by Tim Gilmore, 8/30/2019
1. To Mudlark a Mansion
The great house rises over the river like a secret history, the key to a shadow empire. The stories contradict themselves, even in their own single tellings. That’s as it should be. Life is complicated, every hour, every brain, every abode. The telling of something whole needs to fall apart to hold together.
The Burdette/Clarke House on Shepard Street stands on the river, caring not at all who Shepard or Burdette may’ve been, nor to share that information.
The eaves pitch themselves at clouds. Brick chimneys outgrew them at the start. Shadow falls on this piano. Stacks of National Geographics, a century strong and deep, stand stalwart in the library against the heat.
Wooden spindles send staircases straight up. Framed letters re Jonathan Trumbull, Efq, the letter ess as long eff, “Captain-General and Commander in Chief of His Majefty’s Colony of Connecticut,” signed 1770, hang alongside potsherds indicating Timucuan-Spanish interchange resurrected from mudlarking expeditions into these fragile swamp coasts.
Summer nights, Shelby Green says, her grandfather slept on the sleeping porches. Breezes blew through Floral Bluff, past the center of town that once stood out on the river, through the sanitarium with its wheelchairs and cribs and lives left behind.
On August 7, 1995, Doris Parker Clarke responded to an “Old Arlington Historical Survey” from the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission, answering “Approximate Year Built” for 2224 Shepard Street as “Before 1945.” After “Who first owned or lived in this building?” she wrote, in all caps, “Burdett,” leaving off the final “e.” Answering “Who is the most important person or what is the most important event associated with this building that you know of?” Doris Clarke said, “Myself.”
No need to mention that Gilbert Shepard, father of the town called Floral Bluff, was also its postmaster, nor that the dock extending into the river from Floral Bluff Avenue many considered the center of town. The 1790s land grant split into a village the year the Burdettes built their hill house. Two centuries later, Jacksonville engulfed and grew around it.
Shelby cautions me in my reading her grandmother through that survey. She’d already had more than one stroke. “For the most part, she’d recovered physically. Later there were more strokes and she was completely incapacitated. When she filled out the survey, her ability to communicate was already diminished.” In addition to her growing frustration with disability and aphasia, she feared the community rallying to “put the house on a historical register,” at which point “she might not be able to control things.” So Shelby’s grandmother tried to discourage too much interest in the house she’d lived in and loved for half a century.
In answer to “Source of information,” Doris wrote, “MYSELF.” After “Additional Comments,” in all capital letters Doris said, “None, except, this address is not Arlington, it is Floral Bluff, Arlington is ¾ miles away.”
In answer to “Whom else might know about this building?” Doris said:
2. Chicken Coop Opera, Moonlight Shrimping Sonata
Luckily, Doris’s distrustful non-answers were as incorrect as they were avoidant. Shelby Valeska Green knows things. For what she doesn’t know, she taps into her uncles’ knowledge.
Shelby’s mother, Shelby Doris Clarke Green, daughter of Doris Parker Clarke, died in December 2014, 82 years old. This hill beside the river formed her and the town stood in her way. In the kitchen house she turned into an art studio, large paintings of abstract bodies and disembodied angels commune. She joined an artists’ group that exhibited at the Jacksonville Coliseum downtown in 1964. The ideas she worked with, Shelby says, “became popular in the ’70s, but she painted them in the early 1960s. She was not following. If she had been elsewhere, she would’ve been leading.” It’s an old Jax story: the city’s decades of “brain drain” and soul swamp.
As the third generation of Clarke women to have called this house home, Shelby loves it dearly. She’s sad to pass it on but eager for the house to find the right people to love and take care of it.
Her grandmother was right about the Burdettes. Andrew and Emma had the house built in 1887, when Andrew, from Belgium, was 21 and Emma, from England, was about 16. Sometime in the 1950s, Emma Burdette showed Dr. William Clarke, Shelby’s uncle, a photo of the house looking like “a salt box at the top of the hill.” The Burdettes stood to the side. A later family, the Mataires, had moved the house downhill sometime in the early 20th century and added long porches, the kitchen and a library wing. Shelby’s Uncle Bill has only the memory of the photograph, now lost. If any image of the Burdettes survives, no one knows where.
