 1886.  In 1887, a new Jacksonville charter brought Springfield and seven other suburbs into the city limits.
Source: Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage, page 172

In the decade following the Great Fire of 1901, Springfield was Jacksonville's fastest growing suburb increasing to 8,000 residents by 1909.  During this time, the streetcar line was double track and extended north into New Springfield.  Located at the center of the early 20th century residential building boom, 8th & Main would quickly develop into a transit-friendly, walkable commercial district.  During the mid 20th century, Main's prominance would decline due to a number of factors, including the removal of the streetcar line in 1936 and the construction of the Jacksonville Expressway (now I-95), which caused the majority of through traffic to completely bypass the business district.  In the last decade, despite national recognition of Springfield's successful revitalization, 8th & Main is remains a district waiting for rebirth.

Looking south at the intersection of 8th & Main during the early 1930s.

Looking south at the intersection of 8th & Main in 1958.

8th & Main's Heyday

A number of Setzer's used to dot Jacksonville.  A longtime Jax resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers a Setzer's near the intersection of 8th & Main in Springfield.  During the Thirties & Forties, this locale served as something of a mini-downtown for its surrounding area.  According to the Jax resident, its establishments included an A & P Supermarket, Alan's Dime Store, Woolworth's Department Store, Akra's Department Store, and the Capital Theater.  After she got married, moreover, the long-time resident recalls buying her family's first radio and black & white TV at a Western Auto Store near 8th & Main.  

During the 1930s, the Capital Theater ran Saturday double features that could be attended for ten cents. (This translates into roughly $1.35 in today's currency -- Still a bargain!)  Along with feature flicks, the dime also bought serials, newsreels, short comedy films, and coming attractions.  The serials, the resident says, were often westerns that always seemed to end with a house blowing up or a horse falling off a cliff, followed by the cliffhanging message, "CONTINUED NEXT WEEK!"  At times, the theater even provided a live emcee for the Saturday matinees.
www.jaxhistory.com/Jacksonville Story/Picture of Supermarket, Setzer's at San Marco.htm

A Walk Down 8th & Main Today(This article focuses on Main Street, between 6th & 9th Streets)

Main Street (block between 9th & 8th Streets)

Today, this block transitions between pedestrian-friendly and late 20th century, autocentric commercial intrusion into the historic district.

Now city-owned and abandoned, 9th & Main was originally a Firestone Tire store before being renovated into restaurant/entertainment use.

The Klutho Apartments building was designed by H.J. Klutho in 1913.  The facade of this building is said to be one of Jacksonville's great works of art and Prairie-style design. From 1929 to 1934, Klutho's architectural office was located inside the building.  Today, the structure is owned by Operation New Hope and lives on as an office building.

The facade of this building is one of Jacksonville's great works of art and is a masterpiece of Klutho's Prairie School design. The windows, doors, and attic vents feature lively ornamentation with motifs of interlocking circles, rectangles, hexagons, and diamonds. The building’s skillful interplay of horizontal and vertical lines, as well as the rhythm of masses and voids, is accentuated by this ornamental detail. A dramatic prow roof gives a dynamic soaring appearance to the upper part of the composition. Perhaps the most striking feature of the building is the four cantilevered wood balconies at the front elevation overlooking Main Street.

Klutho’s own residence (above, left) was originally located beside this apartment building on Main Street. This splendid pair of Prairie School masterpieces was severed when the house was relocated to its present site around the corner on Ninth Street in 1925. From 1929 to 1934 Klutho had his office in a downstairs apartment; he also resided in this building for several years. In 1943 the apartment building was sold to Isaiah Dionne, who changed the name to Dionne's Springfield Apartments. The rear portion of the building was ravaged by fire in 1993, and the building was almost lost. Its dramatic restoration was completed by Fresh Ministries in 2005 under the supervision of architect Robert C. Broward.

The remains of a Rally's Hamburgers restaurant

This section of Main Street is jokingly referred to as "The Chicken District" by many in the community.  However, the cluster of fast food chains north of Main Street tend to stay busy with a steady stream of hungry customers.

Main Street (block between 8th & 7th Streets)

This section remains the most intact urban commercial block along Main Street, between Downtown Jacksonville and the Trout River.  During Springfield's heyday, the majority of blocks between 8th and Downtown Jacksonville contained this type of building density.

This H.J. Klutho's Florence Court Apartments at the SE corner of 8th & Main.

Frank M. Richardson was a well-respected contractor working with Klutho on several Prairie School projects, including Morocco Temple and the Florida Life Building, when he constructed this three-story commercial building for himself in 1911 at the southeast corner of Eighth and Main streets in the  Springfield neighborhood. He named it for his wife, Florence. It was built with shops on the ground floor and eight apartments on the upper two stories, each of which had its own recessed balcony and overlooked a central courtyard. There was garage space at the rear for six automobiles, certainly a novel provision in 1911. Originally the storefronts had suspended metal and glass canopies over the sidewalk in front. In 1929 these canopies were removed, as were the tile pent roofs above the upper balconies facing Main Street. At this time the courtyard was enclosed. A few years later Florence Court was converted into a hotel, but the building continued to decline and was partially vacant for many years.

Klutho produced a plan that predated the “bi-nuclear” plans of architect Marcel Breuer by forty years. (Bi-nuclear is an academic label for a floor plan that is divided into two separate and often equal parts served by a common entrance.) Florence Court consisted of two identical three-story wings with a landscaped court between them. At the exact midpoint of the two identical wings, Klutho placed the main entrance tower for the apartments. The tower was entered from the court that opened onto Main Street, creating a delightful oasis adjacent to the busy thoroughfare. The first floor provided space for five stores that opened onto Main Street at each side of the entrance court and to Eighth Street around the corner.

