by Tim Gilmore, 12/27/2020
1. A Theft and a Debt
The house wouldn’t be here today, in the middle of the Munnerlyn Campus of Episcopal School of Jacksonville, if in the 1880s, a future city commissioner hadn’t robbed its owner of citrus and threatened that one day he’d own the old man’s house too. Just before Christmas cold, the breezes off the St. Johns River infuse that irony into the balmy day.
If you set a billiard ball in the middle of the floor, you’d see it slowly and determinedly roll away from you. The house awaits its new incarnation. But for odd bits of dangling wiring, track lighting and darkroom sinks, the Acosta House faces the river empty.
The wide depths of these tile porches have hosted graduations, year after year, lines of hopeful young people in regalia, all their futures before them, and served as stage for “Coffeehouse” performances, young musicians and poets, students listening in lawn chairs and on blankets spread out beneath the great guardian oaks. Behind those oaks, rolls the river. Over that river, the bridges and skyline rise.
Back in the 1980s, students reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby met the spring by dressing as characters from the novel and celebrated “Gatsby Day” on the verandah. When Barbara Stevenson described Gatsby Day for The Florida Times-Union in November 1984, she said, “We hope that someday we can move our administrative offices here and have a separate building for fine arts.”
At the end of 2020, the Acosta House has emptied out. The last of Episcopal High School’s arts departments, which now occupy multiple buildings on campus, has departed. In the new year, admin moves in, finally. Whether the city commissioner, who bought this house more than a century ago, might stop by to collect his debt of roses is doubtful. For all St. Elmo “Chic” Acosta’s threats and bluster while alive, his ghost rarely disturbs the peace.
2. Beginning with the Theft of Oranges
St. Elmo W. Acosta was cocky. You might expect as much from a man named for the patron saint of sailors, abdominal pain and fire. “Elmo” was originally short for “Erasmus,” but Acosta went by “Chic” (pronounced “Chick”), the nickname of his forebear Domingo who died in Jacksonville in 1841 in the Second Seminole War. As a child, Chic Acosta mocked the man from whom he stole oranges and told him that one day he’d have his house too. And he did.
When Rose Shepherd interviewed Acosta for the Federal Writers Project on March 27, 1939, she noted how the stout “olive-skinned” man, who stood only 5’9”, sat across from her with “small piercing brown eyes.” As he seated himself on a window ledge, Shepherd wrote, he spoke “rapidly, with his chin elevated and his head thrown back.”
Having acceded to Shepherd’s request for an interview, having kept her waiting as he showed up late, Acosta began, “Well, if we are going to make this a life history, we better go back to the beginning, or maybe a little before. I am a direct descendant of Pedro Menéndez.”
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the conquistador, himself born into great wealth as landed gentry, founded the city of St. Augustine, an hour to the south, in 1565, and led the slaughter of the French Huguenots and the execution of Jean Ribault at Matanzas Bay, an inlet named for that massacre.
Acosta came from a fierce lineage, he boasted. By now, he’d served as Jacksonville city commissioner, Florida state representative and city parks commissioner. He was macho, but flamboyant. He could make simple interactions feel like challenges to one’s honor, but he surrounded himself with flowers and always wore a rose in his lapel. “It was not a gesture of affection,” he said, lest anyone misinterpret the politics of that rose, “but a genuine love for flowers.”
When he was a young boy and his family moved to a new house at First and Main Streets, Acosta began a life of juvenile crime raiding the city’s citrus groves. He loved oranges, but he loved stealing them even more. He formed a gang of citrus thieves, and their exploits led him across the river to the house he’d one day call home.
“We boys used to get in a boat,” Acosta said, “and row down the river to a large estate below Keystone, the Episcopal Boys’ Home, where there was a fine orange grove. One day the caretaker was a little too quick for us, and as we entered the boat, our pockets crammed with fruit, he shot several times, not at us, but in the air, so as to frighten us away. I yelled back at him, ‘Never mind! Someday I’ll own that place myself!’”
