Seven Decisions That Killed Downtown

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.

Published August 18, 2015 in History -

Major office buildings developed or occupied as corporate headquarters for extended periods of time by Jacksonville-based companies that no longer exist.

They say, the location of a corporations headquarters is an important element of its image and personality. It's also an important economic element for the communities and neighborhoods they call home.

What would Downtown Jacksonville look like today if several events outside of Jacksonville's control never took place? For example, given the size of Florida's population today, if Jacksonville's "Big Three" were still around, the Bank of America Tower probably would not be the tallest building in the city today and the Landing's food court would still be full of restaurants. Imagine what Florida's insurance industry would look like in 2015 if Hurricane Andrew didn't destroy South Florida in 1992? For all the blood, sweat and tears a community can pour into downtown revitalization, as the oil embargoes of the 1970s and oil gluts of the 1980s show, sometimes reality is not in your personal control.

Throughout most of the 20th century, Downtown Jacksonville was arguably Florida's most influential business district. A fact that time has washed away is that the skyline we see today was essentially built by seven companies that no longer exist. Here's a look at seven corporate decisions made over a 15 year span that transformed a rapidly growing skyline into a district with a glut of hard-to-fill office space.

1. American Heritage Life Investment Corporation

Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida

American Heritage Life (AHL) was founded in Jacksonville in 1956. In 1963, the firm acquired the 18-story Lynch Building from its original owner for $2 million. For decades, the growing company's downtown headquarters was known as the AHL Building. By 1985, AHL had nearly 400 employees working in downtown. When 11 East became too small, AHL built the new AHL Building across the street from the new Jacksonville Landing. Completed in 1989, their post modern 23-story, 357 foot tower became the sixth tallest building in downtown.

However, AHL didn't stay around long. In 1994, it completed a new 8-story, 150,000 square foot complex off JTB at 4920 San Pablo Road, taking its workforce with it to the Southside. When Allstate Corporation purchased AHL for $1.1 billion in 1999, it had already grown to become the third-largest work-site insurance company in the US behind AFLAC Inc. and UnumProvident Corp. At the time, the Davis family of Winn-Dixie fame, owned a combined 42% share of AHL's stock.

While the holding firm was dissolved, Allstate did keep the existing management team, regional headquarters and its 600 jobs in the Southside. Nevertheless, the relocation to the Southside did result in the loss of hundreds of downtown jobs and more office vacancies.

Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida

2. Atlantic National Bank

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

Atlantic National Bank (ANB) was founded in 1903 by Edward W. Lane, railroad magnate Thomas P. Dehman, and Fred W. Hoyt. Dehman was a railroad magnate involved with several 19th century railroad companies including the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Central Railroad and the Atlantic, Suwannee River and Gulf Railway Company.

Its early growth led to the construction of two of downtown's oldest highrises, 121 Atlantic Place (1909) and the Schultz Building (1926). Rising 135 feet, 121 Atlantic Place actually enjoyed a short reign as Florida's tallest. In need of more space, ANB expanded in 1951 by building a large four story modern structure on the corner of Forsyth and Hogan Streets.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

By 1972, ANB had grown to become the largest of Jacksonville's big three banks (ANB, Florida National and Barnett). Now it was time to make their mark on downtown's skyline. That year, ANB announced plans for a $9 million, 18-story tower that would be known as the ANB Building. The 278 foot structure was completed in 1974. ANB occupied floors 1,2,4,5,6,7 and 8 of the 309,000 square foot tower. Floors 9-16, roughly 110,000 square feet, were available for lease. The Clipper Room, a 250-seat restaurant for the bank's employees, and the Quaterdeck Club were located in the building's top floors. ANB connected the new tower and a new garage across the street, with a network of tunnels that also provided access to historic 121 Atlantic Place.

With the bank's assets approaching $3.9 billion, its president Edward Lane, Jr, negotiated the merger of this longtime Jacksonville financial institution with Charlotte-based First Union in 1985. At the time of the merger with First Union, ANB has 1,384 employees downtown.

3. Barnett Bank

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

The institution that became known as Barnett Bank was established by William Boyd Barnett. Barnett and his family relocated to Jacksonville in 1877, and opened the Bank of Jacksonville in May of the same year. William was president and his son acted as bookkeeper. Because most banks were private and unregulated at this time, the Bank of Jacksonville got a slow start — only totalling $11,000 deposits in the first year. However, Barnett would soon make his son, Bion, a partner—changing the fate of the bank immediately.

