Jacksonville Beach: McCormick Apartments (And McCormick Family Mythos)

by Tim Gilmore, 4/18/2020

1. Looking Back to Future Modern

“There are enough concrete blocks in the McCormick Apartments to build a solid wall eight feet high from Jacksonville Beach to Downtown Jacksonville.” So bragged J.T. McCormick at the 1948 Open House, five years before he was elected mayor of Jacksonville Beach. The complex contained a building for every year of the century. “If a man walked around all 48 buildings, he would travel two and a half miles.”

B.B. McCormick, courtesy Don Mabry and Beaches Area Historical Society

J.T.’s father B.B., the beach developer in the cowboy hat, had purchased the land from the city in 1937. It was dune and beach swamp and took years to fill in.

Benjamin Bachelor McCormick built A1A from St. Augustine to Jacksonville Beach, World War II airfields in Brazil and throughout the Southeast, and the Beaches Homesites subdivision. When he died in 1953, he handed the contracting empire he’d built, B.B. McCormick & Sons, to his boys. There were rumors of the boys getting in trouble and their daddy getting them out of it.

the ribbon cutting, courtesy Don Mabry and Beaches Area Historical Society

For decades the B.B. McCormick Bridge crossed Beach Boulevard at the Intracoastal Waterway and the drawspan rose to let boats pass. When the bridge was finished in 1949, the patriarch, who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and a bad heart, arrived by ambulance. Attendants carried him to the bridge in a gurney where he used a pocketknife to cut the ceremonial ribbon.

The bridge lasted 60 years. The State demolished it in 2009 to make way for a new fixed span. B.B. McCormick & Sons dissolved in the 1990s. The McCormick Apartments no longer bear the family name.

proposed selloff of McCormick Apartments, from The Tampa Tribune, August 21, 1966

In 1966, the McCormicks sold 22 of the original 48 apartment buildings and their name disappeared from the complex. On August 13, 1948, however, the McCormick Apartments were the largest private complex anywhere south of Philadelphia.

They paralleled the beachfront from Fifth Avenue South to 16th Avenue North and contained 1,100 rooms in 354 apartments. Today only the central block at 1601 Third Street North and a few scattered satellite buildings remain.

McCormick Apartments, 1950, courtesy Don Mabry and Beaches Area Historical Society

The McCormicks called the apartments “a preview of the 21st century,” still half the 20th century away. Looking back, people call buildings from these years “midcentury modern,” but the McCormicks, looking forward, called their apartments “Future Modern.”

McCormick Apartments, artist’s rendering, 1947, courtesy Don Mabry and Beaches Area Historical Society

2. Forces of Reckoning

By the 1950s, the McCormicks’ power had extended from developing the beach to running it. B.B.’s oldest son Edward served as Jacksonville Beach police chief for eight years and J.T. was mayor from 1953 to ’55. (Jacksonville Beach elected J.T.’s son Reid McCormick mayor in 1989, when he was only 32 years old. He’s now a retired Episcopal rector.)

Ed and B.B. campaigned for Duval County Sheriff Rex Sweat. Sweat was sheriff for 25 years, from 1932 to ’57, second in tenure only to Dale Carson, sheriff from ’58 to ’86. It was no secret B.B.’s boys got in trouble and no secret his relationship with the sheriff’s office, time and again, got them off the hook.

Sheriff Dale Carson of Duval County, April 1960, a magazine ad for drivetrain systems in police cars for Dana, Inc.

Clarence, who never joined the family contracting business, first got in trouble for stalking Beverly June Cochran, whom he was later accused of killing, in his teens. When Clarence was found murdered in a downtown Columbus, Georgia motel room in 1980, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported his “massive six-foot-plus, 300-pound frame stripped nude and two .38 caliber bullets lodged in his back.” Clarence called himself “Shotgun” because he carried a sawed-off shotgun in a briefcase.

from The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 29, 1980

After the funeral, J.T., then president of the family company, said Clarence “died 40 years ago really, when he started falling apart as a boy at age 12 or 13.”

from The Tallahassee Democrat, August 30, 1950

And there was that “old-fashioned horsewhipping,” Ben McCormick’s legendary assault on a Jacksonville Beach City Council candidate. City Manager Wilbur Harkness’s firing of Police Chief Russell Seymour, a 16 year police veteran, had split political allegiances in the small beach town. Half the city council voted to recall the other half, and the recalled half demanded the rest recalled. One candidate for replacement was Manuel Chao, a contractor who’d worked with B.B. McCormick but didn’t like the McCormick boys’ growing political influence.

