Empire Point: Marabanong

by Tim Gilmore, 6/18/2012, updated 12/11/2020

It’s not a house that’s easy to leave. It demands commitment, perhaps as much as a life. For much of its history, Marabanong has required personalities as big as its own to keep it afloat, high on the bluff on top of the St. Johns River at Empire Point.

date unknown, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

There was another house here before this house. Perley Place stood between the wine cellar built into the bluff by the river and the house the English astronomer Thomas Basnett built around 1876. And there were other occupants here before Perley Place, for thousands of years.

Everyone who repeated the story claimed Basnett named the house “Paradise” in the Maori language. Every now and then, a native New Zealander said otherwise. There may be no other reference to any “Marabanong” in the world, but the Maribyrnong River flows through Melbourne, Australia.

date unknown, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Social registers said Basnett’s 30 acres contained “a fine grove of 1500 trees,” 60 “varieties of roses” and “two small boiling springs” with “water bubbling up in large volume.” Basnett had positioned a “fine telescope” on a stone mount before “the summer house,” moveable about the grounds, and the riverside earth grew “remarkably fine strawberries.”

The house rose five levels, three floors and a basement and attic, 22 rooms, 121 windows, 6,000 square feet, a two-story wraparound verandah, a corner tower rising to a crooked cupola opening to a widow’s walk along the roof.

date unknown, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

In 1884, Basnett published his best known scientific work, a book called The True Theory of the Sun. Its full title was The True Theory of the Sun, Showing the Common Origin of the Solar Spots and Corona, and of Atmospheric Storms and Cyclones: With the Necessary Formulæ and Tables for Computing the Maximum and Minimum Epochs of Solar Activity, and the Passages in Time and Place of the Chief Disturbers of the Weather, from the Equator to the Poles in Both Hemispheres. Beneath ancient oaks over the river, the astronomer envisioned space while his rambling manse on this little blue planet whirled through it. The moon fruited from the night pines.

date unknown, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

When the astronomer died in 1886, his widow, Eliza Wilbur, herself a scientist, married a French doctor, E. Mathieu Souvielle, who made the estate a tourist destination for invalids. It was a time when people believed the subtropics, even infested with malaria and yellow fever, therapeutic. In 1903, newspapers announced Marabanong an “international resort for tourists who require special attention.” Souvielle may also have fled to Florida to escape creditors and litigants.

Some people called him a con man, mocked the ads Souvielle posted in Northern newspapers. He’d invented a respirator and spirometer, the pulmonary device that measures how much air you inhale and exhale and the length of your breath. Souvielle’s spirometer wasn’t the first and it consisted merely of a box with holes.

Mathieu Souvielle’s drawing for a spirometer, 1880s, courtesy Richard Johnson

The Canadian Medical Record of September 1882 recorded Souvielle’s “Confessed Judgment” regarding debts in Montreal. Five years later, New England newspaper ads claimed Souvielle “late of Paris,” said that since the spirometer and respirator’s introduction in New England in 1885, Souvielle had cured more than 2500 cases of ailments including “catarrh, deafness, sore throat, asthma and bronchitis.” Ads announced, in fluent quackery, “This system of treatment has an important advantage over all others, as the medicines used reach the diseased parts directly and heal them by local application and absorption.” Souvielle’s office had “for some time,” indeed for two years specifically, “been permanently located in Boston.” The following year, Souvielle ended that three-year “permanence” and joined his bride at her estate, Marabanong.

Eliza Wilbur Souvielle

“Souvielle made tens of thousands of dollars (a fortune at the time),” writes Richard Johnson, a pulmonary specialist with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, on his blog, pftforum.com. Souvielle “did this,” Johnson writes, “not only by preying on the people that bought his treatment but also by bilking a number of people who invested large sums of money in his business venture of building and selling ‘spirometers.’ As best I have been able to determine, Souvielle eventually moved to Florida to escape his creditors and was never prosecuted.”

Whatever the nature of Eliza Wilbur’s regard for and relationship with Mathieu Souvielle, she was a scholar in her own right. She presented scientific papers at Harvard, the first woman to do so, and published in Scientific American magazine. Writing from such a grand estate, she composed heroic poems like “Epic on Columbus,” published in The New York Herald and The Ulyssiad: An American Epic, published in Jacksonville in 1896.

