What to do with LaVilla?

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.

Published December 12, 2012 in History - MetroJacksonville.com

Building Locator Map

1. Jacksonville Terminal - 1000 West Bay Street - 1919

Completed in 1919, this Southern anomaly served as an official gateway to Florida, handling as many as 20,000 passengers a day.  With a design based off of New York's Pennsylvania Station, it was the largest train station south of Washington, DC.  Prior to its closing, every president since Warren Harding passed either through its concourse or platforms.  It's greatest year was 1944.  That year, it employed over 2,000 residents and shuttled over 10 million passengers.

2. 927 West Forsyth Street - 1909

927 West Forsyth is one of the few buildings remaining in the vicinity of the Jacksonville Terminal.  Constructed in 1909, one of the buildings early tenants was F.W. King & Company. For many years it was the home of the Southeast Wheel & Rim Company. The remaining two buildings on the block shared by 927 West Forsyth have housed a variety of uses over years including City Meat & Slaughter House company in 1925.  927 West Forsyth, like all of the West Forsyth Street buildings between Lee and Jefferson Streets, once faced the massive Atlantic & East Coast Terminal Company's freight depot.

A 1913 Advertisement for F.W. King & Company. Courtesy of The Rotarian, 1913.

Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

3. 827 West Forsyth Street - 1953

In 1954, brothers William and Emmett, opened Khoury Brothers Wholesale Dry Goods.  William was one of the first young men in Duval County to volunteer in the U.S. Army during World War II.

4. 825 West Forsyth Street - 1902

Across the street from the now demolished railroad terminal, this building dates back to 1902.  In 1915, the Jax Chero-Cola Bottling Company operated out of the structure.  Chero-Cola was founded in 1905 as the Union Bottling Works by Claud A. Hatcher in Columbus, GA.  Hatcher's first beverages were named Royal Crown, a ginger ale and a cola called Chero-Cola.  In 1912, the company's name was changed to Chero-Cola.  Over the years, the company's name has changed and it is now known as Royal Crown Cola International.  During the mid 20th century, Atlantic Printers and Dixie Suppy Company Inc. (dry goods) were located here.

5. 801 West Forsyth Street -

In 1920, Philip Bork operated his Bork & Sons business out of this small building.  Bork & Sons were in the bed springs industry.  During the 1950s, it was the location of Southern States Iron Roofing Company.  It is one of several small and interesting buildings remaining in LaVilla where the complete history remains relatively unknown.

6. Fairmont Creamery Company Building - 122 North Jefferson Street - 1945

This building was constructed for the Fairmont Creamery Company. Fairmont specialized in butter, eggs, cheese, poultry and frozen foods.  Products and supplies were shipped by a rail spur on Houston Street. The creamery company was incorporated March 29, 1884 by William Wheeler and Joseph H. Rushton in Fairmont, Nebraska.  It became a pioneer in milk can pickup and was one of the first creameries to provide farmers with their own hand-operated cream separators.

Throughout its history, Fairmont Creamery Company was known in the dairy industry for its quality control and progressive methods of food production and distribution. By 1959 Fairmont was among the country's 500 largest corporations. In 1980, Fairmont merged with a subsidiary of American Financial Corporation of Cincinnati, Ohio, and changed its name to Utotem, Inc. Between 1980 and 1984, all of its properties and subsidiaries were either sold or closed, marking the end of a great American name.

The Fairmont Creamery in 1949. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/53216

7. 632 West Forsyth Street - 1909

Dating back to 1909, Benjamin Reid's Reid Brother's Moving & Storage operations were housed at 632 West Forsyth Street. During the 1950s, it was utilized by Cunningham Furniture as a used furniture warehouse. In the later half of the 20th century it was the home of the Davis Brothers Furniture Company.

8. 618 West Forsyth Street - 1914

Many urban core residents remember 618 West Forsyth Street as Club Kartouche.  However, the nearly century old building was once the Eagle Laundry Company.

9. The Adams Building - 525 West Bay Street - 1895

The Adams Building is one of the few remaining structures unscathed by the Great Fire of 1901. It was constructed as a hotel catering to transients using the railroad terminal in 1895.

10. The El Modelo Cigar Factory - 501 West Bay Street - 1886

Constructed in 1886, this building is one of three downtown structures east of Broad, built before the Great Fire.  During it's heyday, it was occupied by the El Modelo Cigar Factory, which employed 225 workers. While Tampa is known as Cigar City because of Vincente Ybor, Jacksonville had 15 cigar plants itself around the turn of the century. El Modelo is significant because in 1893, Jose Marti, founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party gave a fiery speech at this location to build support  for liberation of his homeland. From 1915 to 1965, the building was a hotel, operating as the Plaza, the Hillsboro, the Southern, and the New York Hotel. Today it is an office building and the largest remaining nineteenth-century commercial building in Jacksonville.

