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Walkable Commercial Districts: San Marco Square

Jacksonville's urban core is home to a number of historic walkable neighborhood commercial districts. Many are a direct result of the defunct 60-mile Jacksonville streetcar network, which was operated by the Jacksonville Traction Company. Today, Metro Jacksonville highlights a popular destination along the former South Jacksonville Municipal Railways (Jacksonville's MUNI) streetcar line: San Marco Square

Published July 2, 2012 in Neighborhoods      24 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


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San Marco Square History



The development of the original 80-acre San Marco subdivision by Telfair Stockton & Company dates back to 1925. Four years earlier in 1921, the Acosta Bridge opened establishing vehicular and streetcar connectivity for the first time between South Jacksonville and Jacksonville.  


This is a builders catalog photo of a double ended Birney 'Safety Car.' The South Jacksonville Municipal Railways equipment was so cutting edge for it's time, that the builder of thousands of American streetcars used no less then two photos of South Jacksonville MUNI cars in their advertisements.

Streetcar service in the area was originally provided by the South Jacksonville Municipal Railways.  Constructed in 1923 by the City of South Jacksonville, two streetcar lines ran in the vicinity of the square. The car lines intersected at Atlantic and Hendricks. The first was a north-south line that connected the neighborhoods of Granada and Miramar traveling alongside Old San Jose, Hendricks and Prudential Drive into downtown Jacksonville via the original Acosta Bridge.  The second streetcar line operated along Atlantic Boulevard, connecting what would become San Marco Square with Fletcher Park and Fulton Green at the corner of Fulton, Kings and Atlantic. From Fulton Green, the Florida East Coast Railway branch line to the beaches and Mayport were just a few steps from the end of the car line. The stop also provided popular access to the Philips and Saint Nicholas communities.  


The Little Theatre in 1953.

On September 13, 1925, the Mediterranean-themed San Marco shattered all previous records for subdivision sales in Jacksonville when every lot offered was sold in three hours.  That same year, a triangular shaped commercial area began to spring up around the intersection of Atlantic and San Marco Boulevards.  This commercial area, which included a multi-level fountain at its center, was called San Marco Square and based on the Piazza di San Marco in Venice, Italy.




Seven years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, the South Jacksonville Municipal Railways was swept up in the merger of the City of South Jacksonville into Jacksonville in 1932. This would be the same year that the Jacksonville Traction Company sold out to Motor Transit Company, which was part of National City Lines and the nationwide General Motors streetcar conspiracy. Many angry residents of South Jacksonville justifiably felt their MUNI had been stolen for scrap value.



San Marco Square Today






Now known as the site of Square One, the San Marco Building was the first commercial structure built on San Marco Square.  The first retailer in this building was Towne Pump Drugs and Sundries, which remained in business for 50 years.






Southside Baptist Church












The Art Deco designed San Marco Theater opened its doors on the 4th of July, 1938, featuring "Hopalong Cassidy Rides Again" and "A Slight Case of Murder" for thirty cents.










Designed in 1937 by Ivan H. Smith, one of the founders of Reynolds, Smith & Hills, the Little Theatre is the nation's oldest continuously operating community theatre group.








This building was completed in 1927 and was the location of San Marco's Setzer's Supermarket for a number of years.  Setzer's was a grocery chain that was founded by Benjamin Setzer in Springfield.  By the time the company was sold to Food Fair Stores in 1958, it had grown into a 40 unit chain with stores throughout Florida and South Georgia.








Designed by Angela Shiffanela and Alan Wilson, the San Marco fountain lions were added to the district in 1997.








Matthews Restaurant and the South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church (background)

Quote
In 1939, the same year as the New York World’s Fair and the release of “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” the South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church moved to the three story brick building first erected at its present location. During the 1940s, church membership grew dramatically, so much that the church had to rent a city bus to accommodate the men’s Sunday School class that had to meet under the big oak tree in the yard.

In 1949, the congregation of around 1,000 members broke ground for a beautiful new church building and sanctuary. The first services were held in the new sanctuary in 1950.
http://www.sjaxpc.org/about/history/



Balis Park is located in the middle of San Marco Square on a site that where a Spanish-style Gulf service station was constructed in 1927.  In 1984, long after that station had been replaced by a modern gas station, the City purchased the parcel for the development of a park.  The park's construction costs were funded by Abla Balis, in memory of her husband, Sheffield, who passed in 1976.  The Balis' were longtime residents of San Marco.  The dedication ceremony took place in January 1988, and later improvements included a sound system, the bronze sculpture Windy Days, and landscaping, which were funded by the estate of Abla Balis and the City.









One of Jacksonville's true "town centers", San Marco Square is centrally located at the intersection of San Marco Boulevard and Atlantic Boulevard.

Article and images by Ennis Davis and Robert Mann.  Historic images courtesy of Florida Photographic Archives Collection.