The Ulyssiad celebrated Ulysses S. Grant in the tradition of Homer’s Iliad. Since Homer was the great epic poet of ancient Greece, and Ulysses (Odysseus) is the hero of The Odyssey, Eliza Wilbur Souvielle decided Grant suited the purpose of aggrandizing the new American nation in classical terms and forms.

It wasn’t odd for a Floridian to celebrate the Union general and subsequent president, since so many Jacksonville residents had supported the United States over the Confederacy in the Civil War. Transplants from the North populated Jacksonville and the city always had a large black population both slave and free.

1969, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

In Victorian heroic couplets, Eliza Souvielle wrote, “Like Odysseus surpassing modern lines, / America’s Ulysses, bright, outshines / The valiant hero Homer’s verse enshrined, / New image risen yet in Grant refined.” It’s awful poetry by contemporary tastes, but not so much worse than Longfellow’s Hiawatha.

1969, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Eight decades later, between Marabanong’s near misses with demolition and use as the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s “Designers’ Showcase” house, decorators and dreamers imagined a young woman, “frail and fragile,” inhabiting Marabanong and its tall corner tower, not the American war epics Eliza Souvielle pictured in these forested heights.

courtesy Florida Times-Union, July 27, 1980

Eliza, in fact, had invented a telescope that neighborhood boys used to spy the dense city streets 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.

When Mathieu Souvielle died in 1914, Eliza sold Marabanong to her cousin, the Illinois suffragist Grace Wilbur Trout. Seven years later, in 1921, Eliza donated her telescope to her friend Bertha Foster at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, five years before the private college first opened. Eliza had known Bertha as director of the Jacksonville Conservatory of Musical Arts before she left for the new Miami school strong in astronomy and music.

from The Miami News, September 9, 1921

“Dear Miss Foster,” Eliza wrote, “The history of my telescope, which you request, is not of vast interest, since all the work it has accomplished in 25 years is my own.” She described the telescope in detail, its measurements, object glass, lens, micrometer, and so on. “I have found that in some occasions quite on the seashore, there was afforded a clear sky down to the horizon.” Florida, she said, “extending” so far south, “brings into view any stars and important constellations that cannot be seen” elsewhere in the United States.

from Press Bulletin of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, October 26, 1912

When the telescope exits the story, Grace Wilbur enters, her face always in the vanguard in Illinois suffrage parades. Before the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote in 1920, she championed the right to local and state votes alongside the mothers of Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright. She helped transform the Chicago Women’s Club to the activist Chicago Political Equality League in 1910, making a commitment to suffrage the Jacksonville Women’s Club thought too radical for its own mission. She stood by Governor Edward Dunne’s side in 1913 as he signed the right for women to vote into Illinois law. At Marabanong, she married George William Trout and became president of the Jacksonville Garden Club.

from The Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1914

By the 1920s, Marabanong had expanded from 30 acres to 54. In ’22, the Trouts added the swimming pool and the iron benches and “Venetian” lampposts surrounding it, a now filled children’s pool with “artificial rain,” fish ponds, waterfalls, a grape arbor, “Camphor Court,” an opening within a camphor grove planted to keep away mosquitos, and the so-called “Gypsy Camp” full of tents for picnics. Above the now-demolished five car garage, they added a ballroom, the “party room,” fitted out with dressing rooms and hung with mirrors, masks and totem poles. The stonewalled wishing well dropped 40 or 50 feet. The Trouts’ personal zoo at Marabanong contained deer, crocodiles (not the native alligators), and peacocks.

1969, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Marabanong always demanded much. For its next transfer, the great house required lives cut short and the marriage of a young widow to her dead husband’s brother. The matriarchy faltered and deliquesced. Grace Wilbur Belden Trout had adopted her nephew, George Wilbur Sackett, when her sister Beldena Wilbur Sackett died at age 34 in 1903. George died in battle in France in 1918, less than a month before Armistice Day and the end of World War I. The year previous, he’d married Antoinette Cooper. The year after his death, Antoinette married Grace’s son Thomas.