3. Ghost Eden
“The kids love this old house,” says Mark Zimmerman, who’s taught photography here since he came to Episcopal High School a decade ago. He runs his fingers through his dark beard, then notes in a second breath, “They’re also scared of it.” The Acosta House once headquartered all Episcopal’s fine arts, but as Ceramics, Dance and Theatre found new homes around campus, Photography remained. Photography students feared going alone to the bathroom at the top of the house, Mark laughs, and often requested a friend accompany them up the stairs.
The Acosta family donated the house, having called it home for 55 years, to the Episcopal Diocese in 1966 when it founded the Episcopal School of Jacksonville. A businessman named L.H. Armstrong had built the house in 1885. When Mark came to Episcopal, the house became his artistic home, since not only did he teach here, he had his own studio at the back of the house on the second floor.
Now the darkroom seems adrift, portal to another world. Surely it opened worlds to teenagers developing prints in the stainless steel processing sink, waiting to see the image emerge beneath the safelight, perhaps an angle, a face in the background, not noticed when they’d clicked the shutter.
Spring classes overflowed onto the verandah and the grounds between oaks and azaleas, the river and its bridges as background. New images rose in an old place, creativity from compost, ideas released from the breakdown of ghost detritus. Such spaces became students’ moments, memorable and foundational, to take with them the rest of their lives, ghost Eden ever after.
4. Famous Satsumas
Chic Acosta bought this house in 1911, the year before he was first elected to city commission, 30-odd years after telling Armstrong this house would be his. A social register from 1885 described Armstrong, a former Newark councilman, as “a gentleman entirely of business, who passes all his winters in Florida. He possesses a place of 25 acres, 1,000 orange trees partly in bearing, and raises all other vegetables and fruits necessary for his family. His house is a villa, with extension, and all the surroundings are of the most elegant and comfortable description.”
Acosta told Rose Shepherd, “It was a happy moment for me when 28 years ago I put the deed for that 25 acre estate in my pocket.” All his life, he’d decided what he wanted and if you defied his wishes, he’d threaten to take more. He tilted his head back at an angle, daring a different conclusion.
Now he’d raised three sons and three daughters in that house and in those groves. At first, however, and this seemed a different kind of brag, he’d only needed the old Armstrong place for a summer home. You needed a ferry back then. The city had no bridges.
But that too was a brag, for he’d championed the first bridge across the St. Johns River in a city connected now by seven spans. When Acosta died, city leaders would rename the St. Johns River Bridge the Acosta. Building Jacksonville’s first bridge connected Acosta’s business interests, delivering wholesale goods to hotels and restaurants, and bridged his business and politics to this home in the grove he’d once raided. The city’s first bridge allowed him to make the summerhouse home year round.
Acosta compared his citrus to Armstrong’s favorably, 20 acres bearing “orange, satsuma and grapefruit, also pear and plum trees.” He’d brought the satsuma tree down from the Van Valkenburgh House, where that fruit was introduced to North America. Anna Van Valkenburgh, wife of Robert Bruce V.V., U.S. minister to Japan, brought this strange and seedless, sweet and easily peeled Chinese fruit called Unshu Mikan to Jacksonville from the Satsuma Province of Japan, then renamed Unshu Mikan “Satsuma.” Newspapers of other Florida cities reported when Acosta visited, bringing civic leaders “his famous satsumas.”
The remaining five acres, Acosta said, “takes in the homesite and some native and tropical plantings along the river. I have kept as many of the age-old live oaks and magnolias as possible. We also have a number of native holly and the beautiful Christmas-berry tree. The old house is just as it has been for 50 years, with some needed repairs, but I did build a new porch around the east and north. It has about 180 square yards of floor space, which Mrs. Acosta thought was going to be a lot of trouble to keep swept off, but I made the floor of red tile that can be easily washed with a hose.”
5. Echo Chamber
One night Mark was working by himself downstairs, when he realized he’d been hearing something strange. He thought he’d heard footsteps, a pacing back and forth on the floors above his head. He kept working, focused, dismissed the noises. The house above him aged, audibly, then shifted. He could tell the sound of slipping without recognizing it. It sounded like whispering, so he stopped working and climbed the stairs.
