Oakhaven: Harbor Point House

by Tim Gilmore, 8/27/2016

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Harbor Point House, early 1900s, photo courtesy Joel McEachin, Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

The house was finished just in time for William John Campbell to be born inside on September 21, 1900. Alice Gibson was 86 years old when she died in the house on March 8, 2012.

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To approach the house from the front, you arrive from the river. Cloaked in Spanish-moss-draped oaks on its own peninsula at the Arlington River and Little Pottsburg Creek, the Harbor Point House looks out on the waters, patient in its own time.

When Joel McEachin, then director of the Jacksonville Historic Landmarks Commission, visited Alice Gibson at Harbor Point in the mid-1980s, the last of the Campbells to occupy the home was living by the water in a camper shell.

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Harbor Point House, early 1900s, photo courtesy Joel McEachin, Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Robert C. Campbell had sold the house and the land to Maurice (Mike) and Alice Gibson, but kept a 10′ x 10′ patch of land for himself. For a while Campbell had lived in the old timber boathouse that stood on shaky pilings in the river. After the boathouse collapsed into the water, he moved into the camper shell.

McEachin leans back in his chair in his Historic Preservation Commission office on the third floor of the Ed Ball Building downtown and laughs with the memory.

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“That was his condition for selling the house. He was old and eccentric. He’d take slow walks down Campbell Avenue to Atlantic Boulevard to get a Styrofoam cup of free coffee from the grocery a few times a day. That was enough for him.”

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In 1899, William H. Campbell bought 12 ½ acres here, once part of an extensive 18th century land grant from Spain, and construction on the Carpenter Gothic house began that year. The property line between the Campbells and the Stevens family ran through the middle of “the big oak,” according to a 1981 remembrance William John Campbell wrote for the Landmarks Commission. The Stevens family wanted all the land in the oak’s circumference, so they purchased an extra 70 feet from the Campbells in 1901.

The boathouse is long gone. In the conference room beside McEachin’s office, I look at a 30 year old 8” x 10” photograph of the boathouse. Then I hold a negative of the boathouse up to the light and a figure appears in the doorway. I look back at the developed photograph, but there’s no one there. In the negative, Robert C. Campbell still stands.

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In front of the Harbor Point House, I stand at the bottom of broken wooden steps on the Arlington River and glance back at the ruins of the dock in the water. When I look up to the house, I fully sense its patient and impersonal fenestration.

Above the wide porch with its six plain columns and its rocking chairs, the second story rises with a balcony receded in a great arch embedded in the central gable. Around the arch the gable wears dark red fish-scale shingles. Spanish moss blows gently at the apex and palm fronds rattle at the gable’s either side. The windows have nothing to say to me. I wish it were otherwise.

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The carpenter Chip Halliday oversaw the construction of this house at the end of Campbell Avenue, and the Campbells today own a mid-20th century house nearby on Halliday Lane.

Old names crisscross the landscape just beneath the suburban veneer all along the Arlington River.

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In the living room, pocket doors and a red sofa wait either side of the brick fireplace topped with terracotta tiles. When William John Campbell was 81 years old, he wrote to McEachin that his mother had the tile setter and brick mason tear down and rebuild the fireplace and mantel several times before she was satisfied.

He remembered the four-legged bathtub upstairs and the toilet tank high on the wall with a pull-down flush chain. Drinkable water came from a well that reached 60 feet down, directly beneath the house. If you wanted a hot bath, you brought water upstairs in tea kettles. All the lights inside were kerosene-fueled.

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William remembered that “claret and some fine wines were kept in the butler’s pantry and served in dainty little wine glasses to guests who were the kind that embibed [sic].” When such guests visited, the Campbell boys “were instructed not to mention it” to anyone else. Their parents said wine “was for old folks only or for medical purposes.”

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Campbell Avenue was a rutted sand lane, a little later covered in oyster shell, then with paving bricks before asphalt.

To get to school, William walked from the front door to the dock, where his Uncle John picked him up in his rowboat, in which his own children were already seated. Several children of the nearby Holden family walked to the Campbells’ dock to take the boat. From there, Uncle John rowed them to Ryers’ Landing on the nearby Durkee family’s property, and the children walked past the two-story 1877 Durkee House to the horse-drawn “school wagon” that transported them to the two-story wooden South Jacksonville School, several miles away in what would be developed in the 1920s as San Marco.

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As I walk around back of the Harbor Point House to the two-story porches with their lovely scroll-sawn brackets, with lilies and gingers and bromeliads lush green in the oaken shade, lifelines of a century ago dart and arc around me.

In 1910, Holdens and Campbells took the rowboat, footpaths, and wagon to school. Uncle John called the Campbell boys “the dromedaries,” a play on their surname’s resemblance to the word “camel.” Three quarters of a century later, the last Campbell boy in this house would sell it to a Holden.

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Alice Gibson’s 2012 obituary reads, “Her grandparents built what is currently the oldest continuously occupied house in Jacksonville, and the house in which she currently lived was built by other family members more than 100 years ago.”

Alice’s mother was born Lillian Holden, but it’s not exactly true that Alice’s grandparents, John and Lillie Campbell Holden, built the “oldest continuously occupied house.” That’s because the Holden House at 1300 Oak Haven Road is older than that. It dates at least to 1848, but an 1837 letter from Francis Richard II mentions housing construction for his son Francis Richard III that might well refer to the Holden House’s origin and date it to the late 1830s or early 1840s.

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Moving back still further, the Richard family’s time here dates to their Florentine forebear Luigi Giuseppi Francois Richard’s arrival in Spanish East Florida in 1797 and his acceptance 20 years later of a Spanish land grant of 16,000 acres stretching from around today’s Empire Point all the way to suburban Baymeadows.

It’s too much. My head swims. I walk the dirt road through Harbor Point and stare up into the shredded blankets of moss high in the air. I stop at the back brick gates to watch a glass snake, not quite the length of my forearm, shoot magically up the old brick.

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But of course glass snakes aren’t snakes at all, but legless lizards, just as Campbells aren’t Holdens, but the Campbell Holdens are Richards, and Lillian’s not Lillie, but Halliday built the house on Campbell Avenue and the Campbells built a house on Halliday Lane.

How are we supposed to keep straight the stories that rut the landscape if they never ran straight to begin with? I’m almost inclined to beg the tree canopy down on the house and the river to rise on the ruins.

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But then Robert C. Campbell appears in the doorway of the boathouse. I look back at the developed photograph, which I hold in my right hand, but there’s no one there. I let my hand, with the photo of the boathouse, drop down by my side, and look back to the river. The boathouse is 30 years gone, but for a moment, I see Robert C. Campbell walking toward me on the water with another Styrofoam cup of free coffee in his hand.