Our History Disappearing Right Before Our Eyes

One by one, elements of Jacksonville's history and cultural heritage continue to disappear. Here's a look at three properties currently facing the wrath of the wrecking ball.

Published May 20, 2013 in History - MetroJacksonville.com

1. The Thomas Myers Residence
1481 West 6th Street
Neighborhood: Durkeeville

1481 West 6th Street was the residence of Thomas F. Myers. Thomas was a switchman employed at the nearby Jacksonville Terminal. Thomas built this house for his bride Nannie. An example of early 20th century black folk art, the 1,900 square foot house is completely embellished with hand-carved trim.  In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic.

According to Lynette Myers, "Grandpa carved his finger prints to remind everyone that this was his house." This structure is much more than the remaining legacy of the Myers family.  It represents the early 20th century growth of an urban black middle class community during an era where black's were restricted from living in certain areas of Jacksonville.  This neighborhood's cultural history dies with each random structure code enforcement demolishes against the owner's will with taxpayer funds.

The house has already been awarded to a demolition contractor for $8,600, despite the family's wishes to mothball the structure and restore it in the future.  In a last minute effort to help the family and preserve a piece of Jacksonville's disrespected black history, the house will be considered for landmark status at this week's Historic Preservation Commission meeting.

NEXT: The Zora Neale Hurston Residence

2. The Hurston Residence
1473 Evergreen Avenue
Neighborhood: Eastside

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most prolific African-American female writers of her day and a major player in New York City's Harlem Renaissance cultural movement. Between 1934 and 1948, Hurston published seven books including her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road.  While Zora's early years were spent in Eatonville, Jacksonville was an instrumental player during her lifetime and the place she claimed she experienced racism for the first time.  

This structure was the residence of John C. Hurston, Jr., Zora's older brother. John came to Jacksonville after a fallout with their father around 1908-09 and initially lived in a Market Street boarding house between State & Union Streets. He quickly worked his way up to being a manager at the Eastside's Charles Anderson Fish & Osyter House (1127 Florida Avenue), moving to this residence somewhere around 1911.  In 1914, Zora moved into this house with John and his wife, Blanche.

At the time, Zora had grown from the sassy, strong-willed girl Bob (her older brother) once knew into an independent-minded young woman, and she chafed at her brother's efforts to govern her.  She fled her brother's residence to come back to Jacksonville to reside with another older brother. Here is an interesting look into her life at this time:

Soon, she fled. By 1914, Zora was back in Jacksonville, living with her brother John Cornelius and his wife, Blanche, at 1663 Evergreen Avenue. That year she was listed, along with the couple, in the directory of Bethel Baptist Institutional Church - the same church at which the Florida Baptist Academy, her former school, had been founded. Zora had journeyed to Jacksonville not just to elude Bob's authority but also with the hope of returning to the academy and finishing high school.

This was not to be. Yet what happened next is the most mysterious gap in the narrative of Hurston's life.

From the time she was a little girl, dogged by clairvoyant visions of her future, Zora knew that (in her words) "a house, a shot-gun built house that needed a new coat of white paint, held torture for me, but I must go. I saw deep love betrayed, but I must feel and know it. There was no turning back.
From Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd

In a common show of cultural disrespect, a portion of the Hurston site was haphazardly demolished by code enforcement earlier this year.  That concrete structure next door was Blanche Hurston's flower shop.  In an effort to keep what's left still standing, efforts are underway at the City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office to landmark the Hurston residence.

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/33048

NEXT: The Halle Cohen Residence

3. The Halle Cohen Residence
2241 River Road
Neighborhood: San Marco

This was was designed by Marsh & Saxelbye and completed in 1936. The property was the home of Halle Cohen and his wife from approximately 1937 to his death in 1956.  Cohen's father and uncles founded the Cohen Brother's Dry Goods store in 1867.  The store eventually grew into the Cohen Brothers Department Store. Halle Cohen served as the store's president from 1935 to his death in 1956.  While residing at this residence, Halle Cohen founded the Jacksonville Rose Society in 1954.  His wife, Nellie, was elected president of the Garden Club of Jacksonville in 1945 and president of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs in 1951. For many years, the couple maintained an extensive garden at 2241 River Road.  Believing preservation is not a financially viable option, the current owner of the property is now requesting approval to demolish the 5,667 square foot house.

Corner of Laura and Duval Streets on a busy day in 1937.

What Can You Do?

These three properties are all being considered for landmark status or in danger of being demolished over the next few weeks.  If you would like to see these places and others like it landmarked before it's too late, consider sending a message to the commissioners to take action now. This can be done by sending an email to MCEACHIN@coj.net.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2013-may-our-history-disappearing-right-before-our-eyes

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