Mark was new here. The house was old. The sounds came from the room at the back of the house at the top, where he’d started to make his studio. Year after year, the school modified the old house, moving arts departments elsewhere, but the leaks accumulated during storms, and the electrical shortages, the mold creeping across the diagonal walls above the stairs. More than once, students moving equipment accidentally knocked out the window on that landing. Floorboards warped. Paint peeled.
When Mark investigated upstairs, he found no one, then heard the same shufflings and footsteps downstairs where he’d been working. So he headed back down. He called out. Hello? Who was there? Again, he found no one. But now the footsteps and whispering resumed upstairs. It didn’t frighten him. He laughed at himself for going up and down those stairs three times. He never did balance things out. He never found a source. It was time to go home. The house was busy with itself. His work would wait another day.
6. A Debt of Roses
On March 1, 1942, Acosta published a brief autobiographical sketch on tabloid paper, written in long rambling paragraphs, followed by an alphabetical listing of his accomplishments, including “Alleys,” “Autos,” “Benches,” “Bond Issue,” “Band Stand,” etc. The introduction is composed of choppy, boastful, often incomplete sentences.
“Ran in 1919 for City Commission and was elected over Jno. T. Alsop, and was elected to the city commission again in 1923-1927 and 1932, serving in that position 16 years. Was defeated in 1936; rather, the election was stolen from me by politicians. Ran in 1938 for city commissioner and was defeated by same politicians. I had about made up my mind not to go into politics any more, but was persuaded by many taxpayers and citizens to run for the legislature in 1940 and was elected, receiving the largest vote I ever received from the people, over 20,000.”
His gasconades aside, Acosta did have plenty of political enemies. Despite his love for the city, ever focused on its “beautification,” Chic Acosta made enemies easily. The shenanigans were sensational. In 1924, Mayor John W. Martin had Acosta arrested for being an “inmate” of a “disorderly house,” hinting at “immoral” relations or prostitution. This was the same Martin who ran against former Mayor J.E.T. Bowden, calling him a “negro lover,” and who Shawn Bean, in his book The First Hollywood: Florida and the Golden Age of Silent Filmmaking, credits for running the film industry out of Jacksonville. Acosta was exonerated and newspapers published editorials calling the episode “a frame-up engineered by Mayor Martin to get Acosta ‘in bad’ with the voters.”
In January 1933, a grand jury indicted Acosta on nine charges of giving away goods and services from the city’s prison farm “without lawful authority,” including seeds, plants, prison labor and a mule. The first indictment was for giving “a sack of potatoes valued at $1 to a ‘Mrs. Stanton’ without lawful authority in November 1932.” In June, the county solicitor dismissed the charges, calling them “nonsensical.”
Acosta gave frequent public talks on native Florida wildflowers and urban “beautification” and made national news by proposing state legislation in 1941 that “would require,” as the Associated Press reported, “the county commissioners of each of Florida’s 67 counties to plant 1,000 live oak or water oak trees along the highways annually. The saplings would be furnished by the state nursery.” The bill failed. Acosta died in his downtown office on November 4, 1947, eight months after his 31 year old son, St. Elmo Acosta, Jr., died in a South Florida plane crash. Now Armstrong’s and Acosta’s citrus groves are gone (though the wooden bowling alley Armstrong’s neighbor Charles Cummings built on the property line to spite him in the 1890s still stands). Though Acosta began his infamy by stealing citrus, he never collected his debt of roses.
“When I was defeated for Park Commissioner,” he wrote in his tabloid autobiography, “rather had election stolen from me by the Machine, Mr. Ernest E. Anders, commissioner, introduced and passed unanimously a resolution giving me privilege as long as I lived, to get one rose each day from city parks, which I had beautified—Since that have only taken one or two—all these years so some day will go out, and if can find any, will get a hundred or two which are due me now.” Perhaps leaving those roses at the end of his life canceled out the oranges of childhood.