What to do with LaVilla?

December 12, 2012 26 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The recent scquabble between the Mayor's Office and Jerry Holland over the need to construct an $8 million Supervisor of Elections office/warehouse complex near the Ritz Theatre has overlooked the question of if such a project is even worthy for this historically significant area. For those who question its significance, here is a brief summary behind the sites still standing in Florida's first urbanized African-American community.

20. Fire Station Number 4 - 639 West Duval Street - 1944

Fire Station Number 4 opened in 1944, replacing a previous station at 618 West Adams Street.

21. 320 North Jefferson Street - 1901 and 1903

When LaVilla was annexed by the City of Jacksonville in 1887, it had a population of 3,000. These two family flat Queen Anne structures were built immediately following the Great Fire of 1901. These, along with 725 West Monroe Street and three relocated shot gun houses on Jefferson Street are all that remain of LaVilla's historic residential community.  

22. 318-326 North Broad Street - 1909/1904/1939

From left to right, 318, 324, and 326 North Broad Street combine with the Masonic Lodge and Richmond Hotel to form nearly 400 linear feet of historic buildings still standing.  Today, they provide us with the only remaining visual example of what LaVilla's urban density resembled during its heyday at street level.  These three buildings were constructed between 1904 and 1939.

23. Masonic Temple - 410 North Broad Street - 1912-1916

Although not designed by H.J. Klutho, the Masonic Temple at 410 Broad Street is one of the most elaborate Prairie School structures still remaining in Jacksonville.  This building was constructed in 1912 to house office space, retail stores, and to serve as a meeting center for the black community. The 1926 Negro Blue Book described it as "one of the finest buildings owned by Negroes in the world."

Image courtesy of Images of America: African-American Life in Jacksonville by Herman "Skip" Mason, Jr.

24. Richmond Hotel - 420 North Broad Street - 1909

Now Deloach Furniture, this building was the 48-room Richmond Hotel.  Operated by Mrs. Alice Kirkpatrick, during the Jim Crow era, it was a popular location for African-American celebrities visiting Jacksonville.  One block south of Ashley Street, Jazz era entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzergald, and Billie Holiday stayed at the Richmond, which included a second floor balcony for stars to greet large crowds of fans below.

25. New Center Hotel - 605 North Broad Street - 1916

605 North Broad Street opened as the Central Hotel in 1912. In 1935, the Jacksonville Negro Welfare League occupied one of its storefronts.  In 1947, the Jacksonville Negro Welfare League merged with a new Jacksonville branch of the National Urban League, officially becoming the Jacksonville Urban League.

Central Hotel floor plan. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office.

Central Hotel. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office

Central Hotel. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office

Central Hotel. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office

Central Hotel. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office

26. Old Stanton High School - 521 West Ashley Street - 1917

This site was the original location of the Stanton Normal School, which opened in April 10, 1869.  The school was named in honor of General Edwin M. Stanton, an outspoken abolitionist and Secretary of War under President Lincoln.  In 1877, President Ulysses Grant visited the school during a tour of Florida.  During the visit a six-year-old student named James Weldon Johnson raised his hand from the crowd and Grant shook it.  Johnson would go on to become the school's principal in 1894 expanding it to become the only high school for African-Americans in the city.

While serving as the principal, Johnson wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing."  This song would later become known as the Negro National Anthem.  Johnson relocated to New York City in 1902, becoming a nationally famous composer, author, poet, diplomat, and civil rights orator.

As a result of one of the first civil-rights litigation cases in Jacksonville and the South, the existing building was constructed in 1917.  Today's Staton High School in Durkeeville replaced this school in 1953.  It then served as the Duval County Vocational School until closing in 1971.

27. Globe Theatre - 615 West Ashley Street - 1904

The Globe Theatre is all that remains of five African-American theatres that one lined LaVilla's Ashley Street.  Completed in 1912, Frank Crowd's Globe Theatre, along with the Airdome, Frolic, Strand, and Roosevelt Theatres, was a popular destination in what was known as the Harlem of the South.  

Of interesting note, on April 16, 1910, the first published account of blues singing on a public stage occurred at the Airdome, which was located on this block of Ashley Street.  During the Airdome's heyday, headliners included "Bojangles" Bill Robinson, Mahalia Jackson, and Wild Bill Elliott.

