Springfield: Klutho House

by Tim Gilmore, 12/27/2014

Some houses so reflect the personalities of previous inhabitants that the idea of  ghosts occurs automatically.

Klutho House 2

photo courtesy Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass

You can’t help mentioning it, even if you don’t believe it.

And what people say about the dead becomes commentary on the mysterious depths of lives already lived.

So when Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass tell me that Klutho’s ghost still inhabits their house, I wonder how you could believe otherwise when, though you own and live in the house, your house is Henry John Klutho’s artistic signature? Every corner and newel and window is Klutho’s personal expression. It will always be Klutho’s house.

Klutho

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Artists preside in their works long after their death. They become their art. We “read Shakespeare” if we read Hamlet, because the poet has become his writing. The writer becomes the “body of work,” the corpus and not the corpse.

So though Henry John Klutho, Jacksonville’s greatest historical architect, died poor and nearly anonymous upstairs in this very house at age 91, and though hundreds of his architectural records and drawings disappeared shortly after his death, inasmuch as Jeff and Carolyn live in the house Klutho designed for himself, they live in his work, and in Klutho himself.

The house is human-scale, it’s comfortable for a masterpiece, but not a day goes by that Jeff and Carolyn don’t think about Klutho and what he wanted for the house. Jeff feels at home here but feels as much like a caretaker of Klutho’s work as a homeowner.

They say Klutho makes himself known during renovations, though they sincerely consider the architect’s intentions for the house. During a painting job above the staircase, a wrap that encased the stairs at mid-landing was removed overnight and balled up on the second floor. You’d need a ladder to unsecure the wrap, and there’s no way it could’ve untied itself and fallen upward.

Klutho House 9

photo courtesy Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass

Carolyn says that one night amidst renovations she heard an electric saw buzzing from across the house. She walked toward the sound but oddly felt no fear and when she approached the saw, it died down. It wasn’t plugged in.

At other times, paintings Klutho didn’t like threw themselves down from the walls. And Jeff and Carolyn are amateur photographers and passionate art collectors. Jeff previously co-owned the downtown gallery called Nullspace and curated a major exhibit at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens based on artistic representations of eight-millimeter movies of his parents from the 1950s and 1960s, everyone’s “old parents as the children they were.”

Klutho House 12

photo courtesy Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass

A mixed-media self-crucifixion of a housewife in tulle, with her husband’s image at the top of the cross and oven controls as the stakes in her palms, hangs on the middle landing of the central staircase.

*

It’s raining tonight. The rain samples the acoustics across the house as Jeff and Carolyn graciously show us upstairs. We step into the office space where a bitter and unappreciated Klutho slept each night, where a couch has replaced his small bed. The second-floor living room’s become the master bedroom.

The wide Prairie-style overhanging eaves shelter us completely from the rain on a balcony at the back of the house.

Klutho House 3

photo courtesy Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass

It’s the perfect night to visit Jeff and Carolyn, to visit the Klutho House, to visit Klutho. As Carolyn explains, what an architect does so ostensibly has to do with shape and material and structure and format, sure, but equally important and less obviously, with flow and light and mood.

Klutho House 5

photo courtesy Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass

Which brings us back to the staircase, central to the design. Its exterior windows with Prairie-style “Tree of Life” motifs climb one side of the house and cast the sunlight differently across the first floor depending on time of day and season. The dining room and sitting room and kitchen and hallway flow together downlight from the stairs as apportionments of one great room.

Even the front foyer creates a current other than what you’d expect.

Jeff says, “Most houses in [Victorian] Springfield work like this. You walk up the walk, you’re on the porch, there’s the front door, you come in, the stairs are either there on your left or on your right. There’s the sitting room or living room or parlor, then the dining room, the kitchen. It’s the Victorian house plan.”

But Klutho instantly involves you in his house, wraps you into it.

Klutho House 7

photo courtesy Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass

“You don’t come up on the porch,” Jeff points out. “The porch is private, although it’s visible to the public. That already is a completely different kind of a concept.” Jeff and Carolyn have coffee on the porch in the mornings and bourbon in the evening.

“When you walk in through the front door,” Jeff says, “Klutho immediately turns the hall access” at a right angle to the right, into the house’s interior. “You don’t have the situation with the long hall and the rooms all off the hall. It’s a tiny thing to do but makes a huge difference.”

The flux of our walking through this house is reproduced in motifs of concentric squares on wallpaper and square spirals on interior doorframes.

Klutho House 14

photo courtesy Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass

When Klutho designed his residence in 1908, he built the first Prairie-style house in the South, echoing Frank Lloyd Wright’s emphasis on horizontal lines paralleling the earth in roofs and eaves, window bands or clerestories and brickwork, creating architecture in sync with landscape. A house should be of the earth, not against it.

