by Tim Gilmore, 9/6/2020
1. Rooflines in Sand Dunes and Moonlight
The central ceiling stands 28 feet tall and the wraparound veranda’s one of the longest porches at the ocean, but the oldest house in Atlantic Beach puts up no pretense. Its original porch columns, for example, were palm trunks.
True it was John Christopher’s “party house” before the first mayor of Atlantic Beach, Harcourt Bull, called it home, and that for Christopher’s Victorian Murray Hall Hotel, no word less forceful than “magnificent” would suffice. Also magnificent, in that vicious summer of 1890, the night of the Murray Hall’s apocalypse!
This house though, for most of its life, has nurtured family, both Bull and Hionides. Hygge, pronounced ho͝oɡə, that Danish word trendy the last couple years, meaning coziness as a mood and contentment specifically felt in the presence of friends and family, applies. Beneath the central heights, this brick fireplace, these pocket doors, house as home, hearth as heart, metonymy for family! And Nadia Hionides, who greets me this Saturday morning, is its matriarch.
Seen from the sand’s slope down to the roaring ocean, the roofline flows from the dunes. I’d never have known. A gambrel has two sides and each side, two slopes, the top slope easy and the bottom slope steep. I’d never have guessed I’d find them here. Usually you see gambrel roofs on barns, but these rooflines and dormer windows look to have grown, on their own, from the tides, the shifting dunes and moonlight.
2. Exodus and the Call of the Ocean
Before Nadia and Chris Hionides bought the house in 1990, there were plans to demolish the back wing and replace it with three new houses. The Hionides family arrived just in time. Having weathered countless storms, the salt air and a century of humidity, the house needed their love.
Nadia calls the back wing the guest house, as separate from the main house by a breezeway. The wing’s three bedrooms—it originally had four—allow family to visit without anyone getting in each other’s way. Her sister Dora used to stay six weeks every year with her kids.
Egyptian Greek, Cypriot and Lebanese, Nadia’s parents left Egypt for New York when President Gamal Abdel Nasser, having led the coup that overthrew the monarchy, expelled the Mutamassirun, “Egyptianized” non-Arabs, in 1956 and ’57. His policies of anti-imperialism against the French and British ossified into a purist nationalism excluding Syrians and Greeks and others as well. So Nadia came to New York when she was seven years old.
In a small bedroom used as an art room are drawings of the women in her family—grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, and two sketches Nadia made as a teenager of her grandmothers. Paintings of her children give backdrop. Today, in this old house central to extended family, Nadia’s matriarchy is clear and bountiful and loving.
It extends to the school she founded in 1988, the Foundation Academy, with its reputation for diversity, inclusiveness, strength in the arts, for generous scholarships and a pedagogy that all learning be collaborative. Nadia also started the annual Jacksonville Science Festival, for K–12 students, which shares a mantra with the school: “justice and equity in education.”
Meanwhile, as Nadia sits by the fireplace and talks of education as her purpose in life, her grandchildren run up from the beach in towels, ready to exchange the ocean for the swimming pool. Bright sunlight coruscates against the dark golden grain of the home’s interior heart pine, somehow both cathedral and womb. The upstairs master bedroom looks over the dunes to the ocean. To watch, from the chiaroscuro of this interior, a thunderstorm at night or the moment when the sun erupts like a ball of fire through the early morning sky, has recharged Nadia’s raison d’être for almost 30 years.
For Nadia feels the ocean called her, through exodus from Egypt to New York, then Philadelphia, finally to Atlantic Beach. And I remember that gracious genius, the Atlantic Beach architect William Morgan, telling me once, as I stood in the kitchen of that cedar pyramid of an oceanfront home he’d built his family, that New England sunlight was like the light in Tuscany, but Florida light was like the sun that shone on the Nile. And so this house called Nadia home to this light.
3. Castles in the Sand and on the River
John G. Christopher came to Jacksonville from St. Louis in 1877, ran Florida’s first wholesale grocery, Seminole Cyprus Lumber Company and several lines of steamships and schooners, including ships called The Queen of the St. Johns and, no one accused him of humility, The John G. Christopher. Gingerbread woodwork and wraparound porches festooned steamships that looked like opulent wooden Victorian hotels on the river.
