by Tim Gilmore, 8/22/2020
1. How a History Flowers
Rachel heard that Presidents Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt had stayed at the oceanfront hotel, the Casa Marina. And the actress Jean Harlow. And supposedly Al Capone. But none of that could compare to her own wedding on the eve of New Year’s Eve, 2019.
She didn’t know about the cremated ashes spread by surfboard, the organ grinder and monkey, the vanished octagon bedroom, the Victorian lace blouses and kolinsky furs. No history, after all, is knowable. It’s bigger than that.
So many storms had lashed these walls. Here these eaves received those winds, both wayward and of most deliberate course, over the ocean, slung from jet streams, whipped off the coasts of Africa.
The family of the man who saved the Casa Marina in 1975 celebrated his life at his memorial service here in 2017, and Rachel and Daniel shared their vows with their six year old son here in 2019, and the history blossomed and colored and grew.
2. Tending Toward Inferno
On June 6, 1925, Opening Day, The Florida Times-Union called it “one of the finest hotels of its size in the South…The main portion of the hotel fronts the ocean, having 200 feet along the ocean front and running back to First Street to a depth of 200 feet. […] The general construction of hollow tile and steel framework conforms to the state building code in making the building fireproof…An automatic sprinkler system has also been installed…There are 60 rooms in the hotel, each of the rooms having a closet press, telephone, steam heat, hot and cold water and connecting bath with tub or private shower.”
The Casa Marina’s being fireproof registered with readers who knew that hotels at the beach tended to go up in flame. Vast, grand wooden hotels built during the height of Jacksonville’s reputation as “Winter City in Summer Land,” pulling tourists to the furthest points in the late 1800s soared far out from town at Pablo Beach. So also soared the conflagrations at the Murray Hall Hotel, the Burnside Hotel and the Atlantic Beach Hotel.
The Murray Hall lasted four years. It stood six stories tall, flaunted 15 foot wide piazzas across the first three floors of the whole façade, and generated light from its own power plant. It opened in July 1886 and burnt to the sand the night of August 7, 1890.
In nearby Atlantic Beach, the Continental Hotel opened in the summer of 1901, featuring four and five story residential wings around a six story central tower. Members of wealthy families including the Vanderbilts and Whitneys parked their personal railway cars at private sidings. The Continental became the Atlantic Hotel in 1913 and was destroyed by fire six years later.
The same year the Casa Marina rose, 1925, so did a second Atlantic Hotel. It contained 50 rooms; its earlier namesake once held 220. It stood wrecked and awaiting demolition for years after Hurricane Dora eviscerated it in 1964.
3. Reviving What Hadn’t Yet Existed
No architectural style represents the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s more than Mediterranean Revival. The conservatism of that decade of aggregations of wealth preceding the Great Depression represented itself in “revival” styles of architecture.
New wealth sought to grandfather itself in, building in several revival styles modeled on England’s past, including the Georgian Revival, the Jacobethan and the Tudor, featuring fake half-timbering to mirror structures like Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Osbert Lancaster, an English cartoonist and architectural historian, mocked Tudor Revival as “Stockbrokers’ Tudor.”
Lancaster’s mockery makes its point equally about each “revival,” but the vague Mediterranean Revival, loosely echoing hundreds of years of history from Spain to Italy with hints of Morocco and Algeria, encapsulates a lost romanticism it’s sometimes hard now to remember Florida once so widely evoked.
Above the oats rising from shifting dunes, the Casa Marina floats in columns and arches and windows and windows in the arches, its walls both soft and everlasting, cream fossilized, golden lights from the rooftop bar and the red clay roof tiles. In the daytime, the walls look to have risen white from the sand, annealed there by time, and at night a blue light emanates from this seemingly ancient earthwork.
Rachel says, “The bright white walls and stunning Spanish tile roof draw your eyes to it. Just looking at the old building, you see it has stories to tell.” The dramatic arches of the First Street entrance drew her in with “glowing mood lighting,” while, on the other side of the hotel, “a courtyard lit up with string lights and lined with greenery” led her and her fiancé by wooden walkways to the beach.
When the couple “walked through the front arches and doorways,” she says, “we knew we wanted to be a part of its history.”
4. Social Circles, “Surf Bathing” and Seafood
On Opening Night, while Big Band leader Jimmy Trotter, famous for his Miami Beach Casino Jazz Orchestra, led two brass bands nearby in the dance pavilion at the Jacksonville Beach Pier, alongside “George Brandt, the whirlwind dancing and roller-skating wonder direct from Miami,” 18 year old piano prodigy Maxine Freeman directed her own orchestra for 200 invited attendees.