24 Comments

Noone

July 02, 2012, 04:52:31 AM
Another nice article about Jacksonville's history.

simms3

July 02, 2012, 06:10:34 AM
San Marco might be my favorite neighborhood in Jacksonville.  Looks like the Balis Park dedication is in Hebrew.  Any idea what it says?

acme54321

July 02, 2012, 06:50:01 AM
Actually, I think it's Arabic.  Not postitive though.

dougskiles

July 02, 2012, 06:56:17 AM
The one problem is the vast amount of asphalt in the Square.  Walking from one side to the next can be treacherous.

Do you have any information about the building currently occupied by AT&T at the corner of Hendricks and Alford?

ben says

July 02, 2012, 07:05:57 AM
It's Arabic, and I believe it's just a translation of the quote above it.

I agree, Doug, about the vast amount of asphalt and the treacherous walk. Moreover, with the new construction that never seems to end, it looks like it's only getting vaster/more open at that end (and therefore, probably going to be more treacherous).

sandyshoes

July 02, 2012, 08:13:00 AM
I seem to recall that the gazebo was erected on the very site where Mr. Balis was murdered at his Gulf station, back in the 1980's, during a robbery.  Does anyone else recall this?  It was very, very sad as he was apparently well-liked in the neighborhood. 

aubureck

July 02, 2012, 08:51:14 AM
I love that area.  My 4yo loves anything "downtown" (which she thinks is any grouping of two or more buildings above 3 stories tall).  I brought her to San Marco Square on Friday and we walked around the area, had lunch at San Marco Deli, played in the bookstore and the fountain.  I also told her that this is what "downtown" was like, a place where you can park your car and walk around and visit a lot of stores and places.

tg

July 02, 2012, 09:58:26 AM
Great article.

Is Setzer's the only supermarket that has been in the area? I am curious how long San Maco has been without a proper grocery. This leads to also ask if there are any updates on the East San Marco Publix development?

ben says

July 02, 2012, 10:05:19 AM
Great article.

Is Setzer's the only supermarket that has been in the area? I am curious how long San Maco has been without a proper grocery. This leads to also ask if there are any updates on the East San Marco Publix development?

I remember as a kid there was a Pic N' Save where Setzers used to be. Not a "true" grocery store, but pretty close. Used to love that place.

I, too, am curious about the East San Marco development.

Tacachale

July 02, 2012, 11:02:56 AM
Hands down one of the best areas of Jacksonville. Now if only we can get a grocery store...

peestandingup

July 02, 2012, 12:43:16 PM
Everyone likes what they like, but it's honestly my least favorite of all the urban neighborhoods. I appreciate that it's there & think it has tons going for it, but as far as "look & feel", it's not my cup of tea. It's looking more & more suburban lately, esp with the cramming in of vehicles into every nook & cranny (a lot like Avondale in that respect). I mean, could someone who didn't know really be able to tell the difference between SM square & a newer "urban style" smaller shopping district in the suburbs? Not because of just the cars lined up, but it just has that feel to me.

Personally, I think Five Points, King Street, Springfield & even parts of Downtown have a lot more character & are a lot more interesting overall. And still look very much urban. Again, I'm not saying one area is "better" than another (everyone likes different things).

Bewler

July 02, 2012, 01:15:42 PM
Hands down one of the best areas of Jacksonville. Now if only we can get a grocery store...

Take action Tacachale! March into city hall and demand that they put a Piggly Wiggly in the lot across from Laylas.

thelakelander

July 02, 2012, 01:31:46 PM
Everyone likes what they like, but it's honestly my least favorite of all the urban neighborhoods. I appreciate that it's there & think it has tons going for it, but as far as "look & feel", it's not my cup of tea. It's looking more & more suburban lately, esp with the cramming in of vehicles into every nook & cranny (a lot like Avondale in that respect). I mean, could someone who didn't know really be able to tell the difference between SM square & a newer "urban style" smaller shopping district in the suburbs? Not because of just the cars lined up, but it just has that feel to me.

Personally, I think Five Points, King Street, Springfield & even parts of Downtown have a lot more character & are a lot more interesting overall. And still look very much urban. Again, I'm not saying one area is "better" than another (everyone likes different things).
Sounds like you're a fan of urban grit?  I don't mean this as a negative.  There's a whole bunch of urban grit lovers at skyscraperpage.com who share images of their city's grit regularly.  It was one of my main draws to online forums initially.

BrooklynSouth

July 02, 2012, 01:38:48 PM
Huh. I've never seen the monument to Abla Balis, but the Arabic script makes me very curious. I just read about how the development of Whiteway Corner on King Street was by the Nasrallah brothers, and I saw an slef-published autobiography at the Jacksonville Historical Society about an early Arab resident. I also know that a survivor of the Titanic completed her trip to Jacksonville, one Jamila Nicola-Yarred from Lebanon. http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/jamila-amelia-garrett-nicola-yarred.html

Hovan has been in Five Points for a long time and Palestinian familes run Casbah and Pinegrove Deli. What is the Arab history of Jacksonville?

peestandingup

July 02, 2012, 02:19:18 PM
Everyone likes what they like, but it's honestly my least favorite of all the urban neighborhoods. I appreciate that it's there & think it has tons going for it, but as far as "look & feel", it's not my cup of tea. It's looking more & more suburban lately, esp with the cramming in of vehicles into every nook & cranny (a lot like Avondale in that respect). I mean, could someone who didn't know really be able to tell the difference between SM square & a newer "urban style" smaller shopping district in the suburbs? Not because of just the cars lined up, but it just has that feel to me.