Inside, the main stair was spacious and beautifully detailed in wood, and its windows overlooked the entrance court. Each living room had a fireplace and could be combined with a dining room to form a larger space by the use of sliding walls. The apartments facing Main Street commanded the highest rent ($540 a year), with both dining and living rooms opening to covered, full-width balconies overlooking the thoroughfare. Living rooms facing Eighth Street opened through French doors onto cantilevered balconies.

The main Prairie School feature of Florence Court was the design of the stair tower in the entrance court between the two main wings of the building.  Here Klutho terminated two vertical stucco piers with abstract stucco designs, again reminiscent of Wright’s Larkin Building capitals. These designs were well-executed and imparted a richness to the tower facade that faced Main Street from the court. Other geometric details executed in carved wood, wrought iron, and tile on the cantilevered Eighth Street balconies enriched the facade within the Prairie School idiom.

In 1984 the building was remodeled into apartments once again. Crowned by Klutho’s Prairie-style cross motifs atop two towering stucco piers, the courtyard was reopened and has once again become the focal point of the facade. This long-awaited restoration of the courtyard was devalued by the awkward enclosing of the storefront openings. The “remuddling” was made even more unsympathetic by covering the exterior with modern textured stucco and by packing thirty-six apartment units into this single building.

Carl's Main Street Restaurant is housed in what was once a Lane-Rexall Drug Store.

Rexall was a chain of North American drugstores, and the name of their store-branded products. The stores, having roots in the federation of United Drug Stores starting in 1902, licensed the Rexall brand name to as many as 12,000 drug stores across the United States from 1920 to 1977.

The David Brothers Building was constructed in 1910 is one of a few buildings along Main, of its kind.  It originally had a "New Orleans" style second floor balcony that extended over the sidewalk.  Original tenants included the David Brother's dry goods store, P.J. Mullen's ice cream parlor and stationery store, the Springfield Electric Company and apartments upstairs.

This is the only parking lot between 8th & 7th Streets.  It was the site of the Capital Theatre.

The Capital Theatre in 1927.

The Springfield Atlantic Bank was located next door to F.W. Woolworths (Surfside Furniture building in image below).  This building was demolished and replaced with an addition to Woolworth's.  A close look at the image below reveals a change in brick color between new (right) and old (left) Woolworth facades.

The interior of the former F.W. Woolworth building illustrates the condition of several structures along Main Street.  The sad state of these properties make them financially difficult for small businesses to occupy them.

Built in 1907 and renovated in 2005, the Goffin Building has four apartments upstairs and will soon be the home of a Suntrust Bank branch at street level.  Ground level leased rates are advertised at $12/square foot at: http://www.showcase.com/property/1702-N-Main-Street/Jacksonville/Florida/1016813

Main Street (block between 7th & 6th Streets)

A significant amount of pedestrian-friendly building stock remains, along with space for small infill projects along this section of Main Street.

Main Street (block between 6th & 5th Streets)

Three of Main Street's most successful businesses lie on the west side of this block, while the east side is highly underutilized.

Ideas to Improve 8th & Main

Unlike many established urban core commercial districts, Springfield's Main Street continues to draw high interest from urban pioneers looking to bring life to the corridor.  However, years after the completion of Main Street's streetscape beautification project, revitalization has continued to be a slow process.  Unfortunately, the natural revitalization process has been negatively impacted by neighborhood politics, poor existing building conditions and overzealous lease rate expectations by property owners within the district.  This proves that sometimes it takes more than a physical makeover of the public realm to encourage private investment.  

Here are three suggestions that could help get 8th & Main over the hump.

1. Tactical Urbanism

In many urban communities, food truck lots have been created to attract activity to underutilized surface parking lots and vacant sites.

In a city with a bleeding municipal budget, the concept of tactical urbanism would be ideal for a district like 8th & Main.  In short, Tactical Urbanism is a concept that focuses on creating vibrancy through small scale cost effective actions.  Examples of Tactical Urbanism would include flooding the district with a regular rotation of events like pub crawls, mobile food truck crawls, farmer's markets, sidewalk sales, music and food festivals.  By providing a regular rotation of activities that attract attention and foot traffic, the district would receive greater exposure, which creates better opportunities for small business growth and development.

2. Embracing Diversity

During the natural commercial revitalization process, demographics might call for a discount seafood market or car wash instead of a Starbucks or Trader Joe's.  Just remember that a successful discount seafood market is better than a vacant building and paves the way for additional business growth.

One of Springfield's greatest assets is its diversity.  In the past neighborhood politics have stymied the natural urban revitalization process.  Simply creating an environment where all businesses, allowed by law, are welcomed to the area could resolve most of Main Street's struggles on its own.

3. Incentivize Existing Building Restorations

Many existing buildings are in a physical state that require cost prohibitive structural investment for small businesses.

Main Street's existing building fabric is both a blessing and a curse for small business growth.  The presence of available building stock creates opportunities for small businesses to open.  However, the physical condition and unrealistic view of property's value along the corridor make small business set up and success more difficult than it has to be.  Part of Alvin Brown's mayoral platform focused on implementing policies and incentizing business development to help create jobs.  Main Street would be a great place to experiment with incentives to convert existing commercial properties into a usable state.  However, any entity taking advantage of such a program should be tied into keeping lease rates at a realistic level for small businesses, for a period of time.

Article by Ennis Davis.  Historic images courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.