by Tim Gilmore, 7/21/2015
Standing out on Main Street, face to face with this eccentric old building, the Klutho Apartments, I imagine the two of us in some tête-à-tête conspiracy.
I’ve long loved the face of this building, and “facing” it, I think of a thousand conversations I’ve had with my wife, who prefers the Photography of Faces, while I prefer that of Landscapes. I’m a little ashamed of this difference, since it makes her the greater humanist, but standing before the Klutho Apartments, I meet both landscape and human face as one, eye to eye.
The Klutho Apartments originally housed movie stars in town for work at the film studios architect Henry John Klutho had built on Main Street between Eighth and Ninth, in the Victorian and Edwardian neighborhood of Springfield. If only buildings like this kept diaries.
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When Klutho first came to town after the Great Fire of 1901 had reduced most of Jacksonville to ash and ruin, he prophesied his success by quoting the Dutch philosopher Erasmus: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
If his opening statement seemed insulting, it proved accurate. By World War One, Klutho had contributed more to the rebuilding of the city’s skyline than any other architect.
Built in 1913, the Klutho Apartments building has weathered various apocalypses, to which I can relate, since my Southern Baptist childhood taught me to expect the End Times and The Rapture, and quite possibly Armageddon, The Tribulation, and Hellfire.
Klutho designed his structures according the time of day and the seasons, as Jefree Shalev, who lives in the house Klutho designed for himself, describes the sunlight through the windows, differing by morning or late afternoon, and summer by winter, as the Klutho house was originally situated on Main Street, part of the complex of structures that included Klutho’s film studios and the Klutho Apartments. The apartment building was built with ventilation shafts and 20-inch stucco-covered masonry walls to insulate it against Jacksonville’s brutal summers.
For having evolved his style from mostly pre-Jax French-Beaux-Arts to Floridian variations and self-adaptations of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Prairie School,” which worked in Northeast Florida more prolifically than anywhere outside Wright’s Chicago-centered Midwest, Klutho might well have called his Prairie architecture “Swamp School.” I think it would’ve worked. It’s Florida’s flatness, after all, that makes the St. Johns River one of the few rivers on the planet that flows northward.
But by that time, not only was Frank Lloyd Wright’s own original work seemingly yesterday, not only were those architects influenced by Wright seen as derivatives of derivatives, but…
Klutho had sunk his architectural fortune into his own film studio complex, including the Klutho Apartments, just as Jacksonville’s many film companies, began to tank.
Though Jacksonville’s conservative politicians, like Mayor JET Bowden, had won office upon promises of keeping alcohol sales and prostitution legal, such sins needed containment in the city’s segregated black neighborhoods, and white actors and directors and writers expressing unorthodox opinions and lifestyles both in person and on screen found themselves unwelcome in the place they’d worked to establish as the world’s “winter film capitol.”
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The central front doorway is arched and topped by layers of arches that frame it. Almost every other element of the building’s design is angled, not curved.
Above the embracing entrance stands a two-story tower of banded windows capped with octagonal blooms.
Its three stories of lovely bands of windows bear abstract floral designs with gold leaf. In the building’s restoration, Atlantic Beach artisan Kirk Reber restored eight of the original 48 windows, but had to replicate the rest.
The second- and third-floor balconies emphasize the horizon in true Prairie-style manner, but also balance off the central tower of windows like branches. You reach the balconies, and the first-floor porches, by pairs of French doors central to the (Swamp) Prairie window design.
Atop the third story, the brick masonry is exposed, and three shields of metal octagons reflect the octagonal blooms just below them and give rise the building’s ascendant “prow roof,” which architect Robert Broward, who became friends with Klutho in his old age and wrote The Architecture of Henry John Klutho, calls “an extension of the gabled roof, which seemed to leap outward into space creating a feeling of dynamic structure.”
Stepping through that doorway, the single element of true curve, you walk onto original hexagonal tile, surrounded by marble wainscoting, and step up onto the stairwell of old heart pine.
You realize how fortunate you are that that monstrous 1993 arson destroyed only the back of the building and never took its face or its intimate entry.
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When the film industry left Jacksonville a decade before the entrance of “talkies,” Henry John Klutho lost double fortunes, as his film studio investments disappeared and the architecture that once made him the one-eyed king of Jacksonville was forgotten alongside the city’s movie industry.