1969, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Six decades later, Antoinette Trout recalled first wandering Marabanong with her mother-in-law Grace, where they found “many, many Indian arrowheads” under “the big, big live oak tree.” Down the bluff by the wine cellar, which Antoinette would later rechristen “the Pirate’s Den,” the Trouts started to dig out a place for a boat shed and accidentally excavated “an old Indian dugout canoe.” They kept the canoe in the wine cellar for decades. Antoinette said Marabanong had a widow’s walk on the roof because of all the pirates “you had to watch out for.”

1969, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

When her son Tom was growing up, he walked his dog through the woods and found the two springs mentioned in Thomas Basnett’s old Blue Book social register entry “and the trough they built to bring the water down to the house.” Near the springs, he found “two old Indian mounds that were burying grounds.” Antoinette said the Trouts reported the burial mounds to the city, who told them they were “sacred territory” and to leave them alone.

late 1970s, early ’80s, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Antoinette Trout mentioned those Timucuan remains in 1979, when the Jacksonville Historical Society hosted a “golden anniversary” event called “Conversations With Our Founders: Recollections of 1929.” The society still used the Victorian convention of calling a woman “Mrs.,” followed by her husband’s name, so JHS papers refer to “Mrs. Hugh Grainger, formerly Mrs. Thomas W. Trout.” Current records call her “Antoinette Geraldine Cooper Trout Grainger.” She talked about the place “where the ground caved in.”

A teetotaler, Antoinette didn’t like calling the wine cellar a wine cellar. She said, “They called it that in my family’s generation. I think it must have been some sort of a private fort, because the bluff is 25 feet high.” A newer house now stands between Marabanong’s perch on the hill and the wine cellar carved into the foot of the bluff and facing the river, but in 1979, Marabanong comprised all this land.

Antoinette described the cellar, then explained how she renamed it. “This was built under the bluff, of brick, around a dome, and the brick held in place just like the archways in European countries, and a big door in front, and the windows with big heavy iron bars. So it must have been a fortification. We called it the wine cellar. Later we used it for the children and called it the Pirate’s Den and had loads of parties down there.”

1969, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

And that recollection brought her to the underground passage. “And then we found where the ground caved in between the big house and the bluff, something caved in, and we found out it was a secret passageway.” Preferring the imagined horrors of fictional attacks on Marabanong over the evils of wine, Antoinette said, “It was lined with wood, so as it rotted it gave way. It was evidently a passageway to get away from either the Indians or the pirates.”

One night, boys broke into the cellar. Believing the folklore of pirates and buried treasure, the boys wormed down through the cellar’s chimney into the cold clammy cave. Since the Trout family, they believed, had buried gold in the cellar, they broke open the floor trying to find it.

Tom and Joan Trout at the Wine Cellar, courtesy Florida Times-Union, October 5, 1979

Tom grew up at Marabanong, became a real estate agent, then reinhabited the estate with his professorial beard and his wife Joan. Tom and Joan Trout appeared regularly in the “Lifestyle” and “Home and Garden” sections of Florida newspapers. Joan posed by the vast brick kitchen fireplace in cardigan, slim white dress and heels. Tom told Florida Times-Union journalist Ann Hyman he was afraid of the tower as a child. Though not allowed up the tower at night to the cupola or the widow’s walk to which it led, the uncanny chills those high strange places gave him were enough to keep him away.

Joan Trout, kitchen fireplace, courtesy Florida Times-Union, October 12, 1979

The special advertising section in The Florida Times-Union and Journal for Sunday, September 28, 1980 showed a young woman peeking through gossamer curtains in a bay window by Christmas trees, captioned, “Meet Victoria. She is a fragile beauty, who may have lived and loved in a dreamy room filled with cherubs and Christmas trees at the turn of the century. For today and the next three weeks, Victoria will be the romantic spirit of Marabanong at Empire Point, the 1980 Designers’ Showcase sponsored by the Guild of the Jacksonville Symphony Association. You probably will not glimpse even a shadow of Victoria as you wander through the three-story gingerbread home. But you will see the fantasy that has been created for her in the house’s tower bedroom.” So much for all those years of Marabanong matriarchy! Women scientists and suffragists found no place in the designers’ Christmas vision.