Personally, I think Five Points, King Street, Springfield & even parts of Downtown have a lot more character & are a lot more interesting overall. And still look very much urban. Again, I'm not saying one area is "better" than another (everyone likes different things).
Sounds like you're a fan of urban grit?  I don't mean this as a negative.  There's a whole bunch of urban grit lovers at skyscraperpage.com who share images of their city's grit regularly.  It was one of my main draws to online forums initially.

I guess you could say that. :) Or perhaps just older looking areas in general appeal more to me, no matter if they're "cleaned up" or not. Don't get me wrong, I'd prefer if they were kept up & modernized so they can reach their full potential & live on, just as long as they keep the original feel. But they can still be gritty too. For instance, whenever I'm downtown on my bike, I sometimes like to ride up Philip Randolph then through the lower end of Springfield. Sure, I get a lot of looks (and I sometimes have to talk my bike friends into coming), but I don't care. I appreciate those areas & enjoy them simply because of what they are.

But yeah, I guess I'm just not a fan of newer more "modern" urban areas. That's probably why I've never been a fan of places like Atlanta & Charlotte.

Oh, and thanks for the link! I'm def gonna check that out.

stephendare

July 02, 2012, 02:58:15 PM
Huh. I've never seen the monument to Abla Balis, but the Arabic script makes me very curious. I just read about how the development of Whiteway Corner on King Street was by the Nasrallah brothers, and I saw an slef-published autobiography at the Jacksonville Historical Society about an early Arab resident. I also know that a survivor of the Titanic completed her trip to Jacksonville, one Jamila Nicola-Yarred from Lebanon. http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/jamila-amelia-garrett-nicola-yarred.html

Hovan has been in Five Points for a long time and Palestinian familes run Casbah and Pinegrove Deli. What is the Arab history of Jacksonville?

Jacksonville has been home to a very strong, hardworking and beloved arabic community for more than a hundred years.  Families like the Fores, the Batehs, the Hazouris, Attallas and Farahs have been in the forefront of the community for generations.  Along with an early Jewish community Jacksonville welcomed and embraced Minorcans Greeks and Mormons long before the rest of the South.

Mike D

July 02, 2012, 09:15:24 PM
Back to the question about grocery stores and the Setzers in San Marco, an A&P was located in the square for decades in the triangle just beyond what is now Balis Park.  Historic pictures show other groceries in the square as well...a "Model" store and, I think, a Piggly Wiggly, though I'm not as sure of that one.  Years after Setzers was gone, a Pic 'N Save occupied the same space.  And the A&P was operating in San Marco well into the '80's I believe.

rveckruise

July 16, 2012, 02:47:25 AM
This photo album is an outstanding display of one of the most charming, warm and inviting areas of Jacksonville. I have fond childhood memories of the SM Theater (Saturday Features and real popcorn) The Little Theater with memorable performances
and many others. Modernization has not eroded the uniqueness of this special place.

Captain Zissou

August 26, 2013, 03:20:05 PM
In a work meeting I heard that the SM Publix has received approval and will be moving forward. I don't know many details, but the people who told me are well informed on the store and it's progress

Tacachale

August 26, 2013, 03:27:08 PM
^Man, don't even play. I thought the holdup was the residential portion of the development?

Captain Zissou

August 26, 2013, 03:35:31 PM
Maybe so, but I don't have much knowledge on that side. All I know is the Publix recently cleared a development hurdle and is gaining some traction.

CityLife

August 26, 2013, 04:19:05 PM
The residential had been the hold up, but last I heard Regency was looking to make it work without or before the residential, so Zissou is probably onto something. Also think there was the possibility of a new developer coming on for the residential, so perhaps that changed it too.

Ton Up Jax

September 17, 2013, 11:05:38 AM
I lived in San Marco from 1970 to 1990, and I remember an A&P that later became a Banner Food Store in a building that was where the Bank of America is now. It was a long L-shaped building with the grocery store on one end facing Southside Baptist Church and an office supply store facing what is now The Loop restaurant on the other end. I remember walking to the square from our home on River Road to get candy from Peterson's 5&10 and watch movies at the San Marco Theatre. Utsey's Buster Brown Shoe Store had a pedal-powered carousel for the kids to ride, Mims had homemade doughnuts to die for, and we loved to spin around on the stools at Stand N Snack. Harvey Kirby's Shell station only had full service gas pumps, and we often were sent into Pic N Save to grab a last-minute gallon of milk or loaf of bread. It was truly a blessed childhood in a wonderful neighborhood that has provided me a lifetime of warm memories.
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