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What to do with LaVilla?

The recent scquabble between the Mayor's Office and Jerry Holland over the need to construct an $8 million Supervisor of Elections office/warehouse complex near the Ritz Theatre has overlooked the question of if such a project is even worthy for this historically significant area. For those who question its significance, here is a brief summary behind the sites still standing in Florida's first urbanized African-American community.

Published December 12, 2012 in History      24 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

11. 523 West Forsyth Street - 1905

This structure was a part of the Cunningham Furniture Company complex. Established as a small bicycle shop by John A. Cunningham in 1889, the Cunningham Furniture Company eventually grew to become Florida's oldest furniture company and one of the Southeast's largest home furnishing businesses before closing for good in 1984.

12. 521 West Forsyth Street - 1906/1921

521 West Forsyth Street

This small building opened in 1906 and was briefly a real estate office and bicycle shop.  In 1910, it was purchased by Charles Sumner, who utilized as a market for a dairy business passed down from his father, called the William P. Sumner Company.  During the 1980's, it housed JoAnn's Chili Bordello.  This restaurant was designed to look like a bordello and featured waitresses dressed in corsets and garter belts.  The restaurant's motto was "seventeen varieties of chili served in an atmosphere of sin.

516 Houston Street

This narrow 4-story building was built in 1910 as an addition to 521 West Forsyth Street by Charles Sumner.  Sumner, who's previous location had been destroyed by the Great Fire of 1901, constructed his new dairy operation with brick and reinforced concrete, making it fireproof.  During the 1920s, it was used by Jefferson Richard Berrier as an ice cream factory for the J.R. Berrier Ice Cream Company.  In 1961, Berrier's Ice Cream became the focal point of a NAACP boycott.

13. Jacksonville's Notorious red light district's last remaining bordello - 615 Houston Street - 1914

A century ago, then as Ward Street and located two blocks from Union Terminal, Houston street took the crown as Jacksonville's undisputed Red Light District. For those who don't know, a red light district is a place where there is a high concentration of prostitution and sex-oriented businesses.  San Francisco had the Barbary Coast, D.C. had 14th Street, in New Orleans tricks were turned in Storyville, and in New York, it was "The Deuce."  If you were willing to pay for a lady of the night in Jacksonville, you headed to LaVilla's Ward Street.

When this brick building was constructed, more than 60 whore houses lined a four block stretch of Ward Street west of Broad Street.  A popular strip for Jacksonville tourist and sailors, J.E.T. (Just Easy Times) Bowden used a pro-prostitution platform to win the mayor's race of 1915. Today, this is the last bordello building still standing that directly relates to Houston Street's colorful past.  

14. Old Fire Station Number 4 - 618 West Adams Street - 1914

This building opened in 1914 as Fire Station Number 4.  In 1944, a larger station opened two blocks north, replacing it.

15. Pilton Building - 218 North Broad Street - 1910

Constructed in 1910, the Pilton Building is one of the last remaining historic structures along Broad.  Across the street from the courthouse site, it was the home of Herman Bloom Shoes during the 1930s and United Shoes in the 1950s.

16. Brewster Hospital - 843 West Monroe Street - 1885

Built in 1885, this former residence of a local meat dealer became Jacksonville's first hospital for African Americans in 1901. Matilda Cutting Brewster of Danielson, Connecticut, donated $1,000 in honor of her late husband, the Rev. George A. Brewster, to help start the hospital.   Together with a training school for nurses, the facility was founded by the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church.

The hospital outgrew this structure and relocated in 1910. In 2005, the Old Brewster Hospital building was moved to its present location from its original site at 915 West Monroe Street.

17. 825 West Monroe Street - 1908

Religious structures where an instrumental part of LaVilla, north of Ward Street.  Most of the neighborhood was destroyed by the River City Renaissance plan during the 1990s, leaving this structure as one of the remaining survivors.  It was built in 1908 and was the First Born Holiness Church of Christ for many years.  Today, it is the Faith United Church of the Living God.  While the structure appears to be brick, exluding the bell tower and front facade, it is all wood frame construction.