from The Florida Times-Union and Journal, September 28, 1980

Interior designers chose “cream, honey, brown and black” as the colors for the master bedroom in 1980, including pale carpet and brocade damask chair fabrics. A bay window housed an 18th century chandelier. The breakfast room wore wallpaper with bright red geraniums and contained a chandelier resembling a cluster of geraniums above a tablecloth appliqued with 110 geranium blooms. Tom Trout said the breakfast room was where he and his friends played poker. There were mirrors in the corners.

from The Florida Times-Union, July 27, 1980

The Trouts stayed on their sailboat moored down the bluff those three weeks. Then they put Marabanong up for sale. Leaving, however, wasn’t going to be easy. Mortgages worked multiple directions. The Trouts may’ve been finished with the house, but Marabanong wasn’t finished with the Trouts. Night pines hung the moon that eyed them suspiciously, derisively. A deal wasn’t done.

1970s, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

In 1981, Marabanong’s neighbors persuaded Jacksonville City Council to deny Tom Trout’s plan to sell the Victorian mansion and develop the adjacent property into townhouses. The great feminist’s grandson, now real estate agent, said the plan to build townhouses was a way to preserve the rambling Victorian pile instead of demolishing it. The new development would include 15 townhouses and nine “villas,” all sharing a pool and tennis courts.

The wealthy residents of affluent Empire Point surrounding Marabanong said they didn’t want “a neighborhood within a neighborhood.” Longtime resident Eve Norton raised her nose and chin, harrumphed and said, “When one buys a home in a neighborhood, one buys the flavor of the neighborhood.” Trout called his neighbors “radicals.”

date unknown, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Finally, in 1983, Trout got rid of Marabanong, shrugged it off violently. The vast wooden beast fell through questions of ownership like the speaker of Emily Dickinson’s poem who “felt a funeral” in her brain. Mourners lifted the house as coffin and creaked across its soul, ’til “all the Heavens were a Bell, / And Being, but an Ear.” Board members at banks smugly spewed skepticism about continuing to own the house. An oak fell in a storm. A dog stared through curved porch railings on the second floor. His name was Sebastian.

1970s, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

In 1992, Joe and Diantha Ripley bought Marabanong at auction for $165,000. They’d previously lived in the Swisher Mansion in San Marco. More than 3,000 people had toured the house and grounds. The Ripleys used 110 gallons of exterior paint. Inside, the house displayed its original plaster walls and heart pine floors and molding, four brick fireplaces and massive oak pocket doors.

1970s, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

The Ripleys added hickory cabinetry in the kitchen. Joe stored his wine collection in an antique icebox six feet tall and eight feet long. Opposite what he called “the bordello area, like in an old Western,” where an old and ornate floor lamp with a tasseled shade lit a wicker seating area, a corner sprouted into the tower.

“Juniper Springs IIb” by Diantha York-Ripley

Diantha converted the top floor of the tower, which so frightened, at night, Grace’s grandson as a child, into her art studio. Up here, high over the river, she’s painted acrylic images of Florida’s ecosystems, impressionistic waters and frenzied fronds, brushstrokes sometimes violent as Van Gogh’s.

photograph by Diantha York-Ripley

Here she’s watched the spirit of the leaf and flower she’s hoped to capture escaping at the window, fleeing the scene, forgetting its moment existed. Here she’s captured the “Queen Emma” Giant Spider Lily, bursting bright white from dark bog, flowers fully alive for two days, maybe four. Here she’s caught the Night-Blooming Cereus, bursting with five blooms in a single night, two and half months before with 15. Here Cereus opens at night, fragrant, at nine o’clock, entirely spent by morning.

tower studio, photograph by Will Dickey, courtesy Florida Times-Union, April 19, 2017

It’s a house that’s hard to leave, a commitment not easily broken. Joe Ripley was 55 when he took on Marabanong. Now he’s in his 80s. In 2017, the Ripleys put the house up for sale for $1.49 million. They waited for the right person. And waited. Then they took it back off the market.

1970s, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

A house might ask of you a lifetime, yet give only one night for a certain lily’s flowering. Having defied demolition, it’s no place for suicides. From here, outer space comes into parallax view with history. It’s a place for astronomy and grand poetic visions. The story continues to write the house. It ambles both the window’s walk and the underground passages. The house is not paradise; it’s a river, winding with uncountable secret channels.

date unknown, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission