Springfield: Florence Court Apartments

by Tim Gilmore, 6/24/2020

1. New South Queen, Tree of Life

Cyara likes to imagine herself “Queen Florence.” More than a century before, the builder of the Florence Court named these apartments for his wife. But mysteries arise from the architecture’s origins. Why did the architect and builder, having designed and built each other’s homes the same year, seem to hide this collaboration?

Florence Court Apartments, image courtesy Robert Broward

Mold grows across bedroom walls and ceilings in vegetative forests, mocking the architect’s signature, his derivation of the Tree of Life. Mushrooms grow downward from ceilings. Secret tributaries of history snake through forgotten stories.

At the central crux and climax of Springfield, this neighborhood crown atop Downtown, the Florence Court Apartment Building has been in decline for almost all its life. One century down, it’s got how many to go? “Queen Florence” on the rooftop aside, all it needs is a savior. Born poor, I’ll try my hand at poet-prophet.

2. As Seen from the Center

Frank M. Richardson had supervised construction for the city’s greatest architect enough times that he knew Henry John Klutho’s vision. He could see it from inside, how it worked, how it made the world look to move through it.

Klutho residence from the north immediately after construction, 1909, courtesy Robert Broward

Two new houses had come to Main Street in 1909. Frank had supervised construction for Klutho’s own residence at 2018 Main and Klutho had designed Frank’s home at 1430. That circle itself was a marriage of sorts. Now the architect had designed a new building Frank was naming for his wife.

Frank M. Richardson Residence, courtesy Robert Broward

On May 29, 1911, however, The Florida Times-Union said the new building would be called Springfield Court. “Springfield has many fine residences and a number of good business blocks, but the building that will be the pride of that entire section is now in course of construction at the corner of Main and Eighth, which has developed into the leading business section of Springfield.”

Though the T-U failed to mention Klutho, it mentioned Richardson’s work on two Klutho buildings, the “just completed” Morocco Temple and the just-begun 10 story Florida Life Building. By October, when the Springfield Court was finished, it was called the Florence Court.

image courtesy Christine Andow-Farley

The Florence Court held “eight suites of apartments on the second and third floors, each containing six rooms and bath.” The front of the building was finished in white stucco, like the Morocco Temple at 219 North Newnan Street. Each apartment had its own balcony overlooking a courtyard centered on “a grand staircase.”

image courtesy William Hoff

The ground floor featured storefronts with iron and glass canopies cantilevered over the sidewalk, merchants selling leather wingtip shoes, linen spats, glazed Southern tea cakes and Syrup of Figs for constipation.

late 1920s, a young woman named Barbara Thomas, Florida Hotel in the background

In 1920, there was Harry Atlas Shoe Repair and Louis C. McCormick, Pharmacist. Upstairs lived a salesman named Kingsbury Norton, a plumber named Benjamin Tucker, and W.H. Newell, whose bakery was downstairs. In the late 1920s, when the Florence Court became the Florida Hotel and Apartments, you could buy a ham and beef tongue sandwich downstairs at Paul’s Luncheonette.

Capitol Theatre, beside the Florida Hotel, Newell’s Bakery visible, 1927, image courtesy cinematreasures.org

3. Mycelium Ceiling

In 2018, Bernard Mitchell looked into the TV news cameras and said the ceiling for his third floor apartment was completely gone. Mold grew rampant across his bedroom. The fruiting masses of fungi channeled about him when he tried to sleep like a scene from The Evil Dead. How was he supposed to rest here? Why was he supposed to keep paying rent?

Ken Amaro, local TV news’s consumer advocate, social justice ombudsman, the man with the mic and camera you could turn to when you had nobody else, stood before the Florence Court Apartments and called them “an iconic building at the corner of Eighth and North Main streets, the work of Jacksonville architect Henry Klutho.” He didn’t say the building bore little resemblance to Klutho’s design.

Two floors beneath Mitchell’s apartment, Anthony Scott lived where shoe shops and bakeries once thrived. Renovations in 1984 had boxed in and plastered shut those ground-floor storefronts to form additional apartments. The eight apartments of Klutho’s design had been butchered into 49.

Scott’s ceiling spread fingers of water and mold like crystalline dendrites of brain cells and treeforms. “There was so much water it started leaking on one side of the room,” Scott said. “Now it’s leaking on both sides of the doorway.” Mushrooms grew earthward from ceilings.

Two years later, almost to the day, the ceilings on first floor hallways drip. Perhaps it’s appropriate these halls, with exposed fluorescent strip lights flickering above, are coated in cheap bathroom wall tiles.

Capitol Theatre beside the Florida Hotel, 1927, image courtesy cinematreasures.org

In the empty lot next door to the Florence Court Apartments once stood the Capitol Theatre. Old photos show the Capitol advertising the 1927 silent films The Yankee Clipper and Slide, Kelly, Slide. On the other side of where the Capitol stood is Crispy’s Springfield Gallery and Restaurant. Across the street are Hyperion Brewing Company, 1748 Bakehouse and Social Grounds Coffee Company. Eighth and Main, finally, after decades of decay, has become once again a cultural and commercial center of inner urban Jax. Meanwhile, high up in a back hall under buckling walls, Cyara Williams tells me, “Welcome to Third World America.”