Bion struck a conversation with Henry L’Engle, the Duval County Tax Collector. Bion would ultimately convince L’Engle to deposit the county’s funds into their funds at the Bank of Jacksonville. Within the year, L’Engle would become Treasurer of the State of Florida, adding even more funds to the Bank of Jacksonville. Within a few years, Barnett and his son’s bank became the National Bank of Jacksonville, exceeding over $1 million in deposits in 1893.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

After William's death in 1903, Bion renamed the institution Barnett Bank, in honor of his father. In 1926, Barnett completed its 18-story headquarters building at the intersection of Laura and Adams Streets. The Chicago school style structure remained Jacksonville's tallest building until 1954. In 1962, the bank added to Jacksonville's skyline, building a new 10-story headquarters (now the Jacksonville Bank Building) for 400 employees at the intersection of Forsyth and Laura Streets. Not to be out done by Florida National Bank's new headquarters on Hogan Street, Roman Travertine Marble from Tivoli, Italy was utilized in its construction.

Appearing to be the lone one of the big three to survive the mergers of the 1980s and early 1990s, Barnett built and moved into a new $110 million corporate headquarters tower in 1993. Known as the Barnett Center, at 42 stories, it became the tallest building between Atlanta and Miami. Barnett initially occupied 42% of the 656,000 square foot tower. According the the company, the new headquarters building would be a symbol of its strength and leadership. Such a perspective was pretty common of the large home-grown companies single-handedly taking Jacksonville's skyline to the next level.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

By 1995, Barnett, the nation's 17th largest bank, had become Florida's largest commercial bank and a Fortune 500 company, with over 600 branches, $3.10 billion in revenue and 6,800 local employees. Despite its size, the last of downtown's big three banks disappeared when Charlotte-based NationsBank acquired Barnett in 1997 for $14.6 billion. At the time, it was the largest bank merger in U.S. history. A year later, NationsBank acquired BankAmerica to become Bank of America.

Over the years, Bank of America has continued to grow. However, the benefit of that growth has been realized in Uptown Charlotte, where the bank's 60-story headquarters is located. In 2002, the 47-story Hearst Tower was completed. Bank of America occupies 322,000 of the 1.6 million square foot, 659' structure. In 2010, the financial institution expanded in Uptown Charlotte by completing the 32-story, environmental friendly One Bank of America Center. On the other hand, the former Barnett Center (now Bank of America Tower) is the last commercial skyscraper to be built in Jacksonville's Northbank.

4. Charter Company

Charter is the one downtown-based company that grew into an international conglomerate faster than the skyline’s upward march in the 1970s and 80s. Like a bad premonition, its fall from grace was just as swift as the decline in need for a new office tower in downtown today.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

The Charter Company was founded in 1949 by Raymond Knight Mason. Initially, in the mortgage, banking and development industries, it expanded into the gas and oil industry in the late 60s and early 70s, acquiring gas stations, tanker contracts and a refinery in Texas. When the Arab Oil Embargo struck in 1973, Charter cashed in, becoming a Fortune 500 company and the apple of Wall Street’s eye.

Charter also purchased the majority of du Pont Trust’s interest in Florida National Bank (see page on the rise and fall of FNB), when Congress forced du Pont to divest itself of a certain ownership percentage of FNB. Charter’s downtown headquarters were located in the Universal-Marion Building. Located at 21 West Church Street, the modern 19-story tower was the tallest building in the Northbank when it was completed in 1963.

By 1981, Charter’s sales totalled $5 billion and the time had come for the company to put its mark on Jacksonville’s skyline. Charter teamed up with Southern Bell, proposing a 30-story skyscraper that would house both of the company’s offices. With nearly 1 million square feet of leasable office space, the Charter/Southern Bell Tower would be Jacksonville’s largest. Now, known as EverBank Center, a notable feature of the 447-foot tower is that each floor has 16 corner offices.

Unfortunately, Charter’s fall from grace would be quick. On July 29, 1982, four of the company’s senior executives died in a helicopter crash in Ireland. At the same time, Charter took a beating when a serious surplus of crude oil led to a major oil glut in the 1980s. Hemorrhaging revenue, Charter backed out of plans to locate offices in the Charter/Southern Bell Tower, which was completed in 1983.

Less than a year later, downtown’s lone Fortune 500 company laid off 200 of its downtown Jacksonville workforce, filing for protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy law on April 20, 1984. By 1985, Charter’s downtown workforce was down to 350. By the time it emerged from bankruptcy protection in 1987, the majority of its 180 subsidiaries had already been sold off. What was left of the company was then relocated to Cincinnati, OH.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

5. Florida National Bank

This downtown powerhouse originally was founded by Samuel Hubbard as the Mercantile Exchange Bank. Hubbard had found early success in Jacksonville as a hardware company owner and developer of Springfield. After the Great Fire of 1901, his bank became Florida National Bank. It was housed in what is now the Laura Trio. During the 1920s, millionaire Alfred I. du Pont acquired a majority interest in the bank. His wife, Jessie Ball du Pont eventually became a director of the bank.

