Downtown Landmarks: The Universal Marion Building

August 30, 2016 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Originally an office building and Ivey's Department Store, Downtown's JEA office tower was also once topped by a revolving restaurant.

Located at 21 West Church Street, the Universal-Marion Building opened its doors in 1963.  The modern structure was designed by Ketchum & Sharp.  At the time, the 268' tall, 19 story tower was the tallest building on the Northbank and second tallest in the city.  The building housed the Internal Revenue Service, law and insurance offices.  The Universal Marion Company was the largest tenant.


Universal Marion Company

Universal Marion owned the Miami Beach Sun and Jacksonville Chronicle newspapers and made movies through a subsidiary.  The firm co-financed the production of Mel Brook's first movie, The Producers, which won an Oscar and later became a major Broadway play.  It also funded Woody Allen's first movie, Take the Money and Run.

Universal Marion was founded by Louis Elwood Wolfson, a Wall Street financier and the owner of the 1978 American Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, who grew up in Jacksonville.

Wolfson's family foundation donated $500,000 to create the Wolfson Children's Hospital and Wolfson High School is named for Louis' brother, Samuel. The family also donated to Jacksonville University and funded construction of Wolfson Park, the minor-league baseball park in Jacksonville for decades.

Beyond the mark the family left on Jacksonville, Louis Wolfson is known for owning 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed.



The Embers Restaurant

Owned by Carl Holmquist, the 250 seat Ember's Restaurant opened on the 18th floor of the Universal Marion Building in 1964.  Rotating 360 degrees every 1.5 hours, it was said to be the largest revolving restaurant in the world.

Live Maine Lobsters were flown in from Booth Bay, Maine every Friday at the restaurant that stayed open until 12:30am daily.  Business would decline as the city's suburban areas began to increase in popularity and replace downtown as the city's social center.  By the early 1970s, the Ember's Restaurant would be no more.

Today, this space has been converted into office use for the Jacksonville Electric Authority.


Ivey's Department Store

If the 1971 Downtown Master Plan would have been fully implemented, this building would have become a part of a multi-level retail galleria mall.  Hovering over Laura and Church Streets, May-Cohen, Purcell's and Ivey's would have been the mall's main anchors. Implementation of the 1971 plan was a very slow process.  The renovation of Hemming Park into an urban plaza was intended to be the mall's first phase. 

The the first phase of the plaza was completed in 1978 for $648,000.  However, the $2.2 million second phase, which would involve closing streets and changing the traffic directional flow was delayed at the request of retail owners because they did not want construction to disrupt the holiday shopping season.  The money set aside for phase 2 was then diverted to fund a railroad overpass on University Blvd near Phillips Hwy.  In 1981, new funds were diverted to fund the widening of 103rd Street. 

Construction finally got underway in 1984.  Unfortunately several streets were closed during the construction phase and the project dragged on for two years.  For retailers who had been struggling for years to stay afloat, already dealing with the parking meter situation, urban blight, and aggressive marketing from suburban malls, the retail core's three major players (May-Cohens, JCPenney, and Ivey's) all shut down within a few months of each other. 

With no major retail anchors and the Landing planned for the waterfront, the 1971 master plan was officially dead.  Although the Church Street location closed in the mid 1980s, the Ivey's chain was acquired by Dillards in 1990.  Today, JEA's customer service department fills the space once occupied by Ivey's Department Store. 



The Universal Marion Building Today (JEA Tower)

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP of Modern Cities. A graduate of Florida A&M University, Ennis is a certified urban and transportation planner with 15 years of experience in the fields of architecture, real estate development and planning. In addition, Ennis is a co-founder of Modern Cities, TransForm Jax, Atlanta-based HGI Investment Group and author of Reclaiming Jacksonville,  Cohens: The Big Store and Images of Modern America: Jacksonville. Contact Ennis at or follow on Twitter at @modern_cities.