Coquina Gates: 3, Riots of the Fall and Nor’east

by Tim Gilmore, 3/26/2017

cont’d from Coquina Gates: 2, Chinquapin

A Place Filled Always with Music

“I remember Coquina Gates as a place filled always with music,” she says.

a young James Russell, courtesy Florida Times-Union, circa 1945

“Daddy’s background, his childhood, was in Vaudeville, so he loved having musicians around,” says Debbie Russell, Jim and Anna’s younger daughter, who now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Sometime in the mid-’60s, as Jim Russell built Chinquapin, the last house of the village he’d incidentally built, while he lived with Anna and his daughters in Wild Cherry, he met the folk singers Charlotte Daniels and Pat Webb and offered to let them live in the finished half of the house.

Charlotte Daniels and Patt Web had released a successful self-titled album in 1960 and played a minor role in the mid-’60s urban folk music scene. Their album featured standards like “Nobody’s Business” and “Frankie and Johnny.”

Debbie recalls, “They were really wonderful people. Well-known. They’d been friends with Dylan. He used to sleep over on their couch.”

Somehow, Jim Russell ran into them when they started a standing gig at the Kon Tiki Lounge on San Jose Boulevard out in the Mandarin suburbs.

At least once a month, Coquina Gates residents got together at one house or another. “This was when the Hootenanny folk scene was coming on,” Debbie says.

In the early to mid-1960s, blues-infused original rock n’ roll ceded space to a folk music revival, ironically, in retrospect, centered in America’s urban centers. The synthesis of blues and folk powered forward late 1960s American rock from the Mamas and the Papas to Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors.

And wasn’t the blues a form of folk music anyway? And what was Bob Dylan if not the blues and folk fused and gone finally electric? It’s precisely the strange way history moves.

Since Coquina Gates as a community met regularly to share music and food and camaraderie in one of Florida’s most artistically original environs, Riots of the Fall seemed natural, almost inevitable.

Riots of the Fall was a folk festival Jim and Anna Russell held at Coquina Gates for three years in the mid-1960s.

photo of James Russell seated in Wild Cherry, by Frank Smith, Florida Times-Union, September 17, 1983

Debbie Russell remembers the festivals fondly. She says there was always a core group of Jacksonville people who came out to Coquina Gates to share music and community. She recalls Norm Davis, a Florida Times-Union journalist, and Ed Fleming, a Jacksonville psychologist.

But Riots of the Fall was something else altogether. People came from all over Florida and Georgia and camped out at Coquina Gates to listen to three days of folk musicians and storytellers. Debbie lovingly recalls Cousin Thelma, who organized the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.

Debbie’s friends lived in the ranch-style houses constructed on modest plots in surrounding subdivisions.

“My dad was different, but my mom was too,” she says. “She had a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, so she didn’t fit in either. All my friends’ mothers stayed home.”

The home to which her friends returned at the end of the school day differed in every way from hers and her sister’s.

“My friends went home from school to their moms giving them milk and cookies and we came home to our stay-at-home dad doing this strange tilework and lugging giant rocks around and building these eccentric houses out of stuff we’d dragged off the beach and out of the river. It seemed very strange. He would have fit in more in the 1970s with the Back to the Land movement.”

She remembers her father as “cantankerous” but gentle and affectionate.

James Russell, Florida Times-Union, July 19, 1971, no photographer attributed

“He’d built a pool, the most eccentric thing you’ve ever seen, strangely shaped and filled with his tilework and these saber-tooth tiger drawings he’d fired into tile. It stood between Seahorse and Wild Cherry.

“And my dad was very tender. He’d go out there in the mornings and find these little frogs had drowned in the pool. So he got up earlier. And every morning he was out there trying to get the frogs and all the insects that had landed in the pool, because he didn’t want any of them to drown.”

Leveled True, Filtered through the Trees

Another great ring of coquina stands upright in a shadow-green copse of Cast Iron Plants and Christmas ferns before the house called Nor’east. This ring—or rather, this gate—is smaller than the central one before Seahorse. Each house has its own coquina gate, but the front house on the left, which stands behind the greatest coquina, is the one called The Gates.