Meanwhile, Christopher’s Murray Hall Hotel was the first of a series of grand wooden beach hotels to disappear in spectacular conflagrations. The first railroad had just reached Pablo Beach, no longer called Ruby, Florida and not yet Jacksonville Beach, and the Murray Hall rose at the end of the line. The castle stood six stories tall while piazzas 15 feet wide swept across its lower three floors. It opened in July 1886 and lasted just more than four years.
A decade after the Murray Hall crashed flaming into the sand, and immediately after the third largest urban fire in American history, the Great Fire of 1901, decimated Jacksonville to the west, John Christopher built his home at 11th Street and the oceanfront in what became Atlantic Beach.
Christopher spent most of his time, however, in town, where he lived in a house in the line of mansions along Riverside Avenue called The Row. He reserved the beach, where nearly nobody lived, for special occasions and putting up real estate clients. The beach house gained a reputation. He’d added a wing of bedrooms, “with,” as that 1989 tome Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage describes them, “front and back entrances for rapid entry and exit purposes.”
A century later, I stand in those rooms and Nadia Hionides laughs at those rumors. She’s skeptical of more scandalous implications. The wing reaches across a breezeway from the main house. Really the wing is a guest house. The rooms are narrow, second doors long ago made windows.
Back downtown, the streetfront brick warehouse for J.G. Christopher & Co., a mill and machinery supply firm, steel merchants, built in 1902, stood with arched entryways on East Bay Street for a century. It was demolished to build the Berkman Plaza condominium tower.
4. The “Exclusive” White Beach and the “Negro Resort”
Christopher may have kept his house at the beach like a mistress on the side, but the family of Atlantic Beach’s first mayor called that house home for the next 73 years.
In 1917, Harcourt Bull turned down a lucrative lawsuit in New York to finish his move to the oceanside wastelands of Florida. He’d taken over counsel for the Atlantic Beach Corporation. Sales to “cottagers” of land surrounding the vast Continental Hotel, built in 1901, had established the first smatterings of community. In 1913, when railroad tycoon Henry Flagler sold the Continental to New York investors, they renamed it the Atlantic Beach Hotel. He’d also reserved oceanside wasteland for black workers who could at least buy property there.
Bull came to Florida two years before the Atlantic Beach Hotel caught fire like all the others and immediately embroiled himself in the contentious dealings and skullduggery regarding Manhattan Beach, which Don Mabry calls, in his 2007 article, “Harcourt Bull’s Atlantic Beach, Florida,” a “stretch of oceanfront near the jetties and Mayport which was reserved for African Americans. The resort had existed for years in that deserted stretch about which whites in Duval County had ceased to care.”
Bull served interests that wanted black people gone from the beaches, positioning himself opportunistically, favoring whichever side might prevail. It was always rather obvious which side that would be. He represented Equable Trust of Baltimore in foreclosing Manhattan Beach’s mortgage, then proposed buying the beach himself and renting it back to its operators.
Through the cold early months of 1920, the ocean worked its wrath, eroding the beach, and Manhattan’s southernmost pavilion began to fall into the vengeful sea. Bull talked to black beachgoers about moving the pavilion back from ocean’s ire, but also considered selling it for firewood. If he could purchase the property and rent it back black, “first class” and “respectable,” he said he would.
Atlantic Beach incorporated in 1925, with Governor Doyle Carlton appointing Bull mayor, but its finances were already scrambled when the Great Depression hit and the Florida Land Boom dissipated. Mayor Bull’s own RCBS—Rogers, Crawford, Swartz and Bull—the second iteration of the Atlantic Beach Corporation, now owned Manhattan Beach. Meanwhile, more whites moved to the beach and decided they wanted the wasteland they’d first dismissed to blacks.
