Ghost of Jacksonville: Davis Street

November 13, 2013 26 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville's Ennis Davis exposes a major early 20th century African-American urban thoroughfare that no longer exists.

Over the years, Davis Street has been of great interest to me. Believe it or not, the interest goes beyond the fact that "Davis" is a pretty cool name. In terms of length, Davis Street is pretty insignificant considering it stretches less than three miles, connecting LaVilla to Brentwood. Largely serving Jim Crow era African-American districts, it's a strip that was never known for its architectural elegance. However, once you start peeling back the layers of Jacksonville's past, Davis repeatedly finds itself in the middle of several significant events, home to colorful destinations, activist and entrepreneurs that have helped shape the city we know and love today.

From industry, streetcars, live jazz performances, civil unrest and racing tracks to birthing slaughterhouses, a present day institution of higher learning, a devastating fire and whore houses, Davis Street has played a major role. For many years, it contained the type of vibrancy some would give their right leg for to see consume downtown today.

Unfortunately, the street scene that James Weldon Johnson, Philip Randolph, Zora Neale Hurston, Eartha White, Ma Rainey and others enjoyed a century ago has been erased over the last seven decades. In my quest to utilize Metro Jacksonville to expose local history that may have been considered too dark, ethnically diverse and not architecturally significant enough for many historians of Jacksonville's past to consider researching, I present Davis Street.

Ghost of Jacksonville: Davis Street

Davis Street subject locator map

A. Railroad Row

Railroad Row's intersection of Davis and West Bay Street in 1913.

Prior to the Great Fire of 1901, Davis Street extended one block south of West Bay Street to the railyards serving the Union Depot and Savannah Florida & Western railroad wharves and warehouses at the mouth of McCoys Creek.

By 1913, the construction of a new freight depot and railyard limited connectivity of North and South Davis Street to pedestrians only, between West Bay and Forsyth Streets. Rapid growth of the city and rail traffic in the area would result in the district centered around the intersection of West Bay and Davis Streets becoming known as Railroad Row.

Railroad Row was Jacksonville's answer to NYC's SOHO, Atlanta's Castleberry Hill and Dallas' West End. With Davis Street as the district's central point, Railroad Row was a four-block district along West Bay Street featuring a compact mix of warehouses, wholesale businesses, hotels and restaurants catering to the nearby Jacksonville Terminal Company railroad depot. Businesses located on Railroad Row included the C.E. Guller Wholesale Grocery, the St. Charles Hotel, Hotel Olympia and the Jacksonville Paper Company.

The largest business at the intersection of South Davis and West Bay Streets was the Atlantic Ice and Coal Corporation in the early 20th century. Based out of Atlanta, GA, the Atlantic Ice and Coal Corporation operated 36 ice plants in 21 southern cities. Atlantic's Jacksonville ice plant was situated at the northwest corner of Myrtle Avenue and Dennis Street. Atlantic's Jacksonville cold storage warehouse was located in Railroad Row at the intersection of South Davis and West Bay Streets. Today, this site is a vacant JTA owned lot used as surface parking.

Railroad Row's decline aligned with the fall of rail traffic and the relocation of the railroad station and adjacent railyards to other areas of the city. Unfortunately, while similar settings across the country have come back to life as entertainment and loft districts, Railroad Row has disappeared due to the isolated demolition of the majority of its buildings between 1970 and 2000.

This scene captures utility lines being laid down Bay Street, near Jefferson Street, looking west towards Davis Street. The Atlantic & East Coast Terminal Company's railroad freight depot is located on the right. In the photograph, Davis Street is located where the freight depot building ends.

1913 Railroad Row Sanborn Fire Insurance Map overlayed over 2013 Google Earth aerial. Notice the proximity of the previous rail terminal's train shed to Davis Street. The bordellos of Ward Street were also a short distance from Railroad Row and the passenger rail terminal.

Railroad Row's intersection of Davis and West Bay Street in 2013. Only two buildings on Forsyth Street from the 1913 Sanborn map are still standing today. Can you identify them?

B. The Court - Ward Street

Just north of Railroad Row, the intersection of Davis and Ward Streets was the epicenter of the city's large red light district, which was known as "The Line". The district's origins date back to 1887 when Jacksonville Mayor John Burbridge chased a large portion of the city's prostitutes over the city line into the suburb of LaVilla as a way to make Jacksonville more attractive.  However, this would all be for not when Jacksonville annexed the Town of LaVilla less than two months later. By the 1920s, more than 60 'female boarding houses' were operating in the district with whimsical names such as the New York Inn, The House of Spanish Marie and The Turkish Harem. The Ward Street district blossomed into the 1940s when Mayor Haydon Burns focused on cleaning up the area after complaints of health problems by local Navy officials. All but one former brothel in the district have been demolished, replaced by weed filled vacant lots and warehouses.

The Court, the largest early 20th century brothel in the district, was owned by Cora Taylor Crane. Crane, the former common law wife of author Stephen Crane, hired prominent local architect W.B. Camp to design elegant structure on the southwest corner of Ward and Davis Streets shortly after the Great Fire of 1901 in 1903. The two-story building included 14 parlour (bedrooms) rooms, kitchens, a dining room, ballroom and an annex with eight additional bedrooms.

After Cora Crane's death in 1910, The Court became another brothel called the White House Hotel. However, by 1917, the building had been abandoned. Demolished decades ago, the site of The Court and its block of Houston Street (formerly Ward) are now a part of the Salvation Army's West Adams Street facility. Although listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to their architectural significance and colorful past, Rosa Neunert's The New York Inn, The Turkish Harem and 836 Houston Street brothels were demolished in 1979 in anticipation of a JTA transportation center that was never built. Today, the southeast corner of Davis and Houston (formerly ward) serves as the offices and warehouses of Lee & Cates Glass Company.  

Stephen and Cora Taylor Crane. Image courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

Inside a bedroom at The Court. Image courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

The New York Inn, Turkish Harem and 836 Houston Street brothels, just west of Davis Street. Image courtesy of the Florida State Archives.

The site of the New York Inn, Turkish Harem and 836 Houston Street today.

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