Metro Jacksonville's Ennis Davis and Stephen Dare share the past, present and future of Jacksonville's Murray Hill neighborhood.
Jacksonville's Great Fire of 1901 was one of the most devasting urban fires in American history. However, the resulting reconstruction effort created Florida's first metropolis. Murray Hill was one of the areas that sprung to life as a result.
Platted as the suburb of Murray Hill Heights in 1906, the development was constructed on the site of the failed 1880s Edgewood development. Conceived around the same time as Henry Ford's invention of the assembly line, Murray Hill was one of the first communities planned in Northeast Florida to accommodate automobiles with paved roads and detached garages. By 1907, more than half of the lots offered in Murray Hill had been sold for $1,500 each, and about a dozen homes had been constructed.
Murray Hills main throughfare, Murray Hill Avenue was envisioned to be a landscaped boulevard similar to Springfield's Main Street and New Orleans' St. Charles Avenue.
Located adjacent to the industrialized suburb of Lackawanna, developers marketed Murray Hill as the perfect place to live for the 1,000 workers at the Seaboard Air Line Railway's locomotive shops near McDuff Avenue.
Despite the rapid growth of Jacksonville, Murray Hill's first years saw little building in the community that lacked connectivity with the rest of Jacksonville. Thirteen years after the Great Fire, things began to change. With World War I underway, the Florida Military Academy opened with 75 boarders and 50 day cadets in 1914.
In 1914, Jacksonville Traction Company extended a streetcar line to the Florida Military Academy, finally connecting Murray Hill with Downtown Jacksonville.
Desiring the modern conveniences of a city, area residents voted to officially create the Town of Murray Hill in 1916. Hugh Lauder was elected as the city's first mayor.
In 1918, Murray Hill was a city surrounded by the headwaters (Fact Check) of Fishweir and McCoys Creek. Murray Hill's main thoroughfare, Murray Hill Avenue (now Edgewood Avenue) connected the city with the railroad and the St. Johns River.
Cassat Avenue, Black Creek Road (now Lenox), Nelson Street and Kingsbury Street served as Murray Hill's boundaries.
The major street network of Jacksonville was vastly different in 1920. Another 25 years would pass before the wide highways that make Jacksonville a deadly place for pedestrians and bicyclist today made their introduction to the region's landscape. With no direct route to downtown Jacksonville, having a streetcar connection was essential to Murray Hill's survival.
The initial fanfare of being its own incorporated community didn't last long. Within a decade after electing its first mayor, Murray Hill became known as "Murray Bottom." $300,000 in debt, Murray Hill's residents desired annexation into neighboring Jacksonville.
At the time, Jacksonville had its problems as well. Long known as the largest city in Florida, Tampa had just surpassed it in population. Adding Murray Hill's residents would be just enough for Jacksonville to one-up Central Florida's largest city. Thus in 1925, the Town of Murray Hill was annexed by Jacksonville.
Murray Hill's peak building period occurred during the 1940s, when 1,700 homes were constructed in the area. World War II would forever change the complexion of Murray Hill and Jacksonville's Westside. With Naval Air Station Jacksonville (NAS Jax) as an economic driver, residential growth in Murray Hill extended west of Cassat Avenue by 1948.
By the end of World War II, four steady decades of growth had created a community featuring a diverse range of residential architecture within a walkable setting.
Sitting at the center of Murray Hill, Edgewood Avenue had become known as the Avenue of Progress by the 1950s.
As growth began to stagnant in Downtown Jacksonville, Murray Hill's commercial corridor became increasingly popular. The width of Edgewood Avenue accommodated automobile parking for businesses, while the minimal building setbacks and nearby residential uses created a walkable environment.
Commercial growth in Murray Hill was not limited to Edgewood Avenue. Cassat and McDuff Avenue become commercial corridors as well. The railroad forming the neighborhood's south border attracted its fair share of industrial uses also. Thus thousands of jobs existed within close proximity of Murray Hill's residences. Murray Hill had truly become a compact community were citizens could live, work and play.
During the 1960s, Jacksonville's first fully enclosed shopping mall was planned for the site of Murray Hill's Normandy Twin Drive-in Theatre.
According to developer, Edward J. DeBartolo, his new retail center would "employ the newest concepts in suburban shopping facilities."
In 1963, DeBartolo's 462,000 square foot, Normandy Mall opened. Forever changing Jacksonville's retail development patterns, the mall was anchored by Montgomery Ward, P.H. Rose, Food Fair, a 1,000 seat twin theatre, and 1,836 parking spaces.
By the 1980s, the proliferation of malls in the area and new growth in fringe areas of Duval County had taken their toll on Murray Hill's economy.
Like many established communities across the country, Murray Hill's comeback dates back to the 1990s.
During the 1980s, Monroe Midyette, one of the most famous club owners in Jacksonville history, operated a quintessential gay disco known as College Station. His entertainment complex on Edgewood Avenue, set the standard for LGBT nightlife in North Florida for two generations. It was an actual megaclub in a city that has never seen the like since.
After Midyette closed College Station, the bar was reopened by Ken Kitsch as EDGE 17. For anyone acquainted with the story of Michael Alig and the New York Club Kids one of the most notorious pop murders of the 90s,... DJ Freeze-- the guy who chopped up the body of Angel, is a local named Robert Riggs, and he and all of the Riverside Coolgays used to party there. Party Monster starring Seth Green and McCauley Culkin is one of the films about the scandalous murder.
Former Murray Hill resident Jon Reich was as close as it has ever come to being a bona fide Art Celebrity in Jacksonville. The iconic artist's work was ubiquitous in Murray Hill during the 1970s and 80s. Some of his largest displays of work as at College Station. In the early 80s, Jon left Jacksonville to continue his education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Reich died in 1992 at age 39. By the time of his death at the age of 39 in 1992, the former Jacksonville artist had earned the nickname, "Liberace of the Arts". A series of four nudes called "Transparencies I-IV", the work that Reich is most known for, is in the Smithsonian collection.
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