The February 1929 issue of Beach Life Magazine quotes Bull as saying how “everyone knows” that in northern Atlantic Beach, “there lies a tract of land that is owned by a wealthy syndicate which is waiting for the psychological moment to come when they will develop the tract as Coral Gables or Hollywood was developed. That moment may be six months away or it may be a year away, but come it will and it will come soon.” It did not come. That “syndicate” developed Ponte Vedra Beach, well to the south, instead.
The letter—January 27, 1933—came from Rogers Towers, still one of Jacksonville’s preeminent law firms. The letter informed Bull that millionaire Edward Ball, whose sister Jessie Ball du Pont had married Jacksonville industrialist and investor Alfred du Pont, was buying Manhattan Beach property and wanted Bull’s help, “in excluding the negroes from Manhattan Beach in so far as possible in order to get them entirely off the oceanfront.”
When Northeast Florida’s wealthiest citizens decided to develop the other end of Jacksonville’s beaches to the south, as the finances of RCBS, formerly the Atlantic Beach Corporation, spiraled downward, Ponte Vedra’s developers and financiers continued to pressure him to destroy the last vestiges of Florida’s first black beach.
It’s too simplistic to say that in 1933 it was Ball versus Bull. As early as January 1915, James Payne, assistant secretary of the Atlantic Beach Corporation, wrote Harcourt Bull, “The Mayport Terminal Company agreed that they would withhold the deeds from these niggers and give us the chance to purchase their contracts, but we have never availed ourselves of the opportunity.”
5. Downtown Blues at the Beach
The Great Depression bombarded the Bulls. Then World War II, which finally raised the U.S. economy up from the Bottomless Pit, hit them harder still. Harcourt’s son Richard, a Navy pilot, crashed in the Pacific in 1942. A year and a half later, September 9, 1943, a car accident, night driving, crushed Harcourt Bull’s chest and smashed up his head.
World War II blackouts had shut off the lights in the New York skyline and darkened towns up and down the East Coast. Newspapers reported increases of crime and car accidents. Mabry writes, “In order to prevent tankers and other ships from being back lighted by lights at the Beaches, people had to use blackout curtains and streetlights and lighted signs went dark at dusk.” Bull died on September 13th, not quite 85.
It was in honor of Richard that Mary Bull, wife of Harcourt’s other son George, started an annual tradition of inviting sailors from Mayport Naval Station, just north, for Thanksgiving dinner. After World War II, George and Mary had made the house their home. As Mary told Christopher Aguilar of The Florida Times-Union in February 2002, “I would call the base, ask which sailors could not make it home for the holidays and then invite them for dinner.”
Mary remembered good times at the house, deep in the difficult days of the Great Depression. She’d met George at Landon Junior and Senior High School, up in San Marco, near downtown, and come out to high school dances the Bulls hosted at the beach. She spoke of that veranda that wraps the house and sitting with George there on the porch swing in twilight.
Telling Aguilar about dancing to “hit-of-the-week records,” how the Bulls “would remove the oriental rug from the hardwood floor and play songs on the jukebox,” she casually mentioned “a man named Sugar Underwood” who “would come and play piano.”
Mat(t)hew Emanuel “Sugar” Underwood is one of countless black musicians, mysterious, about whom little is known, who called the dense urban labyrinths of inner Jacksonville home in the early 20th century. Like Jacksonville’s blind ragtime blues guitarist Blind Blake, Underwood recorded songs in the late 1920s with Jacksonville streets in the titles. As with Blind Blake and so many other black musicians, few details of Underwood’s life have been salvaged from the shadows and the circumstances of his early death remain obscure.
Underwood’s recording career was even shorter than Blind Blake’s, which stretched from 1926 to ’32. Underwood’s lasted a day. On that single day, August 23, 1927, Underwood recorded seven songs, including “Dew Drop Alley Stomp,” “Jacksonville Blues” and “Davis Street Blues.” Dew Drop Alley was a short street in Hansontown, a black neighborhood where Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Downtown Campus stands today. Davis Street still runs through LaVilla, that part of western Downtown once a most dense and vibrant black community.
In an August 1928 Jacksonville Journal story, “Jacksonville Negro Musician is Bitten Again by the ‘Blues,’” Underwood called “Jacksonville Blues” a “white folks’ song,” but said “Davis Street Blues” was “written for Jacksonville Negroes.”
