Oakhaven: Moyer House

by Tim Gilmore, 5/3/2019

1. After the Glory, Goldfish for Sale

Though this Mediterranean but Southern Gothic manse has recovered from decline before, its need has never been greater than now. The house at 5511 Atlantic Boulevard knows life from every angle. Its lore features Great Depression tragedy, Prohibition gangsters, hippie communes, 1970s bacchanalia, and a mean donkey. At the center of this whirlwind history, immovable in his long coat and fedora, stands Harry Moyer, the tile worker who made this house, once upon a time, glorious.

This afternoon, its ballroom longs for company. It peers through holes in the ceiling of its foyer. It watches us step inside. It needs us. Florida climbs up its stucco, rattles down in the boiler room, and drips from the bubbled plaster in the ceilings of the parlor.

This house needs people with uncanny vision, who can see its beauty beneath its condition.

“Dad loved this house,” Steve Stone says. He greets us before the arched entry with its halo of red ceramic tile. “But after the accident, he was never himself again.” Steve’s been working. He’s drenched in sweat. He’s cleared decades of hoarding from the house. “Dad ran his own business, Architectural Concrete, but after the car accident, about all he could do was sweep floors.”

photograph by Judy Davis, late 1970s, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Emil Stone was 79 when he died in early October, 2017. His last 25 years, to make up for lost income, he raised goldfish and took in boarders.

He raised goldfish in the small stone pond beneath the spruce trees he planted in front of the house and in the kidney-shaped swimming pool behind it. Stepping through ferns above the dense green scum, Steve remembers diving into the pool when he was 12 years old. The goldfish marked the decline. “Dad had thousands of fish in this pool,” he says. He had a sign out front on Atlantic Boulevard: “Goldfish for sale.”

Emil Stone rented rooms to as many as eight tenants at once, boarders down on their luck. Three of them remain. The boarder whose bedroom is the ballroom isn’t here. There’s a TV, a nightstand and a bed backed against a front window and covered with a camouflage blanket.

Doorways stand in arches. Expansive built-in cabinets molder in the long lonely kitchen. The foyer holds the staircase and arches into the parlor, with its fireplace surrounded by red and blue and yellow tiles. Mildewed armchairs, upholstered floral, sit dreaming, with faux-cherrywood American eagles astride them like war bonnets.

Steve points to the tilework throughout the house. “That’s Harry Moyer,” he says, nodding to the tile the man laid, as though the work were the man. And it is. An artist becomes the art. Moyer laid tile for the original construction of the house, then bought the house himself in 1944.

Moyer Marble and Tile, Riverside Avenue headquarters, 1930s through 1950s, courtesy Moyer family

He started Moyer Marble and Tile in 1926, the year construction on this house began. It was his first big job. At the end of the Great Depression, Moyer was surprised to find the house in total disarray, a wreck. Elizabeth Wichman Perry, the daughter of Charles Wichman, the home’s first owner, had married a physician with whom she’d traveled the world. The Perrys had tied their yacht to the slips in Little Pottsburg Creek beside the house.

Something had come so drastically undone, Harry’s son Greig recalled to Wayne Wood in 1985, that in less than 20 years, Harry found Charles Wichman and his daughter living together reclusively and “in poverty.” Moyer never understood it. Whatever happened, the Great Depression left the family with little left but their lives and the great house gaping about them.

2. The Artist

“Very eccentric,” Greig says of his grandfather. “He was a hell of a son of a so-and-so.”

Harry Moyer, 1944, image courtesy Moyer family

Greig, Glenn and Gary Moyer pack one side of the conference table. It’s obvious they’re brothers, not just because they’re made from the same mold, but they finish each other’s sentences. Greig Moyer Jr. is the oldest. He finishes the other brothers’ sentences the most.

Harry Moyer had a reputation for “enjoying himself a little too much” at tile conventions, but everyone liked him. Marion met the demands of her era as a gracious housewife and hostess. Nobody uttered a negative word about Harry and Marion Moyer. Not everyone cared for Lola though. Greig still has a scar on his back from where she bit him when he was a child.

Harry Moyer at a tile convention, 1944, image courtesy Moyer family

Lola, Harry’s pet burro, had come back with him from a trip to Mexico. “He had Lola a good 25 years at least,” Gary says. “He’d pet her and rub her with the end of his cane,” says Glenn.

Lola’s pen was down on the isthmus that shoots out between Little Pottsburg Creek and the rising Atlantic Boulevard bridge. On tax maps, the property looks like an ax, with the isthmus a long handle. The only person not terrified of Lola was Harry. When he called her, she’d bray and come running.

tax map, 5511 Atlantic Boulevard

Greig, Glenn and Gary lived here with their grandfather in the early ’60s while their parents built a new house in Mandarin. They remember hiding under the stairs. The house seemed immense. Family lore said Al Capone wintered here when the house was new. Four decades later, when their grandfather died in November of ’68, the brothers heard that a “hippie commune” moved in when the house stood empty.

“There’s lots of stories,” Glenn says. “We can’t say if the stories are true, but the family’s been telling them for decades.”

Then there’s the story of how Harry started the family business a century ago. He was a Pullman conductor on the Jax-to-Miami rail line and he’d bought a new Hupmobile Series A, an elegant forest-green Tudor sedan with swooping fenders and wooden spoke wheels. When he heard somebody wanted a natural stone fireplace, he stood a 55 gallon drum on the front bumper, filled it with rocks and went to work.

