Seven Decisions That Killed Downtown

August 18, 2015 69 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

During the late 20th century, changes in the nation's business policies and practices dramatically impacted our central business districts. Some, like Charlotte and Houston, came out as winners. Others like New Orleans and Jacksonville were dealt blows they're still working hard to overcome today. Ever wonder why Downtown Jacksonville has too much office space on its hands? Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with local leadership or the popularity of our rapidly growing suburbs.

6. Gulf Life Insurance Company

Founded in Pensacola in 1911 by T.T. Phillips, the Gulf Life Insurance Company moved its home offices to downtown Jacksonville in 1916. It issued whole-life, term, and endowment policies, as well as annuities and accident and health insurance, primarily to customers in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. During its early years, H. Terry Parker was the insurance company's Secretary. Parker would go on to develop Arlington.

In 1925, its offices were located at 213 West Adams Street (present day site of the Ed Ball Building). During the Great Depression, Gulf Life purchased First Baptist Church's Sunday School building at 125 West Church Street, to serve as their corporate office.  The company expanded with the construction of office buildings at 124 West Ashley Street.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

During the mid-1960s, Gulf Life purchased 12-acres of the former Gibbs Corporation Shipyards property on the Southbank for a new development called Gulf Life Center. It marketed the development as having urban amenities in a suburban environment. Their new 28-story headquarters, the Gulf Life Tower became the centerpiece of the project. Completed in 1966, it was Florida's tallest building and until the 2002 completion of San Francisco's Paramount Apartment Tower, the world's tallest precast, post-tensioned concrete structure in the world.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

Once the company's move to the Southbank was complete, it sold its Northbank complex back to FBC. In 1985, with $2.5 billion in assets, the company employed 789 and had grown to become the largest insurance company based in Jacksonville, the "Hartford of the South".

Gulf Life Company was merged into Houston-based American General Life in 1991 and the amount of office space and workers it employed in downtown Jacksonville were no longer needed.

When Gate Petroleum purchased the 28-floor office building in 1993, its occupancy was 40%. Today, Gulf Life's lasting mark on downtown Jacksonville's skyline is now known as Riverplace Tower.

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