It would really be hard to imagine what Jacksonville would have been like without the influence of the grand madames--whether in terms of their architectural tastes, or their general capital investments into nearly all facets of entertainment, or their sumptuous sensibilities---- or the general aura of disportment which characterized the city.
After all, the word 'resort' used to have an entirely different connotation in the Victorian world, and Jville was one of the most famous 'resort' towns in the world.
The city was a major transportation junction located in a tropical paradise, and as so many others have noted before, the wealthy of the world flocked here for rest and entertainment. Not only were there 14 national passenger train companies that made regular stops in Jacksonville, but they connected with the great steamships, including the famous Clyde Steam Lines in downtown. Trade and commerce, and the idylls of the wealthy made Jacksonville fat with money and wonderful nonsense. Frilly buildings, surprising tropical exhibitions, and above all, a glittering nightlife that made it the draw of the entire eastern seaboard.
It was also an important trade route to the Caribbean, and ships laden with the excess of Puerto Rico and the ports of the Caribbean exchanged cargo with the great rail lines that exported the booty on throughout the mainland of the United States.
Jacksonville Docks. Courtesy of Shorpy.
And where there are thousands of working men away from families, either on sea or rails, there is going to be a vibrant sex trade, and in this respect, Jacksonville was exceptional. Combined with the well padded wallets of thousands of business travelers, the industry rose from wooden frame abodes to marble, plaster jigsaw work and solid brick with well appointed columns. The madames became legendary, rich, and then influential. They shoveled money into the primarily black entertainment community of LaVilla, providing employment and a certain sartorial sense to the nascent blues musicians beginning to express themselves here in Jacksonville.
An entire boulevard became the home to the bordellos. Ward Street. At the height of the era, there were over 64 separate bordellos and brothels all centered around the old glittering boulevard.
"The Line" was how the bordello district was known throughout the resort visiting world. Railmen, wealthy travelers, steamship passengers (and crews) and merchant marines far and wide were drawn to Jacksonville by it. What and where was it? It went for about five blocks along old Ward Street on the west end of downtown, near the Union Terminal. Today, Ward Street is called "Houston Street" and almost every structure that was along it was literally torn up by its roots and sent to line the river between 1960 and 1984. Only one former "female boarding house" remains standing now, because the rest were literally dynamited and ripped out of the ground by later generations of Baptist Pork Chop Gangers.
Properly, "The Line" was comprised of the two long blocks on which both sides of the street were fronted by the gorgeous facades of the Great Houses. And no expense was spared for the public accomodation and aesthetics of the Line in its heyday. As a result, it had great effect on the community around it. Between The Line and the gorgeously rococco detailed buildings of the Astor Block, the architectural tastes and aesthetics of Old Jacksonville were defined.
As you couldn't be considered a Great House without a resident Piano player (called a 'Professor") even the smaller venues had to pay for musicians in an age before recorded music and amplified sound. The industry had very specific kinds of needs that would go on and shape the DNA of Jacksonville. One wonders how the excellent musical history of the city got its start. Easily enough. A fifty year period in which entertainment was a paramount concern in the hotels, bordellos and bars owned by the Great Madames.
But don't count out the dressmakers, the shoe designers, the furniture makers and the doctors.
If you can visualize the health issues that come along with 80,000 people descending on a city from all over the globe, served by another 50,000 local residents, and an equal number of sailors, merchant marines and rail workers flowing in and out of the streets of downtown, then one can quickly appreciate why there were so many excellent doctors, surgeons, and experimental medical practitioners in Jacksonville at the turn of the Century.
The Ward Street Red Light District
The excellent Sanborn Insurance Company made many detailed maps of the cities, rating each kind of structure for its potential to burn and thereby cause liability. In the case of Jacksonville's downtown, the category for a bordello, brothel, or old fashioned "House of Assignment' was listed discreetly as 'female boarding house'
At the height of their power, the Madames of the Great Houses were something to be reckoned with: Belle Orloff, Ethel Dreme, Lyda DeCamp, and of course the most extraordinary of them all: Cora Crane.
The Bordellos were near and dear to the hearts of Jacksonville, which kept the practice legal until 1953.
They won elections, and by some strange coincidence, were the only district downtown completely untouched by the Great Fire of 1901
In the picture below, the far west end of The Line is amongst the first in the city to get modern plumbing installed.
Laying pipe on Ward Street. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.
article by Stephen Dare