The occasional review of the Casa Marina in South Florida newspapers concedes that Miami and South Beach didn’t always hold monopolies on beach accommodations and partying. A 2006 Palm Beach Post story centers on a photo of shrimp salad. “When Florida was the rich winter playground of the nation’s industrialists and their social circles,” the Post asserts, “Jacksonville Beach was a player.”
The story mentions “dance halls, casinos and a huge Ferris Wheel,” the “beach’s famed boardwalk” and undocumented lists of “celebrities and a few notorious criminals” who made “their appearances—or disappearances here.”
All these years later, the reviews all say, there’s little evidence at Jacksonville Beach of such a “heyday.” Except for the Casa Marina. The day it opened, Pablo Beach changed its name to Jacksonville Beach.
Barely four years later, the economy crumbled into the Great Depression. Somehow the hotel kept its doors open until government spending for World War II ended the longest economic trough in American history, commandeering, along the way, this graceful hotel for housing Naval officers’ families and war personnel.
Meantime, a postcard mailed in 1933 shows a cavernous lobby with wide oak beams and a fieldstone fireplace the size of a small apartment. Wicker rocking chairs and sofas and plant stands perch across the flagstoned floor. Potted palms and arrangements of roses blend to the light admitted through peach saffron curtains and open glass doors.
“Well it wont [sic] be long now,” Mr. E.N. Beeman wrote on the back of a postcard that fourth of October. “I didn’t get a letter in Wilmington, but maybe you didn’t have time. Evelyn tells me that you lost the list of poets. Ill [sic] see you soon.” Later that month the wooden boardwalk caught fire by the meandering wooden roller coaster. Whether Beeman tried his luck on the miniature golf course built two years before at the Casa Marina, he didn’t say.
Advertisements from 1935 to ’38 promised “Fishing, Surf Bathing, Dancing, Golf, Excellent Cuisine, Specializing in Delicious Sea Foods…fresh from the ocean daily. Rates $5 per day and up, American Plan…weekly from $25.”
5. The Names Behind the Mirror
Rachel carried a bouquet of anenomes, their big dark central eyes staring out from radii of brilliant white petals against the white of her dress, the white of Casa Marina, the white of beach sands shifting back from and into the ocean for eons uncountably longer than time.
Rachel’s and Dan’s six year old son stood straight up and handsome in his tux. Holding that bouquet behind the little boy’s back, bridesmaids in the background, she lifted him from under his arms and kissed him with dedication.
Eight months later, Rachel feels proud to lend their story to the hotel’s history. “We wrote our names behind the mirror in our wedding suite,” she says, “along with the names of 20 other couples who shared their vows in the courtyard at Casa Marina. It’s a beautiful thought that as long as this hotel stands, we’ll be part of its history.”
So I stand with Rachel, just outside the wedding photos, embarrassed to eavesdrop on her story but grateful she’s shared it with me, face the Atlantic Ocean, acknowledge the history and start counting backward. Here goes:
6. Counting Backward
Mary Lou Brown died on January 21, 2002. She was 72. Resuscitating the Casa Marina, shuttered since 1986, was her life’s work. She and her husband had worked at it since 1991. They’d opened the restaurant in January 2001, keeping it quiet while they made the place presentable. They opened the second floor rooms in April.
Mary Lou was tired, bone tired, anhedonic. She felt derealized, not quite herself, even while her raison d’être was so close to final realization. She joked that the Casa Marina had taken everything she had to give. She and Allan planned to live in the penthouse suite when it was finished. Six months after Mary Lou died, Allan sold the hotel.
“In 1991,” Candace L. Preston wrote, “Allan and Mary Lou Brown were seen as purveyors of good things to come” for Downtown Jacksonville Beach. The Casa Marina Hotel had rambled and collapsed abandoned across the dunes, boarded up, covered in graffiti, the haunt of bored teens who “legend tripped” inside, smoked weed and spooked themselves with urban legends. The Browns, who lived in neighboring Atlantic Beach, bought the grand old structure for $450,000, and promised to bring back its original glory.
“Four years later,” Preston wrote for Shorelines, the Florida Times-Union’s beaches publication, “the project is at a standstill and has been for more than two years.”
City administrators fumed with frustration. The Browns said progress had stalled because they “needed to devote more time” to their furniture business in Atlanta.