An early afternoon as rainy and dark as this one reminds me of the age of the earth. Florida’s great deception is its too-constant heat and humidity, though more winter clouds Jacksonville than most Florida. Florida, with its cycads and alligators, convinces you it’s prehistoric, but its constant new living is old as perennial renewal.

Kevin Lewis has lived in Nor’east for four years. Slim, bearded, and bespectacled, Kevin designs edible landscaping. He found out about Coquina Gates from his friend Austin Pool, who was already living in Seahorse. Austin brings over a sixpack of locally brewed beer, Intuition Ale Works. He’s burly. His hair and beard are long.

Kevin points to the two large circular windows at right angles from each other on either side of a front corner. This part of the house was added later. A legendary door, which I’ve heard is cypress and I’ve heard is oak, which I’ve heard weighs 300 pounds and I’ve heard weighs 700 pounds, once opened to the breeze. Now the door separates the oldest part of Nor’east from the newer. The great-girthed coquina chimney stands at the line in between.

The plaster around the circular windows leaves sections of brick bared. The ground-level coquina berm, you might assume is façade, but it holds up the house. It’s the foundation rising up from the ground. In the living room, that lower coquina wall extends into a ledge for sitting. Other ledges and shelves grow randomly from interior walls and hearth like bracket fungi growing from an elder oak.

Jim Russell built large round stepping stones of fractured fieldstone encompassed with iron barrel bands. Above them are tiles Kristen Martini set into front windows.

The loquats are as tall as I’ve ever seen Japanese plums grow. Kevin eats the loquats, but not as voraciously as do the raccoons. Since loquats have a sedative effect, the belly-full raccoons sometimes stumble about seemingly stoned.

Inside Nor’east, shards of fieldstone fitted gracefully and gently comprise the floors beneath coquina walls in places wainscoted with pecky cypress. Of these stone floors is each and every shade of ochre and earth and clay, of these walls each hue and variation of ochre and grey and umber. The merged shapes of fractures in the floor and hearth and wall seem to have accrued of their own. The combined effect of all this hardwood and stone is a soft caring and comfort, a house that will ever take care of those who choose it. No wonder Jim Russell claimed he was no architect, as surely he was incidental to such a house’s coming together.

Behind the monumental fireplace and hearth stands the legendary door. It swings on hinges Jim Russell salvaged from a barn somewhere in New England. Three inches thick, nearly five feet wide, the heavy door swings easy and has ever leveled true.

By a corner dining table in back of the house, Jim Russell’s own Jim Russell-sized map of Florida hangs on the wall, scribbled over with his notes about his many journeys across the state by water.

Kevin’s playing a record through a Bluetooth, it’s an old Blue Note album, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Kevin and Austin discuss thrift stores, how and where to make the best finds. They open a multi-record album of Jack Kerouac reading.

Days like this, cold and wet, the air moves a different way, closer to solid, smoke and exhaust and steam hang in the air like memories of a first love or regrets after your father’s death. The rain falls but seems to hang in the air and disperse laterally into spirits before what’s left of it touches the ground hard and cold. The nights in Coquina Gates come as otherworldly as the earth when it’s most true.

The barred owls high in the trees assert their whooping monkey calls over the human homesteads that happen to fall in the owls’ domain, demesne. Major roadways roar in the distance. They do surround Coquina Gates. Atlantic Boulevard. University Boulevard. Beach Boulevard. The Commodore Point Expressway and Hart Bridge Expressway. Little Pottsburgh Creek cuts to the Arlington River then quickly to the St. Johns River and downtown Jacksonville.

“You can hear the traffic on the major roads at night,” Kevin says.

“But,” Austin adds, “You hear it filtered through the trees.”

The city in the near distance becomes part of the ambient noise. The traffic and the owls and the Florida nighthawks blend into the same ambience that shrouds the village, without streetlights, in the pitch black of night clouds or the soft blue sheen of moonlight.

cont’d at Coquina Gates: 4, Last Chance