The Moyers walk me to the warehouse behind their retail center on Philips Highway and show me “the Hup.” In a 1959 photograph, the car appears before the house, Harry standing behind it in a flat cap, Greig Jr. standing on the running board in front.

Harry Moyer and Greig Moyer, Jr., circa 1959, image courtesy Moyer family

Behind the Hup, Harry’s handiwork stands clear on the house: the red ceramic tile around the front door, the slate wall puzzle-pieced together in greys, blues, reds and earth tones at the house’s furthest front. A tall panel of red ceramic tile recesses into the slate.

garage at Moyer House, 1960s, image courtesy Moyer family

Another photo shows the garage with the slate floor Harry laid to match the front wall. The tilework shows most gloriously in an early 1960s photo with Harry and Marion standing next to their Chrysler New Yorker. Reds and blues checker the garage door; the panels of tile across the face of the house echo the squares of windows in tight rhythm.

Harry and Marion Moyer in front of the house, early 1960s, image courtesy Moyer family

Nobody knows what architect designed the house or what builder constructed it, but the tilework here is Harry Moyer’s magnum opus. Thousands of “Mediterranean Revival” houses rose in the 1920s Florida Land Boom that preceded the Great Depression; it’s Harry Moyer’s tilework that transforms this house into art.

3. To Love the House Back to Life

We climb the stairs, rise into the deep chiaroscuro of the house. “My dad was something else in his heyday,” Steve says. Emil Stone bought the house in 1978 for $100,000. When Steve’s parents divorced, he moved with his mother to South Florida, but visited his father in the summers. “He was a member of this singles’ club,” Steve says, “and the pool was quite an attraction. They threw parties here you just wouldn’t believe.”

Steve witnessed some of those revelries in his teens but keeps his lips sealed. “Oh, there’s some stories,” he says. “I wish I could tell you.”

The parties ended for good with the accident. Steve can’t remember which year. “He was in a coma for a day,” Steve says. “He never was the same.”

Upstairs, we meet Charlie, a tan yellow boxer mixed with pit bull. He’s sniffed us out a few times already, a friendly phantom. A boarder named Jack wears clunky glasses and a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off and the sides cut open. His head is shaved. He’s rented this master bedroom at the top of the house for six or seven years, he says. He knew Emil well, “Oh yeah,” he says, “Oh yeah.” When I ask him about Emil, he says, “Charlie’s an ex-ninja master!” An old kung-fu movie blasts from his wide-screen TV. “Me and Charlie, we box all the time,” he says, puts his hands on his thighs and laughs from his depths.

At the top of the landing, a hallway with a band of windows wide open, front and center of the house, looks out at those dark green spruce trees and the hissing shush of traffic behind them. It takes us from Jack’s room to Gary’s.

Gary’s watching TV and drinking a tallboy Budweiser. He’s lived here 10 years. He wears a camouflage bandana and a sleeveless t-shirt cut open at the sides. “Hey, ya’ll,” he says in a loud deep Southern drawl, opening his door excitedly. “Welcome to the place I call Gary’s rat hole.”

Alan Justiss, from Folio Weekly, July 5, 1994

It’s hard to believe that Jax poète maudit, Alan Justiss, devotee of Bukowski, who lived in downtown boiler rooms and impromptu trailers on bookseller Ron Chamblin’s land, never lived here. I expect to catch his ghost, “twisted on the banister / Under the vapour in the fetid air / Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears / The deceitful face of hope and of despair.” I assumed at first that Alan would writhe at the thought of his name wrapped in T.S. Eliot lines, but his friend and biographer Nestor Gil tells me Alan would be honored. He loved T.S. Eliot.

Standing in the hallway with the casements wide open, Steve says the house might be run down, but tenants have felt lucky to call it home. There’s no air-conditioning, but there’s a breeze through these windows, and there’s a view of the river and the trees and the constant traffic, from which they feel sheltered, down on Atlantic Boulevard.

We circumambulate the house, listen to its keening, recognize the splendor beneath the world’s brutality. You can hear the calling, a whine and groan and hum, played on ghost strings up in the trees. The house cries out for the city. Save it. Need it. Nurture it.

The tenants who’ve survived Emil Stone will, within the month, be gone. Where they go, no one will know any more than we know whence they came. The continent crawls with lost souls. As in Flannery O’Connor stories. They’ve made even more real this house.

Still the house is grand. It’s a Gothic Romance. It’s Wuthering Heights, the Castle of Otranto, but it’s also a Mediterranean villa somehow grown from the dense foliage at the side of Little Pottsburg Creek in Florida.

It’s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford haunting the great house, though still alive, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s Jim Morrison, drunkenly growling, “Ashen lady / Give up your vows, / Save our city, save our city / Right now!”

1980s, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Save our city, save this house that’s served as way station for untold numbers of Pilgrim’s Progress. The house rises above the Slough of Despond, stands apart from the City of Destruction, and somewhere within its rambling shambles contains the Wicket Gate, where the keeper named Goodwill asks what we want, tries to reject us, though his sign says, “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you” and promises us salvation.

So who will step forward? Who waits in the doorway? Who answers the call? Who wishes to walk with Harry Moyer? Who wishes to walk with this house through all the life it’s known? Will you come? Will you have what it takes? Will you be too late? Or will you lay your head down with this house in harmony with its history, having loved it back to life?