In 1932, the Globe Theatre building was acquired by Eartha Mary Magdelene White, who established the Clara White Mission in 1921.  In 1944, the Clara White Mission commissioned Henry J. Klutho for a $65,000 renovation job.  The Willie Smith Building, home to Florida Cute Rate Pharmacy and Hollywood Music Store was located next door.  The Hollywood Music Store opened in 1924 and was owned by Joe Higdon.  Higdon was a popular dance promoter and along with associate Frank Usher, attracted major entertainment acts to LaVilla.  The Willie Smith Building is now gone but in 2003, the Clara White Mission constructed a replacement on the site, designed with a similar architectural facade.

28. Genovar's Hall - 644 West Ashley Street - 1895

This structure was constructed in 1895 for Sebastian Genovar’s grocery business.  In 1902 the building became a saloon. By the 1920’s the upper floors became the Wynn Hotel, a popular lodging place for entertainers like Louis Armstrong. Armstrong preferred the Wynn, over the larger Richmond Hotel, because it was on the street (Ashley)  where all the action was. During the 1940’s two metal horse hitching rails in  front of the building became known as “the rails of hope”. This was a spot where  young musicians would hang out waiting for jobs. One of those was R.C. Robinson  who live a block away at 633 Church Street. Eventually Robinson became known as  the one and only Ray Charles.

Genovar's Hall can been seen to the right of Manuel "Chula Papa" Riveria's Manuel's Tap Room.  Manuel's Tap Room was located at 626 W. Ashley Street and described in the January 1942 issue of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, as "the Finest of its kind in the South."  Manuel's has since been demolished.

29. Hillman-Platt Funeral Home - 525 West Beaver Street - 1916

In 1947, Lawton L. Pratt opened a funeral home in this building.  Pratt would go on to become an organizer of the Florida Negro Funeral Directors & Embalmer's Association, which worked to open the field of funeral services to women.  Pratt's slogan was "the funeral home of the community."

30. Ritz Theatre - 829 Davis Street - 1929/1998

Prior to desegregation, Davis Street was a major epicenter of commercial and entertainment oriented businesses for LaVilla and neighboring Sugar Hill. Originally constructed in 1929, the Ritz Theatre building's facade was included in the construction of the LaVilla Museum and theatre. 

Uncovering and Promoting Our History

Image courtesy of Images of America: African-American Life in Jacksonville by Herman "Skip" Mason, Jr.

LaVilla was an ethnically mixed neighboring city that evolved into Jacksonville's first Jewish enclave and later became the commercial and social center of Jacksonville's African-American community. This neighborhood helped pioneer two of the greatest forms of American music, Blues and Soul. Ray Charles, Ma Rainey, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston all spent considerable time here in many of the buildings still standing.  Its train station was the largest in the country south of Washington, DC and one of the city's top employers for six decades.

On the notorious side, with over 60 bordellos confined within a four block stretch, LaVilla's Ward Street red light district may have been one of the largest in the South.  As far as Southern urbanism goes, it's hard to find many places that once had the mixed use vibrancy of LaVilla's Railroad Row.  A compact place where the railroad, maritime, manufacturing, tourism, and red light industries all came together.  

LaVilla's Railroad Row on West Bay Street during the early 20th century. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

There are significant pieces of its cultural makeup remaining despite previous efforts to cleanse the neighborhood of its history.  However, all recent reports have focused on is if the Supervisor of Elections (SOE) should built a new office/warehouse in the neighborhood or relocate to an existing city owned building.

A look across the country provides numerous examples of faux stories and settings to spur economic development and revitalization.  Oklahoma City made a canal for Bricktown.  Tampa created stories about pirates.  Atlanta actually thinks Sweet Auburn is the Harlem of the South.  However, what we have in our possession is our history.  A storied one that goes well past the city limits of Jacksonville.  A setting that can't be recreated by the Disneys, St. Johns Town Centers, or Nocatees of America.

Given what remains of LaVilla, it appears we're completely ignoring the potential of this nationally historic significant bastion of African-American history literally sitting in our laps.  Before moving forward with the idea of building a SOE office/warehouse on the largest remaining undeveloped property in LaVilla, perhaps it's time we at least determine what we desire the ultimate future of LaVilla to be and the role it should play in the creation of a vibrant downtown.

Article by Ennis Davis

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