In a November 6, 1993 Shorelines column, legendary Jax newspaperman Bill Foley wrote, “Every night in the life of the Casa Marina Hotel was a piece of history.” Though that’s true for every structure, every corridor, every room, door and window, Foley elucidated: “from the grand and elegant in the roaring ’20s to the tattered and tawdry toward the end, a dozen years or so ago.” He called the Casa Marina a “stucco relic in the grunge district.”
In March 1990, Kevin Hogencamp of the Times-Union called it “Casa Granola,” because John Jorgensen, owner of Jax Beach’s Ocean Life Natural Foods, had formed a corporation to convert the hotel into “a haven for naturalists, environmentalists and peaceniks.”
The previous November, Hogencamp quoted David Krest, a Neptune Beach neuropathic physician, who imagined a renovated Casa Marina containing “a health food store and restaurant, cabana and thermal baths, a theater group and an arts gallery,” saying, “It’s about having a place where someone can come and be free. What we want is the Casa Marina to contribute to life.”
On May 10, 1989, The Jacksonville Journal reported, “The Casa Marina Hotel—hailed for years as the heart of downtown [Jax Beach] redevelopment—could be taken out of a proposed condominium project and converted into an arts center.” The Schneider Group of Ann Arbor, Michigan wanted to develop seven blocks, including the Casa Marina, into condos, but the hotel, “an old, deserted, decaying building,” was a drag on their plans.
Butch Shadwell, president of the Beaches Art Foundation, seemed barely more enthusiastic. “The location on the oceanfront certainly is nice,” he said, “but it also makes it very expensive,” adding, “We’re not terribly particular about where the art center is located anyway.”
Casts of characters stood bleached out in Florida sunlight, arrayed like a story prompt for a Creative Writing class or a scene cut from a Fellini movie, a developer with a short fat tie, a leather jacket and eye patch, a thin, bearded and butterfly collared businessman, a woman wrapped in a toga of a raincoat, a dude in the white pants, sport coat, windblown tie, beard and golf visor.
In June 1987, the Ambassadors’ Party, held at the Casa Marina, featured “a 1950s bebop” jazz band, tuxedos and evening gowns in the 98 degree heat, and horse-drawn carriages. The Beaches Hospitality and Tourism Association had invited 500 guests with 250 free VIP tickets. Attendees were greeted by an organ grinder and monkey.
7. Dressing Gypsy from Déjà Vu
On June 22, 1983, the T-U’s headline promised, “One-of-a-kind Designs Bring Back Good Old Days.” Norma Brizzi was producing Gypsy, the musical about the stage mother of Gypsy Rose Lee, “the most famous stripper of all time,” and actress June Havoc, at Players by the Sea, the Jax Beach community theater on North Sixth Street. For costuming, Brizzi said the show was lucky to have “Renae just down the street.” She meant Renae Mattison, owner of Déjà Vu, the vintage clothing shop in the Casa Marina, who lived upstairs at #31.
“Eight years ago,” wrote Wini Rider, “women’s editor” at the T-U, “the hotel, which was in disrepair, was bought by Miss Mattison’s family,” specifically by Renae’s parents Greg and Barbara. The Mattisons had come to Jacksonville from Michigan in 1974, having operated three Ziebart automotive rustproofing franchises in the Midwest. Now they were turning the Casa Marina into a bed-and-breakfast inn that would feature the Casablanca Bar, the Tea Room, run by an Englishwoman named Jo Dyer, Harlow’s Restaurant and Tea Room, the Old Fashioned Soda Fountain and Déjà Vu.
Actually, Barbara tells me today, Harlow’s came after the Tea Room. “The Dyers had come from somewhere in Africa. She hated Jacksonville Beach and he was a hardcore alcoholic. At the end, they borrowed a lot of money and left town back to Africa in the middle of the night.”
So Greg and Barbara found themselves with a tea room. They brought in chefs, made it a restaurant, soon rated four stars, and named it Harlow’s, for the 5’1” movie star, the “Blonde Bombshell” and “Laughing Vamp,” who stayed at the Casa Marina not long before her death at age 26 in the mid 1930s. The Mattisons built the bar at the Casablanca “out of Communion rails.”
The clothing shop, Rider wrote, was “a treasure of ’20s and ’30s fashions.” She described Renae as “tiny, blond and with a voice like Minnie Mouse,” a “spinoff of Bernadette Peters.” She dressed “in vintage fashions” and wore “her long hair swept up on one side like Joan Crawford did in the movies of the 1940s.”