4. Occulted Dedication

So why did architect Robert Broward write in his 1983 book The Architecture of Henry John Klutho: The Prairie School in Jacksonville, “Only recently was it discovered that Henry John Klutho had designed this building at the height of his career”? Klutho lived right across the street, in the residence he designed for himself, until his death at age 91 in 1964, having seen the blasphemous remodeling of the Florence Court for three decades. Why should his design of the building have remained a secret another 20 years after his death?

Broward writes that Klutho’s “workload was heavier than ever” in 1911 and that “perhaps,” despite the bond between architect and builder, “Klutho did not claim this building because he was not very interested in his residential work, although he personally designed each residential project.” That dependent clause makes dubious the first part of the sentence.

Why had The Florida Times-Union, in 1911, named Richardson as builder without mentioning Klutho? The omission glares, in retrospect, because Klutho, who came to Jacksonville from New York after reading about the Great Fire of 1901, hoping to rebuild a city, seemed to have a hand in nearly every significant new structure.

image courtesy Robert Broward

Though one editorial cartoon shows a child Klutho building the city with skyscrapers and hotels like play building blocks, Broward notes the architect “never listed” the Florence Court Apartments “in any of his brochures.”

Dionne’s Springfield Apartments, early 1950s, courtesy The Architecture of Henry John Klutho by Robert Broward

With astonishing symmetry, the Florence Court rose within blocks of some of Klutho’s most significant designs. Not only did Richardson and Klutho bring each other’s own homes to fruition at the same time, but in 1913, two years after the Florence Court Apartments, the Klutho Apartments rose just across Main Street. That sacred architectural signature, Klutho’s “Prairie Style Cross,” an offshoot of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Tree of life,” looks out over Main Street, even now, from the Klutho and the Florence Court Apartments on either side.

5. Everybody Gets to Be Queen

The fall of Florence Court both mirrored and precipitated Springfield’s decline. So Cyara concurs when I meet her this evening. She sings Billie Holiday songs and identifies her body with the body, whose history she knows, of this building. Slightly tipsy, she sings, “Stop haunting me now. / Can’t shake you nohow. / Just leave me alone. / I’ve got those Monday blues, / Straight through Sunday blues.”

It’s a hell of a greeting, but it’s germane. This most architecturally magnificent neighborhood trickling north from Downtown fell longer than it rose. Despite and because of that early and long decline, Springfield developed its own strange lyrical bittersweet haunting.

“Florence Court,” writes Broward, “for years a prestigious Springfield residence, later diminished in importance and appearance as the neighborhood began to deteriorate during the ’30s and after World War II.” If anything, in the annals of America’s 20th century betrayal of its cities, Jacksonville’s fall comes up early in Springfield. Most “white flight” kicks in after World War II, but Springfield got a head start.

image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Cyara has a son named Dante, and though I think of that poet of Florence, who fell in love at age nine with Beatrice Portinari, to whom he dedicated his poetry and his life, mythologizing her as guide through the afterlife in The Divine Comedy, which he spent 12 years writing, finishing it the year before he died at 56 in 1321, Beatrice having died at 25 in June 1290, Cyara reminds me more of Friedrich Nietzsche. Seeking to “cast out her devils,” she threw herself “into the swine.” Thus spake Cyara in accidentally paraphrasing Thus Spake Zarathustra and the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Luke could well have been a Billie Holiday tune.

image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Broward says the Florence Court became “a flophouse hotel” with its “upper two floors” later abandoned. In 1929, the original glass canopies disappeared. So too the tile roofs over early balconies facing Main Street. New slumlords enclosed the courtyard.

For decades, the Florence Court was the Florida Hotel, and its walls were stucco’d over with walls stucco’d over. By the ’60s, rumors reported rooms tumoring over rooms and whole netherworlds operating inside this hotel as city verboten in city. Inside, strangers died and saints sinned and bore the fruit of secrets.

from The Mad Atlas of Virginia King by Tim Gilmore

That strange monomaniac Virginia King, author of the unreadable 8,448-page book called Interesting Facts about Leading People and Families in Duval County; Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings snapped a crooked photo of the horribly remodeled Florence Court, an old wood panel station wagon creeping out front, and scrawled on the back, “Fla. Hotel at 8th & Main.”

In the 1970s, the T-U reported the Florence Court or Florida Hotel completely abandoned, an empty storefront for Tropic Pet Center, seller of fish and lizards and snakes, still advertising along the sidewalk. In 1983, Broward wrote, “Today [the apartments] are leaky, dilapidated, and full of rubbish,” adding, “Long ago, the beautiful entrance court was filled in with the construction of a bar and whiskey store.”

image courtesy William Hoff

The following year, slumlords tore away the courtyard’s enclosure, reopening the center, but enclosed the original storefronts in walls of sheetrock and stucco to add more apartments. The original eight had become 49. Today the enclosures make the building appear a walled city, separate from and barricaded against Springfield and Jacksonville, hideous and bland and impenetrable.

Cyara says she’s been here a year. She might be here another 10, might be gone next week. Then again, her own history’s dug deep in surrounding urban archaeology. Sometimes she “rolls a great big blunt” and heads up to the roof at night to look out on surrounding streets and bars and houses and cars and trees.

“I come up here and light up,” she says, “and I’m queen of the world.” She laughs and nods and grabs my shoulder and says, “But I’m a democratic queen.” She says a breeze blows atop Springfield even in humid June. “I make a decision. Okay? This my court and I’m Queen Florence, but I share the world with everybody. Everybody gets to be queen!”