by Tim Gilmore, 12/3/2016
In the chapter called “Beautiful Homes That Have Changed a Good Bit in Jacksonville” in her neverending book Interesting Facts about Leading People and Families in Duval County; Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings, Virginia King calls the Barnett Mansion a “three-story red brick beauty.”
It’s about as much personality as she ever put in a sentence, though the house is actually two stories with a prominent central attic dormer. She photographed the house with its two-story veranda and its 10 front pairs of Ionic columns. You barely see the widow’s walk that emerges from the western roofline. You can’t see the other Ionic columns walled up in former side porches long ago converted into rooms on both sides of the house.
In the mid-1960s, Virginia King, whose unreadable book eventually extended to 8,448 handwritten pages, walked across the city center, rail-thin and resolute, her wrapped umbrella in one hand, black pocketbook tucked in the opposite armpit, snapping blurred and crooked Kodak Brownie photographs of grand residential architecture.
Inside the Barnett Mansion, clouded forms swirl in the burl maple of the stairs and wainscoting in the foyer. Burls form as giant knots in trees, like cancerous tumors, constellations of buds that stay dormant. Slicing into the wood to reveal the beauty of the burls, in a perverse sense, allows to bloom the blossoms that crowded unborn while the tree yet lived and grew.
Jim Krahn, junior deacon with the Solomon Lodge, the Masonic order which has owned the Barnett Mansion since 1941, marvels with me at a built-in bookcase twice our height. He’s tall, with a thick head of hair and a trim gray beard. He smiles and says, “There are so many stories in this house.”
For example, William and Sarah Barnett had just moved into their newly constructed mansion when Jacksonville caught fire and burnt to the ground just the other side of Hogans Creek. The Barnetts sipped fine liquor and watched the Great Fire of 1901 from their East First Street second-floor veranda.
The same story, however, falsely claims that the National Bank of Jacksonville, the Barnetts’ bank, was the only financial institution to withstand the fire, and that the downtown bank’s survival gave it a monopoly in the city. Here the story seems to conflate the bank itself with the Old Florida National Bank Building, the “Marble Bank,” at the corner of Forsyth and Laura Streets.
But Barnett National Bank of Jacksonville, formed in 1877, renamed the National Bank of Jacksonville in 1888, then Barnett Bank in 1908, was one of several banking institutions to survive the fire. Others included First National Bank of Florida, State Bank of Florida, and Southern Savings and Trust Co. Sometimes the story seems to refer to the Old Florida National Bank Building downtown, but the “Marble Bank” wasn’t built until the year after the fire and housed a rival institution.
Krahn relates another “juicy story,” that as William and Sarah Barnett made their way from Kansas to Jacksonville, a destination Sarah’s physician had prescribed for her “sickliness,” they passed through an unknown town in Georgia just as a bank robbery occurred. The bank robbers got away with $43,000, the same amount the Barnetts used to open their bank in Jacksonville in 1877. Krahn laughs and makes sure I understand he doesn’t believe this absurd foundation myth.
Meanwhile, a lifesize bronze statue of William Barnett, designed by Jacksonville and St. Augustine sculptor Charles Adrian Pillars, watches us from a corner without approval. Pillars also designed the bronze statue of a “winged figure of youth” for Riverside’s Memorial Park in 1924. Ostensibly, the winged figure is a commemoration of victory in World War I, a riff on the headless 200 BC sculpture Winged Victory of Samothrace, displayed at the Louvre since the 1880s, but the globe beneath Victory’s feet swirls with cyclones of figures like the mystical understandings of history and prophecy in William Blake. The arms and
legs and almost-heads dismembered in the clouds that enfold them attain ironic perfections like those that swarm though the slices of burled maple in the stairs of the Barnett Mansion.
Like his son Bion in an undated photograph from the early 1900s, William Barnett bears strong Scottish facial characters, that long face with prominent brow ridges and cheekbones and nose, and wears a beard and a bow tie.
