Walkable Commercial Districts: San Marco Square

July 2, 2012 23 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Jacksonville's urban core is home to a number of historic walkable neighborhood commercial districts. Many are a direct result of the defunct 60-mile Jacksonville streetcar network, which was operated by the Jacksonville Traction Company. Today, Metro Jacksonville highlights a popular destination along the former South Jacksonville Municipal Railways (Jacksonville's MUNI) streetcar line: San Marco Square

San Marco Square History

The development of the original 80-acre San Marco subdivision by Telfair Stockton & Company dates back to 1925. Four years earlier in 1921, the Acosta Bridge opened establishing vehicular and streetcar connectivity for the first time between South Jacksonville and Jacksonville.  

This is a builders catalog photo of a double ended Birney 'Safety Car.' The South Jacksonville Municipal Railways equipment was so cutting edge for it's time, that the builder of thousands of American streetcars used no less then two photos of South Jacksonville MUNI cars in their advertisements.

Streetcar service in the area was originally provided by the South Jacksonville Municipal Railways.  Constructed in 1923 by the City of South Jacksonville, two streetcar lines ran in the vicinity of the square. The car lines intersected at Atlantic and Hendricks. The first was a north-south line that connected the neighborhoods of Granada and Miramar traveling alongside Old San Jose, Hendricks and Prudential Drive into downtown Jacksonville via the original Acosta Bridge.  The second streetcar line operated along Atlantic Boulevard, connecting what would become San Marco Square with Fletcher Park and Fulton Green at the corner of Fulton, Kings and Atlantic. From Fulton Green, the Florida East Coast Railway branch line to the beaches and Mayport were just a few steps from the end of the car line. The stop also provided popular access to the Philips and Saint Nicholas communities.  

The Little Theatre in 1953.

On September 13, 1925, the Mediterranean-themed San Marco shattered all previous records for subdivision sales in Jacksonville when every lot offered was sold in three hours.  That same year, a triangular shaped commercial area began to spring up around the intersection of Atlantic and San Marco Boulevards.  This commercial area, which included a multi-level fountain at its center, was called San Marco Square and based on the Piazza di San Marco in Venice, Italy.

Seven years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, the South Jacksonville Municipal Railways was swept up in the merger of the City of South Jacksonville into Jacksonville in 1932. This would be the same year that the Jacksonville Traction Company sold out to Motor Transit Company, which was part of National City Lines and the nationwide General Motors streetcar conspiracy. Many angry residents of South Jacksonville justifiably felt their MUNI had been stolen for scrap value.

San Marco Square Today

Now known as the site of Square One, the San Marco Building was the first commercial structure built on San Marco Square.  The first retailer in this building was Towne Pump Drugs and Sundries, which remained in business for 50 years.

Southside Baptist Church

The Art Deco designed San Marco Theater opened its doors on the 4th of July, 1938, featuring "Hopalong Cassidy Rides Again" and "A Slight Case of Murder" for thirty cents.

Designed in 1937 by Ivan H. Smith, one of the founders of Reynolds, Smith & Hills, the Little Theatre is the nation's oldest continuously operating community theatre group.

This building was completed in 1927 and was the location of San Marco's Setzer's Supermarket for a number of years.  Setzer's was a grocery chain that was founded by Benjamin Setzer in Springfield.  By the time the company was sold to Food Fair Stores in 1958, it had grown into a 40 unit chain with stores throughout Florida and South Georgia.

Designed by Angela Shiffanela and Alan Wilson, the San Marco fountain lions were added to the district in 1997.

Matthews Restaurant and the South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church (background)

In 1939, the same year as the New York World’s Fair and the release of “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” the South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church moved to the three story brick building first erected at its present location. During the 1940s, church membership grew dramatically, so much that the church had to rent a city bus to accommodate the men’s Sunday School class that had to meet under the big oak tree in the yard.

In 1949, the congregation of around 1,000 members broke ground for a beautiful new church building and sanctuary. The first services were held in the new sanctuary in 1950.

Balis Park is located in the middle of San Marco Square on a site that where a Spanish-style Gulf service station was constructed in 1927.  In 1984, long after that station had been replaced by a modern gas station, the City purchased the parcel for the development of a park.  The park's construction costs were funded by Abla Balis, in memory of her husband, Sheffield, who passed in 1976.  The Balis' were longtime residents of San Marco.  The dedication ceremony took place in January 1988, and later improvements included a sound system, the bronze sculpture Windy Days, and landscaping, which were funded by the estate of Abla Balis and the City.

One of Jacksonville's true "town centers", San Marco Square is centrally located at the intersection of San Marco Boulevard and Atlantic Boulevard.

Article and images by Ennis Davis and Robert Mann.  Historic images courtesy of Florida Photographic Archives Collection.