11. 523 West Forsyth Street - 1905

This structure was a part of the Cunningham Furniture Company complex. Established as a small bicycle shop by John A. Cunningham in 1889, the Cunningham Furniture Company eventually grew to become Florida's oldest furniture company and one of the Southeast's largest home furnishing businesses before closing for good in 1984.

12. 521 West Forsyth Street - 1906/1921

521 West Forsyth Street

This small building opened in 1906 and was briefly a real estate office and bicycle shop.  In 1910, it was purchased by Charles Sumner, who utilized as a market for a dairy business passed down from his father, called the William P. Sumner Company.  During the 1980's, it housed JoAnn's Chili Bordello.  This restaurant was designed to look like a bordello and featured waitresses dressed in corsets and garter belts.  The restaurant's motto was "seventeen varieties of chili served in an atmosphere of sin.

516 Houston Street

This narrow 4-story building was built in 1910 as an addition to 521 West Forsyth Street by Charles Sumner.  Sumner, who's previous location had been destroyed by the Great Fire of 1901, constructed his new dairy operation with brick and reinforced concrete, making it fireproof.  During the 1920s, it was used by Jefferson Richard Berrier as an ice cream factory for the J.R. Berrier Ice Cream Company.  In 1961, Berrier's Ice Cream became the focal point of a NAACP boycott.

13. Jacksonville's Notorious red light district's last remaining bordello - 615 Houston Street - 1914

A century ago, then as Ward Street and located two blocks from Union Terminal, Houston street took the crown as Jacksonville's undisputed Red Light District. For those who don't know, a red light district is a place where there is a high concentration of prostitution and sex-oriented businesses.  San Francisco had the Barbary Coast, D.C. had 14th Street, in New Orleans tricks were turned in Storyville, and in New York, it was "The Deuce."  If you were willing to pay for a lady of the night in Jacksonville, you headed to LaVilla's Ward Street.

When this brick building was constructed, more than 60 whore houses lined a four block stretch of Ward Street west of Broad Street.  A popular strip for Jacksonville tourist and sailors, J.E.T. (Just Easy Times) Bowden used a pro-prostitution platform to win the mayor's race of 1915. Today, this is the last bordello building still standing that directly relates to Houston Street's colorful past.  

14. Old Fire Station Number 4 - 618 West Adams Street - 1914

This building opened in 1914 as Fire Station Number 4.  In 1944, a larger station opened two blocks north, replacing it.

15. Pilton Building - 218 North Broad Street - 1910

Constructed in 1910, the Pilton Building is one of the last remaining historic structures along Broad.  Across the street from the courthouse site, it was the home of Herman Bloom Shoes during the 1930s and United Shoes in the 1950s.

16. Brewster Hospital - 843 West Monroe Street - 1885

Built in 1885, this former residence of a local meat dealer became Jacksonville's first hospital for African Americans in 1901. Matilda Cutting Brewster of Danielson, Connecticut, donated $1,000 in honor of her late husband, the Rev. George A. Brewster, to help start the hospital.   Together with a training school for nurses, the facility was founded by the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church.

The hospital outgrew this structure and relocated in 1910. In 2005, the Old Brewster Hospital building was moved to its present location from its original site at 915 West Monroe Street.

17. 825 West Monroe Street - 1908

Religious structures where an instrumental part of LaVilla, north of Ward Street.  Most of the neighborhood was destroyed by the River City Renaissance plan during the 1990s, leaving this structure as one of the remaining survivors.  It was built in 1908 and was the First Born Holiness Church of Christ for many years.  Today, it is the Faith United Church of the Living God.  While the structure appears to be brick, exluding the bell tower and front facade, it is all wood frame construction.

18. 725 West Monroe Street - 1905-1908

After the Great Fire of 1901, many stately residences were constructed along West Monroe Street. One resident at 725 West Monroe fought to keep their house from being demolished as a part of the River City Renaissance neighborhood revitalization plan.  725 West Monroe was constructed between 1905 and 1908.  Solomon and Retta Shad were one of the first couples to call this Neo-Classical Revival structure home.  Shand was the owner of Solomon Shad, Inc., a West Bay Street liquor company.

19. Young Men's Hebrew Association - 712 West Duval Street - 1914

Today, the Young Men's Hebrew Association Building (Maceo Elks Lodge), is the oldest building still standing in Jacksonville of significance to the Jacksonville Jewish community.  Completed in 1914, it along with the B'Nai Israel Synagogue, was the epicenter of LaVilla's Jewish community.  The Y.M.H.A. relocated to Springfield in 1932.  In 1945, the structure was sold to the Maceo Elks Lodge, which still occupies the building today.

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

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2012-dec-what-to-do-with-lavilla

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