Coquina Gates: 1, Wild Cherry

by Tim Gilmore, 3/11/2017

Six or Eight Engines

If you want to know how much coquina Jim Russell used to build Coquina Gates, forget weight or volume measurements. He’d brought back enough from quarries south of St. Augustine, he always said, to burn out the engines of six or eight station wagons. That’s how much.

One large ring of coquina standing upright between the houses called Wild Cherry and Seahorse weights at least a ton by itself. The ring rounds a great hole and stands in the center of Coquina Gates.

Jim had never seen coquina before he moved to Florida. Most non-Floridians haven’t, and most Floridians don’t know they have.

Coquina is long ages of dead sea-life composted into rock. Its “deep time” or “geologic time” sedimentation packs it with the remnants of trilobites, the segmented seabed creatures that died 250 million years ago, with the settled surviving pieces of countless shells of sea snails, oysters, nautilus and other mollusks, with the strange and ancient comminglings of crab, bivalve, shark tooth, octopus beak, and coral.

The seven houses of Coquina Gates, situated on seven and a half acres shrouded in trees in the midst of the city, feel like indigenous outcroppings of the earth. Interior walls curve lusciously. Floors of refitted broken tile fit solidly in the ground. The great coquina hearths make of the heart of each house a frozen metamorphosis of earth from the deep past and ancient oceans. The floors, often with low corner windows, seem stepped down into the ground.

courtesy Austin Pool

Very little housing makes true sense in Florida. The Seminoles’ open-sided post-constructed palmetto-thatched-roof houses called chickees make sense. Jacksonville architect Henry John Klutho brought Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Prairie School” of architecture to the swampy Florida plains. Architect William Morgan built houses like sand dunes and the terraced mounds of American Indians. But Jim Russell, who identified as an artist, not an architect, may’ve designed the perfect housing form for Northeast Florida.

“Coquina brings you close to the sea,” Jim said. It also resists the summers and provides a stone sponge texture for the humidity and the clinging of hysterical Floridian lushness. Jacksonville is sea and swamp. So is Coquina Gates.

“See those washed out places?” Jim would ask, moving his hand across ripples and crags. “I like to look at them and imagine the slap of tides over the rocks, carving and shaping their own designs. That’s what I like about driftwood too.”

So the houses at Coquina Gates are decorated with driftwood and doored and beamed with pecky cypress, cypress jagged and pitted with the “pocket rot” of a fungus called Stereum taxodii. Part of the gentle beauty of pecky cypress is the surprise of its aesthetics. It’s pitted and pocked like coquina, and like coquina, pecky cypress is the hard residual left behind by time and loss. What’s left behind becomes mineralized to resist the damp and hungry earth.

Though Coquina Gates built itself through Jim Russell’s restless creativity, it’s also always been here. It has to have been. It’s indigenous. It’s the hearth and harbor at the genesis of Florida.

Three Syringes of Red Wine

When Anna fell, a decade ago, Kristen Martini knocked on the door of Wild Cherry, and when Anna called out that she’d fallen, Kristen apologized for damaging the lovely house, then climbed through a high window and broke down a door to get to her. Anna was 92 years old and she’d broken her hip.

Anna had outlived her husband, the artist who built this mad garden village over a period of 24 years, by almost 20 years. She would have died in Assisted Living if Kristen and fellow villagers hadn’t brought her back to Coquina Gates where she’d lived for half a lifetime.

Kristen was 21 when she moved to Jacksonville from Long Island, New York in 1991. She answered an ad in the paper promising “Country Living in the City” and found herself visiting this hidden inner-city wonderland that most lifelong city denizens never discover. The Seahorse was the house for rent, one of three Coquina Gates houses with a wide circular exterior window and the only house with a granite fireplace. Anna was asking $350 a month. When Kristen stepped out of her car, Anna stepped out of Wild Cherry to meet her and Kristen said, “I’ll take it.”

Anna was tough, tiny—maybe 5’1”. Though she grew up in rural Dawson, Georgia at a time when college and career were the last things expected even from urban women, she earned a Master’s Degree in Social Service Administration in 1942 from the University of Chicago.

Kristen and Anna became close. They both loved beautiful and obscure old items and the history behind them, which partially explains the love they shared for Coquina Gates. Kristen, by now, has dealt antiques for 25 years. The two of them always bumped into each other at garage sales and estate sales.

“I used to take Anna to get her hair done and we would talk about our families and life,” Kristen recalls. “When my kids were in preschool, she attended school events with me. When my kids were three years old, Anna gave them Christmas stockings made by at-risk women from Africa. That was typical Anna. She was thoughtful and ever the social worker.”

photo by Frank Smith, Florida Times-Union, September 17, 1983

In the course of their friendship, it became clear that this place had deeply integrated itself in the lives of both women, and thereby, Jim Russell dwelt in both their hearts.

Wherever they went, Coquina Gates was with them. They didn’t take it for granted, but the place was integral to their deepest being.

“Coquina Gates is an oasis in the city,” Kristen says. “A refuge. And Anna knew how gifted her husband was. She worked for a living, while he built the village. And this was the 1950s and ’60s. She was totally supportive. Their relationship was so progressive.”

When Jim and Anna Russell first moved to this land in the 1940s, the seven and a half acres stood well outside the city limits, but the concrete rings of old inner suburbia have long built up against the wooded green edges of the enclave.

In the late 2000s, when Anna sat in her wheelchair, simmering in summer sweat on the porch of Wild Cherry, and Kristen asked her if she wanted her to go inside so she could help her change, Anna immediately began to take her clothes off and said, “What’s the point of living in the country if you can’t take your clothes off outside?”

Anna told Kristen that getting old wasn’t bad at all, as long as you didn’t have too much pain, and she remained healthy and spry until her very last years and days.

When Anna was dying at home in Wild Cherry, she asked Kristen for a little wine.

“She hadn’t eaten anything in several days. I unscrewed the top from a syringe and filled it with red wine. She drank three syringes of red wine that last night, the night before she died.”

cont’d at Coquina Gates: 2. Chinquapin