18. 725 West Monroe Street - 1905-1908

After the Great Fire of 1901, many stately residences were constructed along West Monroe Street. One resident at 725 West Monroe fought to keep their house from being demolished as a part of the River City Renaissance neighborhood revitalization plan.  725 West Monroe was constructed between 1905 and 1908.  Solomon and Retta Shad were one of the first couples to call this Neo-Classical Revival structure home.  Shand was the owner of Solomon Shad, Inc., a West Bay Street liquor company.

19. Young Men's Hebrew Association - 712 West Duval Street - 1914

Today, the Young Men's Hebrew Association Building (Maceo Elks Lodge), is the oldest building still standing in Jacksonville of significance to the Jacksonville Jewish community.  Completed in 1914, it along with the B'Nai Israel Synagogue, was the epicenter of LaVilla's Jewish community.  The Y.M.H.A. relocated to Springfield in 1932.  In 1945, the structure was sold to the Maceo Elks Lodge, which still occupies the building today.

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triclops i

December 12, 2012, 04:04:24 AM


December 12, 2012, 04:33:03 AM
Great history lesson Ennis. Thank you.
Was 2012-732 removing the chairs from Hemming Plaza introduced last night at the full meeting of the Jacksonville city council?
Today at 2pm 1st floor city hall our new DIA Board will hear a presentation about our future branding for our city and a last minute presentation about 2012-732.
2025 is 2012


December 12, 2012, 08:56:02 AM
great tour Ennis!

ben says

December 12, 2012, 09:00:02 AM
Tried to invest in that building in the first picture with the multicolored 'windows'--unfortunately, the agent was one of the worst I've ever dealt with.


December 12, 2012, 09:16:10 AM
Any of these buildings up for sale?

Adam W

December 12, 2012, 09:22:09 AM
Looks like they've got a lot of great parking in Lavilla.


December 12, 2012, 09:29:34 AM
That is a wonderful history lesson!  Thanks so much for all your hard work!!!


December 12, 2012, 09:35:13 AM
good stuff!

ben says

December 12, 2012, 09:43:41 AM
Any of these buildings up for sale?

Yes...2 or 3 I can think of off the top of my head. Like many agents in this city, the one I worked with was completely delusional


December 12, 2012, 10:20:42 AM
wonderful Ennis.  Thanks


December 12, 2012, 10:58:54 AM
What a treasure of information! Thanks for all your hard work.


December 12, 2012, 12:16:34 PM
Is the Old Stanton School being used today?  It looks to be in good condition.

The Masonic Lodge is a beautiful building.  I wish someone would occupy it.   

Cheshire Cat

December 12, 2012, 12:48:21 PM
Great piece Ennis and I love the research and history you put together.  You know I have done a lot of work and research in La Villa as well and probably have original pictures you have never seen of some of the beautiful homes that were torn down that still had character and structural integrity.  All the homes as you have shown were not all row houses, not by a long shot.  What you also showed in the pictures is that LaVilla was very "uptown" In its day.  Men and women were well dressed when they visited local businesses and were themselves respectful, educated, talented and business minded individuals. 

Of course I was happy to see the "Historic Brewster Hospital" in the article as well.   I am very proud of that save in LaVilla.  Did you know that when the building was under restoration, we actually discovered that 1885 is not when it was built?  The original structure was older.  It began as a four room winter home with an offsite kitchen and outhouse.  The first building and smoke stack was uncovered during restoration.  The build date is believed to be around 1865 with the first "Italianate" features added in 1885, which is when the date in the porch trim was added.  Then some time later it underwent yet a third addition that was added early enough to still make it "historic".  Can't remember the date of that addition right off the bat.  Up in the rafters of the original structure and on a support beam there are the signatures of myself, Councilwoman Glorious Johnson and all the Brewster Nurses.  Now you all know a secret about the building as well.  :)  The tale of the destruction of LaVilla is a long one and can only be fully understood when the background stories of race, developers, passing out of city money and private agenda's are discussed.  Fortunately, many of those influences have lost power and stature and perhaps it is a good time to do as you have done and revisit the issue and save what is left of the historic community of LaVilla.  I will add more info later if you like. 