Sometime in the 1970s, Krahn says, the house alarm sounded in the middle of the night. The alarm system in the old mansion is sensitive and persnickety and has frequently alerted police when the door to an upstairs servant’s room was improperly closed at night. Nevertheless, the Springfield of the 1970s was a dense warren of dosshouses, prostitution, and halfway houses. Some nights, a dozen homeless men might camp behind the Barnett Mansion.
On this particular night, when police burst into the foyer, they saw William Barnett standing in the shadows and drew their guns. If they told the founder of the longest-lived and wealthiest bank in Florida’s history, “Don’t move,” his statue surely complied. Barnett stood still even when the police dog attacked his pants legs, leaving scratches in the banker’s bronze.
In similar chiaroscuro, a copper and wood bas-relief by Pillars called “The O’Possum Hunt,” dated 1906, hangs framed in the grand dining room. Hounds and young men in jackets with military buttons, alongside a young black boy with a handaxe and borderline racist facial features, funnel their fury up a creekside tree, as the possum watches fearfully from a crook in the upper branches.
Krahn asks me to push open the massive wooden pocket doors to the dining room, then to close the heavy 19th-century lead-encased doors to the Diebold Safe that contains, in a musty pantry, all the files and records of the Solomon Lodge back to its first location in the 1840s.
He groans when I tell him I want to look out from the widow’s walk in the roofline and circumvent the cellar a DeMolay member has told me descends to wide-reaching subterranean tunnels.
In the large open Lodge Room on the second floor, where regular Masonic meetings take place, hallways once led to the Barnetts’ master bedroom. A wooden-shuttered window behind rows of old theater chairs is no window at all, but a doorway that opens onto a porch that’s no longer here. A century ago, the porch opened off the Barnetts’ bedroom.
Just as the porches that once wrapped in Ionic columns about the front and second-story sides of the mansion were long ago enclosed, so the route, up narrow back stairs from the kitchen through the back servants’ quarters to the attic, across the back-to-front length of the height of the house, then up two
steep turns of wooden steps to the trapdoor at the apex, exits onto the roofline. The hatch heaves open heavily from the attic to the city’s skyline, but the balustrade that still arches across the western top of the mansion is today only accessible by crawling across the flatter reconfigured roof.
The cellar, accessed by a similar hatch, where wall meets ground beneath the house toward Main Street, is hardly less romantic. Descending the steep stone steps, running my fingers along the walls, I find it obvious the sincere stories of my former student, the underground travelogues of that earnest ROTC cadet and DeMolay scholar, are as fictional as the claims of Ottis Toole, who lived in several boarding houses on nearby streets in the 1970s, to have murdered hundreds of people across the American landscape.
Meanwhile, beneath ceilings across the mansion, Jim Krahn points to levers on chandeliers that a century ago switched from electric to gas lighting and back. Household electricity was limited and expensive when it was new. These electrically wired chandeliers have valves that easily turned to their secondary source.
“If you walked or drove by these grand ornate wooden houses at night,” Krahn says, “and saw lights burning inside, you knew those were the wealthiest people in town.”
We look up the back stairs for servants from the off-scene first-floor kitchen. We peer from beneath Ionic columns where clerical offices now are housed in the lost lives of nocturnal side-porches. We trace the brick lines of the century-gone koi pond in the side yard below us before the carriage house.
We enter a small room between family and servants’ quarters, where William Barnett retreated to smoke Cuban cigars and drink Scotch. The proximity between master’s and servant’s space is shocking. Immediately behind large halls and master bedrooms, the corridors contract, the wood trim thins and cheapens, and the rooms shrink and huddle together.
It’s not in the grandest rooms behind the heaviest doors I expect to meet the lives this house was built to fit. People are truest in the borders. I don’t mean a border’s either side, for there people are often most false, caricatures instead of dreaming selves who understand desperation and the loss, felt deep in the soul at night, of everyone who wins.
Most ghost stories are set in large houses, but the smallest spaces haunt most. How disappointing that after 75 years, I cannot smell a Barnett cigar fuming
toward the ventilation grille in the ceiling of the magnate’s secret room, cloistered between masters’ and servants’ quarters, where Sarah allowed William to drink his double malt Scotch!