Author Topic: Le Chateau: Beaches Join Jax in Losing History  (Read 540 times)


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Le Chateau: Beaches Join Jax in Losing History
« on: February 17, 2019, 08:05:46 PM »
Jacksonville is not alone in destroying its historic landmarks.  Le Chateau was a gorgeous 1937 building hosting a great oceanfront restaurant in Atlantic Beach.  What a great asset to that area it would be today given its resurgence.  Would likely be one of the oldest structures remaining at the beach.  I doubt the citizens of the area would want to see its demolition today.

Dear Call Box: Could you do an article about Le Chateau? It was important to my husband and me. We were married there, and it’s one of the first places where we ate.

D.B., Jacksonville

Dear D.B.: Le Chateau was the place to go for dinner, music and the romance of watching the sea slide up the sand under spotlights trained on the surf.

The Atlantic Beach restaurant at the foot of Seventh Street was so close to the water that during a full moon the waves would splash up against the picture windows.

When Hurricane Dora roared through North Florida in 1964, the wind and water did more than that. The surf swept under the restaurant, destroying the dining room with its silk-draped ceiling and severely damaging the building.

But owner Preban Johansen got a federal disaster loan, spent a year rebuilding and expanded the restaurant on an even grander scale.

Through the years it attracted couples celebrating special events and such notables as Liberace, Victor Borge, Barry Goldwater, Betty Grable, Jane Russell, Prince Andrew, David and Julie Eisenhower and George Hamilton.

Before it was a restaurant, Le Chateau was a private home. Hayden Crosby, a Greenleaf and Crosby jewelry firm heir, built the Spanish-style stucco mansion topped with red barrel tiles in 1937. He named it Echidna, after the spiny mammals from Australia and New Zealand because the yucca plants around the home reminded him of the critter’s prickly defenses.

Crosby, who had extensive art collections, was known for throwing lavish parties that once included the Duke of Windsor. The mansion’s wrought-iron entrance gates opened into a walled garden with a grotto and a rockery with a cascading stream. The furnishings included a Tiffany Favrile glass collection, an 18th-century Flemish tapestry, a Persian silk rug and a cloth-of-gold cape said to have belonged to Russia’s mad monk Rasputin, the Jacksonville Journal reported in 1937.

The drawing room’s ceiling had exposed cedar beams with a Spanish motif that Crosby designed. Depictions of the history of Columbus and Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabelle were painted in ruby and gold tones.

Crosby sold Echidna in 1944 and died in 1950 at age 70 while living in New York’s St. Regis Hotel. New owner Gary Adams also owned the nearby Atlantic Beach Hotel and transformed Echidna into the Atlantic Beach Club, newspaper archives said.

Echidna went through another owner before Bill Mize bought it in 1954 and converted it into a restaurant, which he named Le Chateau. He used the drawing room as a dining room and served meals on the patio during warm weather. In 1956 he added a large oceanfront dining room.

Johansen bought Le Chateau in 1959. After Dora he converted the open-air courtyard into an enclosed glass-roofed patio filled with tropical plants. The patio’s fountain had a metal statue of a Greek woman holding a vase on her shoulder. She was christened La Dora because she survived the hurricane. La Dora became Le Chateau’s symbol, said pianist Gene Nordan, who himself symbolized the restaurant’s famed piano bar. A knight in shining armor was another signature piece.

The dining room had a dance floor while the oceanfront tables were on a level above, Nordan said. A graceful spiral staircase led to the banquet room, once Crosby’s bedroom. The piano bar was to the right of the enclosed patio. To Nordan, Le Chateau was reminiscent of Rick’s Cafe in the classic 1942 movie “Casablanca.”

“It had a mystique about it,” said Nordan, who played and sang in Le Chateau’s piano bar for 13 years.

The landmark restaurant, featured in author Dorothy Fletcher’s book “Lost Restaurants of Jacksonville,” was noted for its steak, seafood and desserts such as flaming baked Alaska and Bananas Foster.

Nordan came to Atlantic Beach from Atlanta to play at Le Chateau for three months in the summer of 1970 and remained until it closed in 1983. The popular performer attracted a strong following for his diverse repertoire, which spanned the decades. His wife, Maria, inspired him to write a musical called “Piano Bar” which captured his memories of performing at Le Chateau. After securing a grant, the musical premiered at the University of West Virginia in 1998. Players by the Sea successfully staged the show in 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2009.

Nordan’s memories include the time a fight started in the bar during Florida-Georgia weekend. A friend who was a Marine ran across to rescue him only to find that he had jumped under the piano and escaped. Once peace was restored, Nordan came back and finished playing.

