Houston Street: Jacksonville's Red Light District

January 22, 2008 12 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Today, there's not much left, but 100 years ago Houston Street was the epicenter of the city's bustling Red Light District.

Houston's Street interesting history can be traced back as far as 1863, when a gun emplacement named Fort Hatch was set up near the present day location of the Houston and Lee Street intersection.  This location also served as a tent camp for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (see the movie "Glory").

Twenty years later, sitting between the train station railroad tracks and the heart of Downtown, this area grew to become an urban center with bars, industries, small hotels, and bordellos catering to transient visitors and railroad employees.

During the early 20th century, this section of downtown looked and felt much different than it does today.



 Cora Taylor Crane & The Court

Known then as Ward Street and located two blocks from Union Terminal, Houston street took the crown as Jacksonville's undisputed Red Light District.

Cora Taylor Crane and Stephen Crane

Cora Taylor was this era's most famous brothel owner.  During the 1890's she operated Jacksonville's finest bordello, the "Hotel de Dream", on the corner of Ashley and Hawk (Jefferson) Streets.  Soon she headed to Europe with her lover, writer Stephen Crane. After his death in 1900, she returned to Jacksonville as Cora Crane and opened a five-star bordello on the corner of Houston and Ward (Davis) Streets called "The Court".

The court was a two story brick building featuring 14 bedrooms, ballroom, kitchens, a dining room and an annex with eight bedrooms.  Today, the site that once was the home of The Court lives on as a vacant lot on the southwest corner of Houston and Davis Streets.  Houston's downfall came with the decline in rail traffic during the 1960's.  The River City Renaissance of the 1990's was the final nail in the coffin as most of the remaining building fabric from this era was leveled in a failed effort to revitalize LaVilla.


Houston Street Today

Today there's not much left that relates to Houston Street's colorful past.  The area is now dominated by poorly maintained surface parking lots on demolished building foundations, the Salvation Army, and a few warehouses.



Looking towards Forysth: During Houston Street's heyday, the Interline Brands site served as the home of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad's offices and freight terminal.


 The corner of Forysth & Jefferson in 1950.  If it could have survived, the old terminal warehouses would have made a nice centralized location for a farmer's market.


 This warehouse, on the corner of Houston and Davis Streets, occupies the site of a bordello that was once known as "The House of Spanish Marie".  Constructed in 1885 as the Shiloh Baptist Church, the religious structure was converted into a bordello after the congregation fled its unsavory surroundings.  Spanish Marie is also known as one of the last prostitution houses to remain open before being shut down in the 1950s.


 The foundation and a few worn bricks are all that remain of this block of buildings that served as the Spanish-American War Provost Headquarters & Jail in 1898.  This historic site came down in the 1990s as a part of a failed plan to revitalize LaVilla.


 Despite the widespread swath of destruction, there are a few brick structures that still stand, despite being vacant and boarded up.


 At one time railroad tracks ran along Houston Street providing service to several industrial buildings in the area.  Today, this building is the home of Sally Industries.



These buildings are located on Forsyth Street in the same vicinity as many of the Houston Street bordellos.  One can only imagine about the events that took place in these buildings during that era.