The United Press International referred to Chao as “an outspoken critic of beach contractor Ben R. McCormick” and said Chao accused the McCormicks of “running beach politics.”

On Tuesday night, August 29th, the night of the City Council showdown, so the UPI reported, Ben McCormick leapt from his parked car with a whip and “began slashing [Chao] savagely.” Jacksonville newspapers referred to this “meting out” of “good ole boy” justice as “an old-fashioned horsewhipping.” Fired Police Chief Russell Seymour and an officer named Pat Patrick interrupted the assault, but failed to arrest McCormick. Chao said that fact helped substantiate his claims. Ben McCormick whipped Chao on his face, his back and his arms, but the cops let Ben’s big brother Ed, the former police chief, take him home.

Ben McCormick never made it past eighth grade. Because he had a speech impediment, kids picked on him and he fought back. A family member who remembers him says Ben wasn’t “necessarily” a bully, but he was “a force to be reckoned with.” He and his brother Ed, the former police chief, they were both forces to be reckoned with.

Ben grew up with Manuel Chao, whose name, since his immigrant family had acculturated to the South, was pronounced Manual (not Man-well) Chay-oh (not Chow). Jax Beach was an oceanside country town. Rumors quickly swelled, as they do, and soon had McCormick leaving Manuel bleeding to death in the ocean.

McCormick boys, ca. 1950, B. B. McCormick seated, left to right standing: Ben, J.T. and Ed. Courtesy Don Mabry and Beaches Area Historical Society

More than a year later, a circuit court awarded Chao $10,000 of his $50,000 suit against Ben McCormick. In response to Chao’s assault-and-battery suit, B.B. McCormick and his sons Ed, J.T. and Ben each filed slander suits against Chao for a combined $400,000. That’s almost $4.3 million in today’s money. Though courts threw out the McCormicks’ suits, the message was clear. You didn’t lay a finger on this family.

3. Other Stories, Wounds and Witness Stands

It was Clarence, the half brother from B.B.’s second marriage who never officially worked for the family, who became the family outlaw. On April 12, 2005, Susan Clark Armstrong’s Folio Weekly story “Dead and Buried” resurrected how B.B. McCormick’s relationships with the sheriff’s office, especially his friend J.C. Patrick, paid dividends.

Beverly June Cochran, courtesy Folio Weekly

Whether or not Clarence McCormick murdered Beverly June Cochran in 1960, he’d been stalking her since she was Beverly Jarrell. After she married, he tried to break into the Cochrans’ apartment in Springfield when her new husband James wasn’t home.

Whenever Clarence was arrested, Armstrong writes, “B.B. McCormick made sure he was always immediately released.” Retired homicide detective Donald Coleman believed convicted murderer Emmett Spencer’s account of partnering with Clarence McCormick, that Spencer had abducted Beverly June Cochran from her new suburban home and brought her out to an apartment complex at the beach where Clarence broke her arms with a tire iron, then raped and murdered her.

from The Tallahassee Democrat, August 25, 1960

Spencer told Jacksonville and Miami police detectives how J.C. Patrick had beaten him to a pulp once during an interrogation. Patrick had a reputation for it. Jax Police Captain James Wingate, while investigating the Cochran murder, had asked Sheriff Dale Carson to stop Patrick’s tailing him. When Patrick was placed on sick leave after tampering with evidence in 1965, his son came home to find him beating his mother, picked up a hunting rifle, and killed the county’s chief homicide investigator.

On September 8, 1979, Clarence McCormick called his parole officer, Richard Keathly, having violated parole months earlier, to tell him he didn’t plan to come back. McCormick was watching the 1972 Sam Peckinpah movie The Getaway, about fictional bank robber Carter McCoy, in his motel room.

Clarence spent years both robbing banks and helping authorities, as The Fort Worth Star-Telegram put it in 1980, “convict other criminals, some of whom he met in various prisons where he spent most of his life.” He’d always liked cops. He’d grown up seeing his father’s close friendships with men “on the inside.” Keathly said, “He should’ve been a policeman if he could’ve stayed straight.”

He also loved the witness stand. He made it his stage. He’d offer to remove his shirt to show judge and jury “the 117 stab wounds he received while in prison, scars he received for informing on other convicts.”