Emma Burdette sold the house after Andrew died, then moved into a small house down a sand drive off Burdette Road. When Gerald and Doris Clarke bought the house in 1941, they frequently invited “Mrs. Burdette” over for dinner. Shelby’s uncle, then a little boy, recalls her as “delightful.”
Dr. Clarke is retired now. He practiced medicine around the corner for 50 years. He clears his throat, apologizing for circumlocutions. Floral Bluff as it was, however, exists only his recollections. He remembers the Clarkes living at 10th and Pearl Streets in Springfield, exploring the region thoroughly, driving as far out as Oceanway, looking for the right home.
“They chose Arlington,” Shelby says, “and this riverfront property because there was room to roam and it was darker at night than in town.” Her grandfather rowed the river and swept the night sky with his telescope.
That first December in the house, Gerald and Doris brought a radio to the porch. They blasted opera out to the yard that sloped to the river as they cleared the ground of native prickly pears that seemed to spear their legs with vicious needles whenever they stepped close. An announcement interrupted the music. Japanese fighter planes and bombers had devastated Pearl Harbor.
In the coming months, the Clarkes’ distance from Jacksonville, just across the river, became less romantic, as gas rationing dictated how often they drove to town for supplies. “Through the changes and adjustments,” Shelby says, “they built coops and started raising chickens. They did not stop listening to opera.”
For her mother and uncles, childhood on the river was a Huck Finn adventure. They cast their nets for shrimp on nights when the moon was full. Shelby’s mother hunted arrowheads in the mudflats and alluvial bogs and shoals beside the river. The kids shot and barbecued squirrels.
But the river her mother and uncles loved was not the same St. Johns Shelby knew. By the time she grew up here in the ’60s, “The river was so polluted, you dared not get the water on you at the shoreline.” The Wilson & Toomer, later Kerr-McGee, Fertilizer Plant billowed thick apocalyptic stench into the air across the river. Years before a grand jury indicted pulp mills Jefferson Smurfit, Seminole Kraft, Union Camp and SCM Glidco for violation of state and city antipollution laws in 1987, the city had become infamous for its stink. Cancer rates were high and at various times, the city’s air peeled the paint off cars and rotted the stockings on women’s legs.
Just up the hill, the sleeping-porches on the second floor, languorous under beadboard ceilings painted “haint blue,” had once been the best part of the house, especially when the river breeze wafted that way. When Shelby was growing up, however, the sulfuric smells from Wilson & Toomer crept at times even into the library and bedrooms.
3. Jailbreak and Legend Trips
Emma Burdette remained a Floral Bluff figure for the rest of her life. Dr. Clarke describes the time Shelby’s mother walked down Shepard Street, he thinks it was 1960, and heard an urgent tapping from inside a window at Hungerford Convalescent Hospital. On the other side of that window stood Emma Burdette, “a very old lady at that time.” When Shelby’s mom came close, Emma shouted, “Get me out of here!”
Dr. Clarke went into practice in 1958 and made rounds at the “rest home.” He remembers when Hungerford was Chamberlain Convalescent Hospital and moved from Cottage Avenue in Springfield, just north of downtown, to Floral Bluff about 1943. Before Chamberlain, he remembers the building, a two story woodframe house, as home to the Reid family. After Lurline Hungerford took over Chamberlain, she bought the McClain House next door to expand the hospital and Dr. Clarke thinks she wanted Emma Burdette’s property beside the McClain House. Emma’s property at that time consisted of an unnamed sand drive off Burdette Road that led to the small house where she moved after Andrew died and a grove of live oaks that scattered into the woods.
