Empire Point: Perley Place and Wine Cellar

by Tim Gilmore, 3/2/2016

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The wine cellar door stands open. A stranger shakes my hand. He wears a wife-beater and dark sunglasses. His parents are just up the hill, he says, “Just head on up the steps.”

So I do. Sharon Lewis steps out from the large Mediterranean-style house at the top of the hill, shakes my hand, and introduces me to her husband Bill, as though my having driven by on a whim were preordained.

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“You the man my wife’s been seeing on the side?” he demands. Bill wears khakis and a mauve polo shirt. At least 20 years older than me, he grabs my bicep, hard, then smiles. “Just kidding. I’m a writer. I come up with shit like that.”

Sharon grins forbearingly. I tell them I’d love to peek inside the cellar at the bottom of the hill. We watch hawks circle overhead.

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Before us spans the vast sloping Victorian pile called Marabanong. If I’d ever wondered why the English call a rambling mansion in the countryside a “pile,” staring at this 6,000 square-foot wooden three-story house built in the 1870s makes it clear.

The Lewises built their house 25 years ago between Marabanong and the wine cellar, roughly where Perley Place once stood. In fact, they call this land Perley Place once again. While their house was under construction, Bill dug up the original cornerstone of the long-gone 1850s or ’60s house.

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A foot and more underground, builders uncovered brick foundations that matched the brick of the stairs beside, terrace around, and arched interior of the Perley Place wine cellar, all that remains of the original home.

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Thomas Perley built here sometime in the 1850s on the eastern banks of the St. Johns River across from the urban core that was, at that time, Jacksonville itself. Perley, a physician, soon sold the home, and in the early 187os, Perley Place burnt to the ground. When the site’s new owners built Marabanong, they maintained the Perley Place wine cellar. Originally, the wine cellar, its face cut into the riverfront hill, led through an underground passage to Perley’s mansion.

“When I was building our new house on the hill,” Bill Lewis says, “I lived in here.”

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We walk into the old brick cellar. Toward the back, he points to a horizontal brick beam, above my head and beneath the brick arch. Bill frequently slept in a loft above that beam, reached by an iron spiral staircase. Now the loft and stairs are gone.

“It was peaceful,” Bill says, a reminiscent gleam in his eyes, “so peaceful. And the temperature of the underground earth was always the same. It was always cool.”

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More turbulent were nights he spent on his boat, a Hatteras Sport Fisher he’d moored at the dock across from the cellar. He loves the water but spent his last night aboard that boat in a violent storm with 60-mph winds.

Bill prefers the St. Johns River to the Atlantic Ocean. “If you live by the ocean, you know what you get outside your front door every day? The ocean. The same sounds, the same waters, the same ocean. For billions of years.”

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Living at Empire Point, on the other hand, offers constantly new vistas.

“Just look out at the Hart Bridge and the Mathews Bridge,” he says. He points across the river in one direction, then the other. “I love watching the traffic, the business of the city.”

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He sips a glass of wine, listens to the roar of NFL football games across the water, reclines 20 feet up the steps from the street.

The swimming pool lies level with the foundation of the house, long strides up from the cellar at the street at the bluff.

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“We live adjacent to the center of the city,” says Bill, “but with complete privacy. I swim naked in my pool at night. Why not?”

He shakes my hand in a secret camaraderie of writers. Using the pseudonym of Will Locksley, Bill wrote and published a 2004 dramatic nonfiction exposé called Fatal Probe. The book explores the premise of a 1999 Newsweek assertion that “Tens of thousands of the medical instruments used in highly invasive procedures are not intended to be sterilized.” Bill’s own sister’s illness due to unsterilized gynecological instruments led to his research and writing the book.

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Now he’s writing a screenplay. “Do you want to hear the logline? Well I’m no good at loglines, but this one’s about the 32nd grandson of Robin Hood, who doesn’t know he’s descended, and he’s living in a log cabin somewhere in the United States when he’s called back to England to fight a corporate takeover of Nottingham Wood.”

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Bill says snakes crawl into the wine cellar beneath the door. Once, back when he was sleeping in the cellar at night, he opened the door to find an owl staring down at him from the loft. The great bird had come down into the cellar through the ventilation shaft.

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“How much does that stone weigh?” I ask, pointing at the cornerstone that now serves as a marker for “Perley Place Circa 1858.”

“More than you do,” Bill says.

Some neighbors once stole the cornerstone, said they’d found it in the street and didn’t know what it was. He’d insured it at $20,000.

He taps with his fingers a couple of weathered iron stars attached to the brick retaining wall beside the cellar and beneath the stairs to the house.

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“These stars are deadman anchors,” he says. “They attach to iron that runs through the brick to the other side of the stairs to secure the stone in the earth.” Perhaps the word “deadman” comes from the fact of their buried function.

I thank Bill for being so gracious a host to this random stranger who parked his dirty beat-down Nissan at the foot of these steps and proceeded up them to shake his hand.

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“No problem,” Bill says. “Peace to you. Oh, and next time you stop by, bring some fishing gear.”