Déjà Vu stood in a “small alcove near the entrance of the hotel.” Just outside stood “old-fashioned coat racks” with “tempting examples of 1920s velvet and beaded splendor.” Inside the shop, with its rose colored walls and high ceilings, clothes hung on two tiers on brass racks. Wrote Rider, “There are Victorian lace blouses and Ceil Chapman evening dresses. There are sets of kolinsky furs and strands of glass beads.” Beneath the dresses were rows of “colored satin and jeweled pointed-toe shoes,” while hat pegs at the ceiling molding held “veiled tricorns, flowered pill boxes, profile straws and velvet cloches.” Prices ranged from a few dollars to a $300 dress from the 1700s.
“I’ve collected clothes all my life,” Renae said. “If ever I had any money, I’d go spend it on old things. This was long before anybody got into vintage fashion. It’s always been my hobby.”
Rider finished her column: “And so there will be no costumes on the stars in Gypsy. Rose (played by Debbie Smith), Herb (played by Michael Smith), Louise (played by Joan Cousumano) and June (played by Robin Parks) will be dressed in clothes right off the Déjà Vu racks.”
8. The Only Hotel that Survived
It happened like this. When the Mattisons relocated from Michigan, Greg planned to house his family full-time on a boat he’d ordered from Taiwan, which put him in touch with William Giles who, according to Karen Brune of the T-U on May 4, 1983, “also wanted to rebuild and inhabit his boat but could not do so until he sold his motel.” The boat Greg ordered had failed to arrive on time. When he saw the Casa Marina Motel Apartments, he called it “love at first sight.” Others thought perhaps he needed glasses.
It was 1974. The Casa Marina was painted green and blue. The courtyard was blue and red. Everything inside, including the furniture, William Giles had painted pea green enamel. “The guy was a boat repairman,” Greg said. “He painted everything enamel to hold up against the seas.”
Otto Flemming, born in Flanders, had owned and operated the Casa Marina Motel Apartments from 1959 to ’71. Divers soared against the hotel’s walls into the Sandpiper Hotel’s swimming pool next door. Flemming had lived with his family in Apartment #11.
Barbara remembers it this way. “We moved from Kalamazoo because Greg wanted to sail all year round.” The Mattisons bought a Ziebart franchise in Jacksonville, the economy sank, and they sold the boat in Miami.
Then it was Independence Day, Fourth of July, 1975. The Mattisons were watching fireworks from a deck at the top of the Casa Marina when Greg asked Barbara, “Why aren’t we living here?” So they began to patch the place up and moved in. Two years later, Sean Mattison, eight years old, later a professional surfer, surfed his first competitions here, since his front yard was the Atlantic Ocean.
But the grand old hotel they now called home had long been a tenement motel. Tenants paid $60 a month for a furnished apartment, including utility costs. Bearded old men lived alone in moldering units with sodden sofas and endless cheap liquor bottles, while just next door young single mothers burnt dinners trying to provide for children too long in diapers. Barbara remembers a stripper who attached every dollar bill customers tucked in her underwear to the tawdry chandelier that hung in her living room.
“These huge tall gates surrounded the hotel all the way around,” Barbara says, “and they were topped with barbed wire. The tenants were caged in. Metal garbage cans stood outside every door in the hallway. No air-conditioning. The place was scary. But Greg was determined. It made me tired just looking at it.” Still Barbara graced newspaper photographs like a sylph among ancient ruins.
This motel as House by the Sea was a city unto itself, having known within its walls every fragrance and odor, every sadness and salvation, every extravagance and impoverishment of human life and experience.
As Cynthia Parks wrote for the T-U, on June 30, 1979, under the headline “The Only Hotel That Survived,” the Mattisons “bought the hotel-turned-apartments in 1975, spraying 300 gallons of paint over its turquoise enameled walls. They shoveled out the whiskey bottles and papered the walls and turned entrepreneur with 37 apartments, heating the water with 24 solar panels.”
Barbara remembers the untold nightmare of all those those gallons of paint. Though the Casa Marina had no air-conditioning, unused vents emptied into the closets of every apartment, and the paint colored all tenants’ closet wardrobes industrial beige.
“There were so many catastrophes those years,” Barbara says. “Like our first Thanksgiving.” The Mattisons invited friends and all tenants for a Thanksgiving dinner of 200 people, like ancient Roman bacchanalia beside the ocean. It was cold, unseasonably so for Northeast Florida. “So we turned on the ancient boiler and it fell apart. We were already out of money. Greg had to sell his Jaguar.”
