This Place Matters: Saving Norman Studios

September 6, 2010 18 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

A National Trust for Historic Preservation contest could provide Jacksonville with $25,000 to help convert Arlington's historic Norman Studios complex into a silent film museum.

About This Place Matters Community Challenge

The National Trust for Historic Preservation  has created a This Place Matters Community Challenge to help non-profit organizations across the country start a conversation about places that matter in the communities that they work in.  The organization that receives the most votes on their site wins $25,000. Voting period runs through September 15th, 2010.

About Norman Studios

It was the early 1900s and Northeast Florida was experiencing its "Glided Age" as a winter playground for the nation's wealthiest and most famous including the biggest stars of the silver screen.  The frigid temperatures of New York and Chicago, where the nation's film business originated, damaged film stock and dismayed starlets.  As luck would have it, the New York-to-Florida railroad track provided a straight shot from the Big Apple to the Sunshine State.  And so was born Northeast Florida's status as the "Winter Film Capital of the World."

By 1916, Jacksonville telephone directories listed more than 30 motion picture companies.  Among them was the Eagle Studios, a five-building complex built in 1916 in the heart of Jacksonville's Arlington district.  By 1920, the property changed hands and became Norman Laboratories, specializing in motion pictures and "talking picture equipment."  The complex became the home and creative center of Richard Norman, who between 1920 and 1928 made six feature films and scores of shorts.  He also made history as one of a handful of filmmakers brave enough to break the racial barrier in the motion picture industry just a few years following the release of D.W. Griffith's still controversial "Birth of a Nation."

"My father was disheartened about the state of race relations at the time, both in real life and in the movies," says Capt. Richard Norman, Jr., the filmmaker's son. "He set out to help give the black community a stronger place on film, behind the cameras and in the theatres."

Norman was among the first, along with filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and the Lincoln Motion Picture Co., to make "race films." These movies defied the mainstream by starring black actors in positive roles and giving black crewmembers well-paying jobs.  Thus began a movement to establish an independent black cinema at a time when blacks were stereotyped and demeaned in mainstream movies.  In Norman films black characters were heros and heroines, leaders and lovers.

In 2002, after a passionate campaign, the city of Jacksonville purchased four of the five Norman buildings, including the main production building where Norman developed and screened his films, the generator shed, the wardrobe cottage, and the prop storage garage.  Our 501(c)3 organization was formed to protect and preserve the Norman property and its history.  Long term plans for the complex include a silent film museum, a venue for independent filmmakers to screen their projects, industry-related workshops, and a summer camp designed to teach children about film career choices.  Join us in preserving this unique snapshot of motion picture history.

Norman Studios - Before & After

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