Clarence McCormick, 1975, with a painting he sold in a gallery in Arlington, Texas, from The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 29, 1980

Carolyn Meeks was the child left in her crib the day Beverly Cochran was abducted in 1960. Her father James remarried and Carolyn thinks of Gerry as her mother. She says she had a happy childhood, but her parents and grandparents were always too sad for her to ask about Beverly’s disappearance.

Throughout her childhood, she says, there were two main stories about what might have happened. “Mistaken identity” on a “drug deal gone bad,” somebody got revenge at “the wrong house.” The other story had to do with Clarence. “My mother was young and attractive, the whole area was under construction, and the son of this wealthy businessman, McCormick was his name, he was quite the rounder and troublemaker. The story we heard is that he kidnapped her, raped her for three days, and then he beat her to death.”

4. Stories for a Coming Century

The McCormick Apartment complex was so large it took on a life of its own. The family was proud of having developed it, but at some point, the mammoth town-within-a-town grew out of control. Beach lore has long repeated that the McCormicks built the apartments to house sailors spilling over from nearby Mayport Navy Base, but J.T.’s proud pronouncements from the time of the Open House suggest otherwise.

As years went by, some beach residents saw the apartments as a metaphor for the McCormicks having colonized the beach. The affordability of the apartments and vast size of the complex made them eventually ungovernable in ways similar to massive public housing projects, funded for construction but not maintenance, like St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe, built around the same time.

The family, early on, converted the central apartment complex into a motel, calling it “the McCormick Apartment Motel” and advertising “a modern Motor Hotel with all the conveniences of Home.” The McCormick stood “200 yards from World’s Finest Beach,” open year round and “TV equipped,” with “Each Apartment completely Kitchen equipped, Tile Bath and Shower.” If you telephoned Cherry 9-9063, you could ask about “Special Winter Rates by week, month or season.”

The earliest postcards of the “McCormick Apts. 100 % Fireproof Rooms. Hotel” show women sitting out front in green, blue, yellow and red Adirondack chairs, wearing long shorts and striped shirts, windows behind them encased in pastel bands of aquamarine. Not 20 years later, the McCormicks sold off half the complex and removed their name.

When J.T. McCormick died of “heart problems” at age 82 in November 1997, his obituary listed, among his company’s legacies, “the launch pads at Cape Canaveral” and “Interstate 10.” His wife Jean, who died in 2019, helped found the Beaches Area Historical Society. As a hobby, she built miniature scale models of houses and other buildings from Jacksonville’s beaches.

The McCormick Apartments had long shed the family name and any family involvement. Several whole apartment-filled city blocks had been replaced with newer construction. The remaining apartments became, in the 1980s, “the ghetto at the beach.” Erin Richman grew up a couple miles away and says, “My main memory is that we rode our bikes faster past those apartments. In the ’80s and ’90s, it was rough. Drugs, prostitution, murders.”

Mike Altee, who grew up at the beach, where he fell in love with his surfboard and the girl he married and posed with them both beneath a Costa Rican rainbow in 1976, calls the apartments “Last Stop before Rehab or the Homeless Shelter.”

Gus Hardee remembers an earlier time and how the McCormick Apartments  saved his family. “In 1959, this was the only place we could afford. So much for white privilege. One bedroom for six of us.”

My photographic wanderings and snapshots of Gus’s memories remind me of David Hepher’s greatest artworks, those faces he painted of faceless British council flats, imagining the infinities of lives lived inside.

David Hepher’s Hey Wayne, On the Meath Estate, displayed at Gallery III in London, summer 2019

It was still the McCormick Apartments then and it wasn’t a bad place, Gus says, “not bad at all, just tough times. We lived there maybe a year. I know from a good older friend who grew up next door that my mom and his mom borrowed sugar from each other. I have no idea how my mother fed us.”

Advertisements said, 1948, “‘Modern’ is hardly the word to describe the ultra new McCormick Apartments. ‘Modern’ means only up-to-date. The McCormick Apartments are 50 years ahead of today’s modern buildings. Future Modern. Built for a coming century.”

It was true, but they’d no idea what the coming century would bring.

When J.T. McCormick died in 1997, scores of people attested to ways he’d helped them. People said he’d help them pay their way through college. Local grocers said J.T. paid all their debts when times were tough. He paid for Little League baseball teams that couldn’t pay their fees.

The McCormicks helped build Jacksonville Beach. History layers itself over, constantly. The truths of the mythology can probably never now be entirely untangled. Eventually the bridges come down and the names come off the signs. The stories, however, mutate and continue to circulate. The McCormicks weren’t emperors after all. And no city council candidate bled to death in the ocean.