“Mrs. Burdette was vulnerable,” he says. “She was about 90 years old. I can’t prove my theory, but I know Mrs. Hungerford wanted Mrs. Burdette’s property. Mrs. Burdette did not belong in that convalescent home. She could not get out and she wanted to get out. I know just enough of Mrs. Hungerford’s business style that I wouldn’t put it past her at all.”
After Mrs. Burdette called out to Shelby’s mother that day, says Dr. Clarke, she and Shelby’s grandmother Doris “promptly went over to intervene for Mrs. Burdette under failing protest by Mrs. Hungerford.” Doris convinced “a close English ladyfriend down towards Arlington Road” to take Emma in, to make her own home Emma’s for what time she had left to live.
By the end of the 1960s, “rest homes,” “old folks’ homes,” “homes for the aged” and “convalescent homes” gave way to the new business of “nursing homes.” Hungerford’s hospital, consisting of its two handsome, but weathered old gabled houses and a smaller one-story building, was abandoned, though Lurline Hungerford bequeathed $10,000 to All Saints’ Home for the Aged in Riverside, southwest of downtown, in 1972. She died four years later. Other than her name and her birth and death dates, her epitaph says simply, “Humanitarian.”
People who grew up around Floral Bluff remember sneaking into the place as teenagers in the early ’70s. They dared each other to climb the stairs. Some made it only as far as the first step. Inside they found discarded wheelchairs, gunmetal gray in the sickly sunlight through dirty windows. They saw “an abandoned crib outside the window on the roof of the second floor,” a china doll, old medicine bottles.
Julie Hardwick Bales remembers exploring the “abandoned sanitarium” with friends in 1971 or ’72. They wandered into the “one-story building in back, with its single cell-like rooms, each with one cot and an outside door.” While the old Hungerford place made for legend tripping par excellence, Julie says, “I’ve never forgotten that and have wondered what kind of treatment or mistreatment people received there.”
Dr. Clarke, who ended his half century of practice in 2008, says Lurline Hungerford was “a good nurse,” but he’s glad the women of Floral Bluff came to “rescue” 90 year old Emma Burdette, who started her life in that tall woodframe house by the river and nearly ended it in a similar house, whose history fared less well, in Lurline Hungerford’s best intentions for expanding her care and her enterprise, just around the corner.
4. Zeitgeists Enfolded
Yes, Shelby says, she will miss the place, though it’s all but consumed her “these last several years since [her] mother died.”
Shelby lives in Central Florida and sells real estate, but this piece of real estate, with its 2500 square feet plus two stories of rambling porches and its kitchen house and land, much as she loves it, exhausts her physically and mentally.
Her mother didn’t want her to come back. “From the minute I set my suitcase down,” Shelby says, she knew the house and the land would take over.
Places absorb their stories, far more of them than anyone can realize, and this house embeds Shelby’s family, story by story, in the silence of its rooms and the creak of old wood in distant corners.
“There are many generations of stories,” she says, “tucked away in the house and the things that remain inside.” She refers to “the zeitgeist of all those years” somehow still lingering. Since the German word translates directly as “the spirit of the time,” perhaps people who believe in ghosts experience past zeitgeists enfolded in the present.
“I mean,” Shelby says, “the spirit of those many eras is still alive through me, through my grandmother, because I was the shadow who followed her through the world. She carried forward a past that was still alive.” Though Shelby did what her grandmother and her mother wanted, “to go out and find my life elsewhere,” she says, “when I came back here, I found out how much this place defined how I look at the world.”
You don’t need superstition to understand that Shelby’s grandmother remains part of this house. Still, the house must go on and live. And its next owners must love it for all the knowledge and narrative enfolded into it that they never will fully access.
Perhaps, in fact, they’ll pass a window down some nearby street where an ancient woman will knock from within and plead and make connection and get herself invited to dinner. Perhaps they’ll have her over repeatedly. They’ll get to know her. She’ll become like family. She’ll always have surprising things to say. She’ll have memories otherwise lost in the earth. She’ll show them that old photograph, the only image of the Burdettes. And they’ll love her. And she will have always loved them.