After Du Pont's death, the du Pont Trust, managed by Ed Ball, Jessie's brother, controlled the bank. In 1961, Ball built a new 11-story, 500,000 square foot Art Deco structure to serve as the bank's operations center at 214 North Hogan Street. Ball constructed the building using materials, such as marble floors and granite exteriors, which would appreciate in value. However, things he thought were frills, like hot water faucets and executive bathrooms were excluded.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

Under Ball's leadership, FNB grew to become the second largest commercial bank in the state. Politics of the era, ultimately eliminated this major company from downtown Jacksonville. An amendment to the Bank Holding Act of 1966, aimed at Ed Ball, forced the du Pont trust to sell either a certain amount of the bank's ownership or their non-banking interest by 1971. With du Pont no longer a major part of the scene, in 1981, FNB agreed to be purchased by New York's Chemical Bank whenever interstate banking laws were changed.

Still in need of additional office space downtown, FNB became the anchor tenant in Faison Associate's $40 million Enterprise Center project in 1986. FNB occupied 160,000 of the 22-story tower's 325,000 square feet. At the time, FNB had 1,952 employees downtown.

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Four years after acquiring neighbor ANB, Charlotte-based First Union acquired Chemical Bank's option to buy FNB. A year later, FNB was no more when First Union completed its takeover for $849 million. First Union's takeover of ANB and FNB, resulted in two major downtown anchors disappearing and a loss of nearly 600 downtown jobs. First Union eventually became Wachovia in 2001. With no real attachment to Jacksonville or its downtown economy, the North Carolina-based bank announced it would be relocating its 2,000 employees from downtown to the Southside.

First Union's major downtown investments took place in Charlotte, the city where its headquarters was. In 2000 when it completed the 32-story Three First Union Center. Now known as Three Wells Fargo Center, the 450 foot, 890,000 square-foot building is the 7th tallest in Charlotte. After becoming Wachovia, the bank began construction on the Wachovia Corporate Center in Uptown Charlotte. Wachovia planned to occupy 450,000 of the 1.5 million square foot, 786 foot skyscraper. Wachovia was acquired by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo during the tower's construction and the amount of space initially proposed by Wachovia was no longer needed. Much of this space was filled by Duke Energy, another growing company based in Uptown Charlotte. It is now known as the Duke Energy Center.

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.

7. Independent Life and Accident Insurance Company

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

Independent Life was founded in Downtown Jacksonville in 1920. As the company grew, it occupied various buildings throughout downtown.
In 1955, the company completed a new corporate headquarters at 233 West Duval Street. The 260 foot, 19-story reinforced concrete building's interior was dominated by the use of granite, limestone and marble finishes.

Within 15 years, the company outgrew the building. This time, it would propose a headquarters that would dwarf Gulf Life's downtown tower.

Like other corporate headquarters built by major Jacksonville-based companies, the 37-story One Independent Square was envisioned to be iconic. The design concept for the $38 million structure included a sloping base and large corner frames to provide a distinctive image not only for the company, but also as an identifying landmark for the city. It also included a botanical garden, retail shops, a 450-seat auditorium, and a 253-space underground parking garage. According to chairman Jacob F. Bryan III, the tower illustrated the company's belief in Jacksonville's future. In 1974, the company moved into their new structure overlooking the St. Johns River at Bay and Main Streets. Now, known as the Wells Fargo Center, it held the title of tallest building in Florida until 1981, when One Tampa City Center was completed.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

In 1984, the growing company's assets topped $1 billion for the first time in its history. By 1985, the insurance company's downtown workforce had grown to 1,310. Independent Life's fortunes took an abrupt turn for the worse in 1992. The chickens had come home to roost for Florida's insurance industry with Hurricane Andrew ripping through South Florida. For the first time in its history, Independent Life lost money, recording a loss of $15 million. A year later, annual losses doubled to $36 million.

In 1995, the company's board of directors agreed to join Houston-based American General Corporation at the purchase price of $362 million. Soon, a company based in downtown Jacksonville with $1.4 billion in assets and $340 million in annual revenue was no more. With the move, downtown lost another 700 employees once operations were relocated to Nashville, TN.

In 1997, reflecting on the loss of Independent Life and other major home-grown companies in Jacksonville, J.F. Bryan told the Jacksonville Business Journal that "People don't spend money in regional offices like they do in home office towns. Jacksonville loses from a philanthropic aspect."

18 years later in 2015, we're still witnessing the reality of J.F. Bryan's words.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at

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