Just a few years later, the Harcourt Bull family had Sugar Underwood out to play piano at their 11th Street oceanfront home. And here’s the frustration of losing details to time and unrecorded history. Did he play “Davis Street Blues,” out from LaVilla at Atlantic Beach, or just the song for “white folks”? How did he relate to the piano and sound? How did he dress? How did he react to the Bulls? Who was he honestly behind a forced showmanship?
And how did the Bulls feel toward and treat Underwood after the racial tug-of-war between Ponte Vedra and Manhattan Beach? So little remains of this musician’s life and times. Mary Bull, 101 years old, died in 2015. Thirteen years prior, she just happened to remember to a reporter “a man named Sugar Underwood.”
Time often consumes itself in the moment, but when we look back, we wonder not just where it went, but where (and whether) it ever stood. George Bull, Jr. bought the house from his parents, remembered one morning, 1950s or ’60s, he wasn’t sure, how frequently they left the doors and windows open at night to let the ocean breeze inhabit and ventilate the house, how he’d descended the stairs that morning to find a young woman he didn’t know asleep on the family couch. She’d had too much to drink the night before, wandered the beach in the roar of the ocean deep in the dark and found an open door.
6. And It Was Good
George, Jr. became an architect. Son of Mary Bull, he married Mary Lou. Mary Lou Bull sold paintings of palm trees and beach paths walled by bougainvillea and surfers enveloped in Fibonacci spirals of waves. Both their daughters, Rebecca and Deborah, were married at the house. Four generations of Bulls called this house home.
George recalled fish fries and barbecues on the beach out front. He’d grown up in the oldest house in Atlantic Beach and designed houses for postmodernity. In 2010, the strange post-International-style Subjinski House at 33rd Avenue South, Jax Beach, cubes and porthole windows, mustard yellow, featured in Architect Magazine.
In 1990, Bull sold the house to Chris and Nadia Hionides. John Christopher had never made the house he’d built his home, but the Bulls called it home for more than 70 years. The Hionideses renovated the house, kept it close to origins, invited extended family to spend summers here at the foot of the ocean.
Oddly, corporations came knocking, sought the house out to shoot advertisements—J. Crew, Tommy Hilfiger, the Mayo Clinic, most recently the British Broadcasting Corporation. National Geographic would rent space to shoot an episode of the TV show Drain the Oceans, lay out nautical charts on a bed, catch a shot of a man looking through a spyglass.
Hilfiger paid $7,000 to film for a week, feeding family and neighbors from their corporate food truck, just to produce a print ad that featured one porch post, a view of the ocean and a woman in a bathing suit. They’d paid to occupy one of the most distinctive houses in Northeast Florida to create a generic ad that could’ve been made anywhere.
Always, still, the family came, Nadia’s father, nieces, nephews, her kids, dragging the waves with a hundred foot fish net, and on New Year’s Eve, 2000, the Hionides family opened their home to all Atlantic Beach to celebrate the house’s 100th birthday.
Mary Bull was younger than the house when she died, at 101, 15 years later. She recollected ironclad facts, though sharp details sprung loose. Even so, she remembered nights 80 years past. There was George and the way he held her. That porch swing cut a gentle crescent back and forth toward the sea.
Mary had wondered just how many thousands of years or millions, moving back through time into deep unimaginings blurred through and shadowed over like the waters across which God spoke in the first chapter of Genesis, such waves had caught such moonlight.
George held her, “and the earth was without form, and void.” In his arms, she felt secure, safe, the whole dark watery world about them surely only this moment, “and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” She imbibed his smell, the welcome warmth of his breath, as he returned to her the radiance of her own body as she’d just come to know it, “and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Ever after, she’d remember how soft and new their skin had been, how all the world and earth seemed simultaneously ancient and their own initial moment of heart and heat. “And God saw the light, that it was good.”
These days, Nadia Hionides, though more night owl than early bird, still catches the sunrise from her bedroom balcony. “And God divided the light from the darkness.”
And she sees that it is good.