Empire Point: Suddath / Van Valkenburgh House

by Tim Gilmore, 4/26/2019

1.  Citrus Ghosts and the Shape of Complications

The citrus grove that grew behind the Van Valkenburgh House fostered the first Satsumas in North America. Those trees would be 150 years old today. The Mother Orange Tree in Butte County, California, dates to 1854. The Van Valkenburghs returned from Japan in 1869, came to Florida the year after, and built this house the following year. The average citrus lifespan is half a century. I hope to be haunted with the spirits of citrus.

Jessica and Jud Miller lived here a year, and Jessica grew up here. “I knew it was a special house,” she says, “and I always wanted it to be mine one day.” The great granddaughter of Carl and Carrie Suddath, who founded Suddath Moving and Storage (now the Suddath Companies) in 1919, Jessica says, “The company’s 100 years old this year and my grandfather, who died six years ago, would also be 100.”

from The Florida Times-Union and Journal, October 25, 1970

The original part of the house is tall, spacious, but simple. The Carpenter Gothic abode the Van Valkenburghs built in 1871 stood two stories, with two bedrooms, on 18 acres. A kitchen house stood separate, as was the custom, to keep kitchen fires and excess heat from the main house. The house fronts the river, as do other old estates in Empire Point and Oakhaven, sheltered in canopies of stately oaks so close to, though a world away from, downtown.

The addition, built in the 1920s, turned the house into a labyrinth. We wander it like domesticated Minotaurs. It spreads out long behind the original structure and encompasses the kitchen house. Beneath the old kitchen, a domed brick hearth 150 years old remains. Just after the Civil War, it housed the cooking fires for the kitchen the floor above.

“I like to outline the shape of these complications from outside first,” says Janie Coffey, the queen of historic real estate in Jacksonville. “Otherwise, people sometimes spend more time trying to orient themselves through the house than seeing it, than taking in what it has to offer.”

image courtesy Janie Coffey

Janie, who represents the most intriguing and legendary historic properties in the city, has the Van Valkenburgh / Suddath House under contract. Jessica’s family bought the house when her mother, Julia, was a little girl in 1956, three decades after this addition more than doubled its size, three decades after her grandfather started the family business.

image courtesy Jessica Miller, “Left to Right: Aunt Babs, Trina (a foreign exchange student), Steve (the kid in front of Trina), my grandmother: Barbara Anne Johnson Suddath, Richard H. Suddath, Richard L. Suddath (kid in front), and Julia Suddath (my mom)”

It didn’t take long for Jessica and Jud to decide it was “too much house for the two of them.” She spent a year with the house she’d grown up wanting to take over. She’s sad to see it leave the family after three generations, including her own, but she’s made her peace with loss and transition. It’s like having had the chance to spend time with an elderly relative before saying goodbye for good.

Still the house meanders. We’re staring at a live oak that’s easily two centuries old. This evergreen survives, but it’s not the centurial oak you might picture. A year ago, the Millers cut the tree off at the roofline; since long before Jessica was born, the old oak grew its massive thousand-pound limbs out over the house. Indeed, at some point, the roofline was trimmed inward to accommodate the tree’s expansion.

What looks like a house-high stump of an ancient oak that three people, their arms outstretched, might hold hands to embrace, stems new limbs and branches new shoots, as though new saplings grow from the body of an ancestor while the whole surviving lineage is yet one tree.

Sleeping porches languor on the back and sides of the house. When the writer and professor Sarah Clarke Stuart sees the long two story veranda that spans the length of the addition and rises from the coonties and palms and hides behind long dripping beards of Spanish moss, it reminds her of Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea.

In that postcolonial response to Jane Eyre, the character Antoinette says, “My mother usually walked up and down the glacis, a paved roofed-in structure which ran the length of the house and sloped upwards to a clump of bamboos. Standing by the bamboos, she had a clear view of the sea.”

The house stares out across the river, wondrously dumb and deaf, oaks and pines breathing and bruiting above the eyes of the house in high winds. Today the sky’s clear and the river wind’s gentle.

The pillared front porch, the width of the house, welcomes breezes 20 feet up from the river, as it has the gusts of hurricanes. Above the porch, a set of French doors opens out to where a balcony must once have stood. Behind the doors, the Suddaths built a bathroom into the room-sized stair landing over which, for a century, circulated currents of river air into the house.