The Mattisons’ own apartment, #38, combined two small one-bedroom units, adding, as Parks wrote, “a rounded Ocean Room to the east and a bedroom space to the west.” Sniffing out an air of colonialism, Parks said, “The general feeling is rather Kipling-in-Inja with lots of basketry, bamboo, paisley and rich-colored rugs including a Shiraz and Bokhara on the walls. The effect works well with the Moorish arches of boom-time Spanish architecture.”
Barbara remembers the Ocean Room and the Octagon Room, the latter hers and Greg’s bedroom. Both rooms wrought their own tribulations. Coming from Michigan, the Mattisons knew bleak winters and snow, but had never seen such rain.
“We redid the roof on the Ocean Room just as torrential rains came through and flooded two floors of apartments beneath it. All the ceilings caved in. We made the repairs and then when we did the Octagon Room, the same thing happened all over again.”
The Mattisons had decorated the apartment of their salvaged seaside hotel with bits of demolished old Jacksonville, including “paneling from an old Riverside house” angled on the curves of interior arches, angels in a semicircular stained glass window above the kitchen bar, and carpeting on three flights of stairs from Downtown Jacksonville’s demolished Mayflower Hotel.
Greg kept the boat he’d once hoped his family would inhabit moored nearby, a 35 foot cutter fronted by a “lusty mermaid figurehead.”
“Over the past seven or eight years,” Greg told Karen Brune in 1983, “we really haven’t capitalized on our courtyard, our oceanfront verandas. But for five years, we did nothing with our plans because of redevelopment and questions whether we had the rights to ownership.”
Barbara sighed and said, “It’s endless. The bulk of all income is going right back into the building in trying to upgrade it. We’re putting everything into it that we’ve got and can borrow.”
Greg acknowledged the point, but felt he had little choice. Soon the Mattisons would move to Coquina Gates, that open secret of an outsider art village closer to Downtown Jacksonville. They’d live there for almost three decades. First would come this bankruptcy. But not yet. As far as Greg now knew, the fate of the Casa Marina would be his signature on earth. “I’ve wasted too much time,” he said, “not accomplishing anything.”
Ricky, a lifelong beach denizen, thinks of George and Billy when he thinks of the Casa Marina. George, “a popular and well-known Beachite,” had a “brilliant high school baseball career,” then fell into “addiction, thievery and drunken violence.” Then there was Billy, a “cynical, snobby rich kid,” condescending and “cooler-than-thou,” who was “slinging large amounts of powder from his personal hovel at Casa Marina and had many hangers on, George included.”
Now in his 60s, Ricky calls Billy “a successful grownup,” but George was living in a pool house when he ended his life with his landlord’s pistol at age 39.
Ricky rambles, monotone, coughs. “In 20 years,” he says, “George went from baseball stud to crackhead with no teeth. I’ve yet to forgive him. He was legendary. He was my friend. Ah, I’m still surprised the Casa Marina was saved.”
But it was. Mary Lou and Allan Brown saved it. It took them the 1990s and Mary Lou’s life. And though after they moved away, their penthouse octagon bedroom vanished, Barbara and Greg Mattison saved it. Three decades after they lost it in 1986, their family celebrated Greg’s life at his memorial service there.
It was 2017. Greg had suffered three strokes and worked his way back from paralysis, restoring antique paintings, as does his daughter Renae these days, in his cottage at Coquina Gates, when the cancer roared through his bones.
“The thought of coming back home to the Casa Marina pleased him,” Barbara says. They’d talked about how he’d like his remembrances. “He wanted his ashes spread into the ocean,” she says. “It was a homecoming.” Safe Harbor Seafood Market and Restaurant in nearby Atlantic Beach prepared food for free. “It was like having been away for a long time and then coming back home.”
Sean Mattison, Barbara’s and Greg’s son, a retired professional surfer and International Surfing Association gold medalist, who’d started competing right here at age eight, made his father’s final wishes come true. He and Barbara’s four grandsons took to their boards with Greg’s ashes.
“So my son and my grandsons—” Barbara says, “Matthew, Sebastian, Gabriel and Login—surfed into the ocean with Greg’s ashes and brought him to his final resting place.” It was Greg’s first dream, when moving to Florida, to live on the water, and now his death joined the ocean, where all life began. Along the way, he happened to preserve the last surviving grand hotel of Roaring ’20s Pablo Beach.