Another highlight was when Liberace came to Le Chateau after his Jacksonville performance. After eating, the place was closed and Liberace came into the bar at 2 a.m., sat on a stool beside the piano bench and listened to Nordan play until 5 a.m. Nordan, meanwhile, had called a couple of friends. Liberace only played one song, “Over the Rainbow,” he said.

Having Liberace as an observer was not at all intimidating, Nordan said. “I just did what I do, and he seemed to like it. I heard that he would look for new material for his show and would hang out at piano bars.”

Nordan greatly admired Johansen, who came to America from his native Denmark in 1948.

“He was such a unique character,” Nordan said. “He was just a success story. He was a very kind gentle man who treated me like his son.”

After buying Le Chateau, Johansen ran it with the help of his wife, Nina, and their children. The Johansens also once owned and operated the Homestead restaurant. Johansen served on the Atlantic Beach City Commission and the Jacksonville City Council for years. He died of cancer in 1982, just two weeks after his diagnosis.

Nina Johansen sold Le Chateau in December 1982. But the new owners were unsuccessful at making a go of it, and it closed in 1983. She briefly bought it back before selling it again. It was torn down in 1985, and condominiums with the same name were built on the site.

Nordan admitted that he cried when the restaurant was demolished, saying it deserved better. But he does have a chandelier from the restaurant hanging in his home.

If you have a question about Jacksonville’s history, call (904) 359-4128, email or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.

Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128

« Last Edit: February 17, 2019, 08:19:05 PM by jaxlongtimer »


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Re: Le Chateau: Beaches Join Jax in Losing History
« Reply #1 on: February 17, 2019, 09:10:53 PM »
Le Chateau was such a special place.

Imagine turning an oceanfront mansion into a restaurant today? No way that would be done.

I was lucky enough to have visited Le Chateau a time or two in the late 70's. The place was surreal.
Quite a venue. Magical really.

Gene Nordan is a local treasure. Kudos for his longevity, talent and being such a nice & classy guy.

My stepfather shared a story of when he was a teenager (late 1930's) and attending a pool party at Thad (that's what he called him) Crosby's oceanfront mansion. He said the obvious wealth, decor & furnishings were quite a contrast to the recent Great Depression.

Mr. Crosby sounds like he was the local version of Gatsby.

Thanks for keeping the history of our area in the current conversation! Sadly we lose a bit as each generation passes on.
It's nice to have 'fleshed out' details of a venue instead of just what the building was or who owned it. That's the part of history that intrigues me.


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Re: Le Chateau: Beaches Join Jax in Losing History
« Reply #2 on: February 17, 2019, 10:31:00 PM »
Our family visited regularly from "in-town" (then, only a 20 minute ride as no one lived between town and the beaches!) for their sumptuous Sunday brunches set up in the enclosed sky lighted courtyard landscaped with palms, greenery and flowers around a statue fountain.  The architecture featured stucco, arches, wrought iron, wood and tile that, with the adjacent ocean, made you feel as if you had escaped to Mediterranean Europe, far from Jacksonville's then abundant pine and oak forests.

It was paradise for an "always hungry" teen to munch on unlimited helpings of fine foods of every kind which also made it all worthwhile to put on the coat and tie required to satisfy my hosting grandparents  8).

Seating was in the oceanfront dining room and I was fortunate to often grab the seat by the window to people, animal and ocean watch during the meal while the musicians played soothing background music.  I recall the theme from Dr. Zhivago was a regular favorite and I associate it to this day with Le Chateau.

By the way, One Ocean was originally just the Sea Turtle Restaurant (which complimented their Green Turtle Restaurant on Phillips Highway between University and Emerson), the "other" significant ocean dining spot (which also was severely damaged by Hurricane Dora in 1964).  At some point, in the 1970's or early 80's, I believe, the Adeeb family built the Sea Turtle Inn around their restaurant.  Today, it is One Ocean and much more upscale.
« Last Edit: February 17, 2019, 10:33:21 PM by jaxlongtimer »


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Re: Le Chateau: Beaches Join Jax in Losing History
« Reply #3 on: February 18, 2019, 11:39:48 AM »
Historic landmarks don't get destroyed.  Things that some people but not most believe should be historic landmarks do.


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Re: Le Chateau: Beaches Join Jax in Losing History
« Reply #4 on: February 18, 2019, 11:44:39 AM »
Historic landmarks don't get destroyed.  Things that some people but not most believe should be historic landmarks do.

Penn Station in the 60's in NYC shouldn't have been a landmark?


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Re: Le Chateau: Beaches Join Jax in Losing History
« Reply #5 on: February 18, 2019, 11:50:19 AM »
Historic landmarks don't get destroyed.  Things that some people but not most believe should be historic landmarks do.

Demonstrably false.
Do you believe that when the blue jay or another bird sings and the body is trembling, that is a signal that people are coming or something important is about to happen?