The doors look out beneath bargeboard toward Hazzard’s Bluff. In the mid-1700s, a farmer named Richard Hazzard owned a plantation out toward the ocean on Fort George Island, but his connection to this land is unclear. A 1970 Florida Times-Union and Journal story by Cynthia Parks called “The View from Hazzard’s Bluff,” says, “Even the bluff itself is a mystery,” asking, “Who was Hazzard?”

from The Florida Times-Union and Journal, October 25, 1970

2. Citrus Varieties of the American Civil War, the Canadian Rebellion, the Japanese Revolution, Plus Ironsides Trans-jectories

Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh’s biography is so impressive it’s almost absurd. Long before he served 14 years as associate justice of the Florida Supreme Court, he left his home state of New York to participate, as a teenager, in the small and mostly forgotten Canadian Rebellion of 1838. He returned to practice law. He served as New York state assemblyman and was elected U.S. Representative at the start of the Civil War. At the Battle of Antietam, he commanded one of the 17 volunteer regiments he’d raised, helping the Union defeat Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the deadliest day in American history, when almost 23,000 soldiers died, were wounded, or went missing. Van Valkenburgh lived up to his namesake, Robert the Bruce, who led the first Scottish War for Independence against England in the early 1300s.

Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh

Jacksonville heavily supported the Union prior to and during the Civil War, and more Northerners moved to Florida when the United States vanquished the Confederate States. Few such migrants were as distinguished as Van Valkenburgh, who joined the liberals of the new Republican Party to promote Reconstruction, the federally mandated rebuilding of the South to make citizens of former slaves and establish a just racial system.

Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh in Union uniform, courtesy findagrave.com

Van Valkenburgh died in 1888, well before the South rebelled a second time by resurrecting the banned Ku Klux Klan and instituting Jim Crow laws to strip black citizens of newfound rights. When he died, it didn’t seem unreasonable to hope, as had Florida Governor Ossian Hart of Jacksonville, that Florida could surpass its past and redeem the South from its Confederate demons. Van Valkenburgh had replaced Hart on the Supreme Court when Hart became governor.

Ossian B. Hart, courtesy Smathers Libraries, University of Florida

At the end of the war, Van Valkenburgh became U.S. minister to Japan. Ironically, he blocked the initial transfer of the Kōtetsu, a former Confederate ironclad warship called the CSS Stonewall, to the Tokugawa Shogunate in “the Japanese Revolution,” the Boshin War. Several Samurai domains, including the Satsuma, had contested the Shogun, whom they saw as permitting undue Western influence.

CSS Stonewall, prior to becoming Kōtetsu

Anna Van Valkenburgh, the minister’s wife, brought a strange, seedless, sweet and easily peeled Chinese citrus fruit called Unshu Mikan to Jacksonville from the Satsuma Province of Japan. James Saunt’s 1990 book Citrus Varieties of the World documents the Van Valkenburghs renaming Unshu Mikan “Satsuma.”

Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh in Japan, courtesy Colin Campbell

The Satsuma tree in my front yard produces my very favorite fruit. It was my favorite in my childhood too. In 1970, my father, who grew up in Central Georgia in the Great Depression, planted a Satsuma just to the left of his back door on Proxima Road. Our trees and Van Valkenburgh’s grew tall on thick trunks, leaves dark green, the fruit, in early to midwinter, as perfect as anything the earth ever has grown.

As ever, I suspect, the truest maps of lives and lineages across the earth resemble the neural pathways of a madman’s mind. I try to trace the Gilmores from Scotland to South Carolina to Georgia to me to this particular writing, then draw lines from Robert the Bruce to Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh to Ossian Hart, the son of the founder of Jacksonville, who wanted as much as anything to redeem Florida from his father, then connect Confederate ironsides boats to Japan to citrus migrating from China through Japan to Jacksonville, New Orleans, San Francisco. No one would ever read a true story in its natural state and shape. No one could. Such a story would seem the opposite of story.

Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh

When Van Valkenburgh died the year after his wife, their adopted daughters Anna, known as Daisy, and Elizabeth inherited the estate. Daisy bought Elizabeth’s inheritance for a dollar, built another Carpenter Gothic house next door with her husband Alfred Schoonmaker, and began to divide and sell off the property. The days of the grove of 75 citrus trees, including those original Satsumas, were coming to an end.

Schoonmaker House, built circa 1890, originally at 4641 River Point Road, moved in the 1990s to 5403 Morse Avenue on the Westside, image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

3. History as House as (Horses and Dogs as) Water

After a lifetime, Julia and her family pass the house to its next stewards. The headline in Forbes magazine says, “A Piece of Jacksonville History is For Sale for $799,000.” For national readers, the price might seem lowball. It’s quite the deal. Julia learned to dance on the porch, she says, “with the neighborhood boys,” then married one named Mike. “We held dances in the barn.”

Julia’s mother, Barbara, whom people called B.A., loved animals dearly and deeply. She loved her daughter Babs’s horse. She made this old house home to many dogs. B.A. died in 2017 and her granddaughter Jessica soon moved in to renovate it. Jessica looks at her grandmother, the shadow of the person taking the picture cast against her long blue dress, 1993, loving four large loving dogs.

B.A. Suddath, 1993, image courtesy Jessica Miller

Jessica and her sister Joy called their grandfather “Daddybear,” for he was “very gruff, but loving.” She inherited her love for animals and old houses from her grandmother. It’s the spirit of B.A. and dozens of dogs and her Aunt Babs’s horse and her family’s connection to the nexus of land and water that make Jessica most regret her family’s exodus.

image courtesy Janie Coffey

The house stands high above the river, but its identity comes from water; it  defines itself against what it stands above. When I ask Jessica what her favorite part of the house was when she was a child, she says, no hesitation, “Down by the river.”

Julia Suddath says she and her siblings went down by the river to the tidal pool they called Pirate’s Cove and went crabbing. Jessica takes us down to the tall trees by the river. We alight from the bluff and, looking back like Lot’s Wife, see the great house descend behind it.

Jessica says she and her siblings went down to Pirate’s Cove on summer mornings, went out on the dock, fishing and shrimping. Voices echo, one generation to the next. The peninsula before the house pulls out into the river onto the dock.

“Neighbors always wanted my grandmother to cut these trees down,” Jessica says, “to enhance their view of the river. But she loved these trees. She would never have taken them down.”

view from the bluff, courtesy Jessica Miller

Down here, the Suddaths found more than a hundred old jars and bottles buried in the bluff and lowlands. The collection lined their kitchen windows for years. Jessica shows us a glazed ale bottle, English, 1870s. Jessica’s grandmother hung the house with the works of eccentric Jax artist Lee Adams, most often his botanical illustrations.

Richard Suddath Jr. showing Vail Higginbotham bottles dug from the bluff, Florida Times-Union and Journal, 1970

Oaks and camphors rise through palmettos at the water. Just where the bluff drops off, impromptu stone and brick terracing marks where Jessica’s father gardened sunflowers and cabbage and celery and asparagus and onions. A turtle shell has washed ashore. Arm-thick ropes and hawsers hang from wooden ladders that climb to a platform in the trees, each piece having beached up from old ships and wrecks and the shipyards across the river.

We climb the bluff and climb the groundswell and climb back into the house, where, Jessica says, when she was a child, she loved to climb out the windows onto and across the roof.

Jessica climbed the heights of the house like a squirrel monkey or the spirit of place. Her arms soaked in tattoos, her deepset eyes diachronous below bangs, she points to the French doors that open from the top of the stairs to the top of the porch, and says, “I climbed out those windows and hung out on the roof and looked at the river.” When we stand in a side sleeping porch banded with windows toward the sunset and the barn, she says, “I climbed out those windows and used to love to sit on the roof here too.”

Before the tall red barn, she recalls her Aunt Babs stabling her horse. It’s here her mother danced with the boy who’d become Jessica’s stepfather. There’s a footbridge across a ravine behind the barn where Jessica played in the water as a child and fended off alligator snapping turtles, though she’s never seen an alligator here.

The heat swirls. Small white blooms sweeten the river air. Any mental mappings of all that’s happened here the springtime subsumes. Nevertheless, the romance of the historic can be so blinding the reality of romanticism falls away. The buyers of this house respect every odd niche, historical quirk, and level of labyrinth and that makes it easier for Jessica to tell the house goodbye.

image courtesy Janie Coffey

“So many people love the romantic notion of living in a historic house,” Janie Coffey says, “then find that historic houses might lack contemporary comforts. They don’t have open floor plans. Rooms might be smaller and boxier. And all the quirkiness that accrues through time and generations often brings inconveniences.”

Understanding place, landscape, history as enacted, through the years, on and then into the ground, means reconciling yourself to every strange turning our living might take. It’s not convenient. It’s not, as Janie says, “a cute concept.” The romantic’s no Thomas Kinkade painting or Hallmark card.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

When the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died, 29 years old in 1822, his friends, including the scandalous Lord Byron, burnt his body in a funeral pyre on a beach in Italy. Reverently, the poets swam in their friend’s ashes in the ocean. Byron saved a piece of Shelley’s skull and claimed to hold his warm heart, which supposedly refused to burn, in his hands. Mary Shelley, Percy’s wife, author of Frankenstein, carried her husband’s heart with her for years, and when she died, his heart was found in the desk where she wrote. They’d first made love at the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist author of the 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Women, who died from “childbed fever” days after her daughter was born. Thus, Frankenstein. These were the Romantics.

“The Funeral of Shelley,” by Louis Édouard Fournier, 1889

History is similarly uncivilized. Its psychogeographical lines across the land look mystical in their strange wild logic. If you find these truths beautiful—as the Romantic poet John Keats tells us, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” you apprehend the history to which you and I are heir and in which we must live fully in history and in time. This house makes for apt metaphor.