Debbie Thompson

December 12, 2012, 01:15:27 PM
Absolutley, Cheshire.  It is incredibly sad what was lost, and so important to save the rest.  Ennis, thanks so much for the history of some of those old buildings I have so admired as I drive home up Broad Street every day.  Knowing the history makes them even more wonderful in my eyes.

Cheshire Cat

December 12, 2012, 06:55:25 PM
Apparently the city is now investigating commercial use for the property in LaVilla that the SOE is interested in.

Mike D

December 12, 2012, 09:36:58 PM
Great article filled with important history.  Excellent job of pulling it all together and reminding us of the forgotten history of this part of town.  I learned a lot in this one!


December 12, 2012, 11:17:49 PM

LaVilla's Railroad Row on West Bay Street during the early 20th century. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

Fantastic tour Lakelander! 

I'm still trying to square this photo with the caption, the building on the right appears to be the massive A & EC Terminal Station, but that station was behind "railroad row" and not easily visible from Bay Street. The double track streetcar line DOES appear to be Bay Street, but there were several other lines in La Villa, a bunch of which were pulled up and moved around. Could this be another building that we haven't ID'ed?

Anybody have any ideas?


December 13, 2012, 12:33:46 AM
^That image is taken of Bay Street, looking west, in the vicinity of Madison Street (if it were extended to Bay).  Here is a sanborn map showing the general urban footprint:


December 13, 2012, 12:36:25 AM
The tale of the destruction of LaVilla is a long one and can only be fully understood when the background stories of race, developers, passing out of city money and private agenda's are discussed.  Fortunately, many of those influences have lost power and stature and perhaps it is a good time to do as you have done and revisit the issue and save what is left of the historic community of LaVilla.  I will add more info later if you like.

I'd love to hear more.  I'm taking you out for coffee when I get back to town after the Christmas.


December 13, 2012, 09:58:55 AM
LaVilla offers us a broad scope of destination sites. As stated the ethnic history is rich, and that is in addition to railroad history, streetcars, music, artists etc.

The first demolition of the neighborhood on a large scale was when they put the Jacksonville Expressway Authority's highway (the future I-95) right through the western quarter.  It would be nice to know the history of those buildings located just west of the 'expressway' in the vicinity of the 'old brickyard' or 'brick church.'

Cheshire Cat

December 13, 2012, 05:06:36 PM
I will look forward to that coffee Ennis.  :)

heights unknown

June 06, 2013, 05:29:06 PM
There is no more LaVilla; I mean, the real LaVilla that I knew when I was a child (age 8 to 11). Those of you who know me and have read my posts in the past know that I was raised, and lived in LaVilla from 1965 to 1968 (817 West Duval Street long torn down), before my Mom and I moved to Fort Myers. You can never recapture the taste, flair, flamboyance, history, and culture of what was LaVilla; so in my opinion, the best thing to do is leave that buried, at rest have you. But in respect to LaVilla, in and of itself, bring in developments that will make it notable, alive, and noteworthy with a definite identity to Jacksonvillians and those visitors from outside of the City. One thing I would like to see is LaVilla transformed into a business and residential district and culture, existing side by side in LaVilla...akin to what Miami did with Brickell but with a Jacksonville taste; yes, nice mid to high rise skyscrapers, both residential and commercial, with stores and other businesses lined around in support of the people who live and work not only around LaVilla, but also within the new neighborhood itself, and, I think this would greatly complement and support the new Train Station/Transportation Center, and also the new construction going on south of LaVilla in Brooklyn. If not this, then make LaVilla full of residential low to mid rise structures, along with apartment buildings, stores, gas stations, etc., where anyone of any race can live there.


June 06, 2013, 06:04:06 PM
Medium-density neighborhood with 5-10 story mixed-use buildings on Broad St, Beaver St and Forsyth or Bay St with primarily residential (rowhouses/townhouses, 3-4 story apt buildings) filling in the rest, with a park/square on one of the currently vacant blocks around Adams and Lee or Lee/Church.


July 13, 2013, 08:53:47 PM
Who could have foreseen in our fervent wish to sit next to White folks in diners, we would lose our civic identity?
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