By then Klutho had designed the skyline and face of my hometown, though my hometown had turned against and demolished much of his work by the time I was born a decade after Klutho died.
Klutho desperately maintained his office in the Klutho Apartments from 1929 to 1934, during which time he resided upstairs. In 1943, he sold the building to Isaiah Dionne, who kept it mostly according to its original layout of three apartment suites per each of its three floors.
But as the decades ground forward, Dionne’s Springfield Apartments fell into worse and worse disrepair as Springfield cycled downward across the second half of the 20th century.
Though Dionne’s was surprisingly spared the pyromania of the likes of the legendary Springfield resident Ottis Toole, pyromaniac and phony serial killer, when SPAR, Springfield Preservation and Restoration, purchased the Klutho Apartments in 1993, hoping to restore one of the city’s greatest buildings to its full architectural splendor, its new SPAR president Rita Reagan was stunned to see September 28, 1993 front-page newspaper footage that a fire had destroyed the Klutho Apartments.
In 2004, Reagan told Emily Lisska, director of the Jacksonville Historical Society, that after the great fire of 1993, “We went ahead, we took the building, and then we had another great tragedy.”
The leader of the city department that planned to fund the restoration was “summarily dismissed by Mayor Ed Austin.” It didn’t go unnoticed that Austin’s “River City Renaissance” plan included the demolition of 50 square blocks of the historically vibrant black neighborhood of LaVilla, just southwest of Springfield, where many mysterious fires sprouted after the mayor’s “urban renewal” proposal. As Frank Nero was the particularly despised chief of the Downtown Development Authority in the early 1990s, the series of unsolved LaVilla arsons had become known as Emperor Nero’s Urban Renewal Plan.
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When photographer, former Architectural History professor and cultural impresario Jefree Shalev wonders why a skinny back-corner balcony exists at all, our gracious tour guides from Operation New Hope are unable to offer the answer.
That’s fine. Because Operation New Hope does unbelievably good and important work and they know it. Brittany Anthony, Director of Fund Development, tours me and several friends through the building and explains their process of accepting non-violent, non-sexual offenders into their programs and adapting them vocationally for specific jobs in Jacksonville.
But it turns out that Jeff has placed his question mark directly at the origin of the arson that almost destroyed the Klutho Apartments forever.
Prior to Rita Reagan’s description of how she “ran back and forth to Tallahassee and talked to every person I knew—they stopped wanting to talk to me—they knew I was asking for money,” and her admission that “finally,” in desperation without governmental help, she wrote “letters to some of the rich people I knew,” she explained that “the fire was started in the [back freight] elevator shaft and it spread from there, but fortunately it spread mostly to the back of building, and so the front part was saved. But it took out the roof, and so for six years, I ran back and forth to Tallahassee.”
That means that as Jeff and I are standing on that back side balcony, and Jeff perceptively wonders why this strange balcony exists, we’re standing at Ground Zero for the 1993 arson.
Now, Operation New Hope, as did the organization called Fresh Ministries, which first bought and restored the building, uses this strange old post-apocalyptic gem to breathe new life into the community.
Operation New Hope accepts non-violent / non-sexual criminals who can truly make great work of a second or even a third chance into its vocational programs. And because Operation New Hope teaches its clients how to curb their trajectories, often even from childhood, away from increased crime and jail time toward more productive societal and self-fulfilling life tracks, not only have Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both used Operation New Hope as examples of hope, but this organization’s recidivism rate ranges from less than 10 percent to not quite 30.
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A decade before architect Robert Broward died, he undertook restoration of this eccentric building designed by his mentor and friend, saying “We’ve tried to restore the building,” though “a lot of details are not fully known.”
The floorplans seem to be right. I could walk into the bedrooms and kitchens and imagine not only Mary Pickford or Oliver Hardy, but the desperate drunk of a plumber in 1963 or the urgently abstinent carpenter, estranged from his children to whom he sends every seasonally-earned quarter past rent in 1982, or the trumpeter who vacillated between lifestyles in 1975.
And when an anonymous arsonist seeks to destroy the Klutho Apartments in 1993, when this city’s most ardent “urban renewal” demolitionist mayor aligns his causes with mysterious fires in the middle of the city, you might well step up into the DNA spiral of heart-pine steps through the heart-of-the-Klutho Apartments in 2015 and place your hands on your own heart, and breathe deeply, and surge.