Empire Point: Marabanong

by Tim Gilmore, 6/18/2012

courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

Perley Place had just recently burnt. It stood between the wine cellar built into the bluff beside the river and the new house the English astronomer Thomas Basnett built around 1876.

The astronomer’s widow, Eliza Wilbur, herself a scientist, married a French doctor, E. Mathieu Souvielle, who made the house a tourist destination for invalids. Come on down to Florida’s brutal and malarial and yellow-fevered climate and convalesce! Subtropical convalescent homes were all the rage in quack science of the late Victorian 1800s.


late 1960s Kodak Brownie shot of Marabanong by Jacksonville’s “outsider historian” Virginia King

The house had been named “Paradise,” or at least a supposedly Maori word for Paradise. It’s hard to find any other use of the word “Marabanong,” though the Maribyrnong River flows through Melbourne, Australia. The zoo at Marabanong contained deer, crocodiles (not the native alligators), and peacocks.

Eliza had invented a telescope that neighborhood boys used to spy the urban center across the river, and she’d been experimenting with an airplane when Orville and Wilbur Wright beat her to a first successful flight in North Carolina in late 1903.

Marabanong 1

The house’s verandah wraps all the way around it on two stories. Somewhere in the house is a cupola, somewhere a octagonal turret, and everywhere windows, 121 of them, windows and windows and windows.

The house precedes and transcends the neighborhood—the kind of neighborhood that has its own “Garden Circle” whose members at least sponsor the I.M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless and try to save manatees. The houses that immediately surround Marabanong now refer to themselves, with their own official sign, as “Historic Marabanong.”

It’s the kind of house where a woman like Grace Wilbur Trout could live in the 1920s and fight for early feminist causes and be the president of the city’s Garden Club.

The scientists and French physician and suffragette have passed. The house knows its hill. Somewhere between the house and the wine cellar are the remains of former subterranean connection.

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