Jeff knows this American architectural history well, since he’s trained as an architect and once taught Architectural History at the New York Institute of Technology.

The house captivated Jeff when he first saw it. Right away, Jeff noticed the obvious Wright influences, though he was new to Jacksonville and Klutho was so poorly represented in the town he helped build that almost no one outside of it knew his name.

Klutho drawing

Klutho’s own rendering, courtesy Robert Broward

Jeff moved into the house in 2002 after living south of downtown in Avondale. Carolyn joined him in 2011.

First he’d wandered into Springfield, the Victorian neighborhood north of downtown, which took decades to make its way back to a sustainable level of restoration and community after the rest of the city gave it up as ghetto, to take photographs of architectural details in old houses.

Klutho living room

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Often he’d find that abandoned houses were poorly boarded up, and he’d respectfully make his way inside to see and photograph what was left of these wonderful century-old houses.

After Springfield residents were consistently friendly enough to welcome him and show him the houses they were renovating, Jeff decided Springfield seemed like a good place to live.

He enlisted a real estate agent, whom Jeff says “just really didn’t get it. He’d say, ‘Oh let’s look at this house, it has upgraded carpet.’”

As Jeff was walking to a house on nearby Laura Street the agent wanted to show him, he noticed the Klutho house and saw the magnificently climbing staircase windows.

Klutho House 13

photo courtesy Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass

When Jeff asked about the house, the agent said it wasn’t worth seeing, but that it had just been sold anyway.

After Jeff looked at the agent’s listing without interest, he walked on his own back toward the Klutho house.

“I thought,” Jeff says, “if they’ve just sold the house, they’ve been showing it recently and maybe they wouldn’t mind just letting me take a quick look around. I just wanted to see it. I could tell it was a really great house.”

So he knocked on the door. Inside someone was cleaning. When she came to the door, she said the contract on the house had fallen through.

So Jeff asked what they were asking for the house. “And I’m standing right there in the hallway, and she told me, and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”

klutho-residence Borward

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

It’s staggering to hear that his residential self-portrait was carved into a duplex for most of the 20th century, more stunning still to find out Klutho himself carved up his masterpiece. If a house divided can’t stand, Klutho’s lasted long enough for Jacksonville architect Robert Broward, who knew Klutho personally and studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, to oversee the restoration of Klutho’s House in the 1980s.

By then, Klutho had been dead for almost 20 years, after having lived nearly 40 years in the upstairs apartment.

The duplexing of the house sealed off the central staircase and its accompanying window ascension. The windowed staircase unites the house, creating an easy flow between second and first floor, spreading sunlight down throughout the first floor and upward and evenly into the second and across the landing, uniting the external light with the internal composition and current of the house.

It must have broken Klutho’s heart to cut this house in two, but Carolyn says, “He was poor. He was broke.” It was a steep decline.

While Klutho had been seen as the principal architect of a new Jacksonville after the city’s Great Fire of 1901, and while one newspaper editorialist depicted a baby Klutho playing with the city’s new skyscrapers as his building blocks, and while Klutho appropriated the line from the 16th century philosopher Erasmus, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” once he went down, Jacksonville forgot him.

Klutho ad

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

In Jeff’s words, Klutho “ruled this town from 1901 to 1925.”

Klutho bought his way into Jacksonville’s silent film industry in 1917. He invested heavily in his film studios. The studios tanked by 1922, and he converted his film properties into apartments. By 1927, Klutho had moved the house from beside his magnificent Klutho Apartments Building on Main Street, around the corner to West 9th Street.

Klutho house and apartments

Klutho’s residence in its original location on Main Street beside the Klutho Apartments, part of his film complex, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com.

Jeff says, “He actually had to slice off a bit of the overhang in order to squeeze the house onto this lot.”

Conservative Jacksonville elected Mayor John T. Alsop to seven terms across 18 years, from 1923 to 1937 and 1941 to 1945, and Alsop vehemently opposed artistic development in this burgeoning Southern city. Alsop campaigned to expunge the film industry from Jacksonville, and Jacksonville elected and re-elected him.

Jacksonville residents also protested an indistinct neoclassical sculpture called “Nymph Drinking from a Spring,” which Klutho had installed before his porch two or three years after the house’s completion, when he also, far more shockingly now, widened stanchions at the front of the porch.

Klutho Nypmth

courtesy Robert Broward

The South’s political climate turned against him, the film industry turned its back on Northeast Florida, the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression stretched across the 1930s and into the Second World War.

Klutho lamented that the same city that once called him a “man of vision” later condemned him as “a fool.” Then Jacksonville forgot him altogether.

For almost four decades, Klutho rented out the downstairs of the residential masterpiece he had designed as his own. When he blocked off the great inner staircase, he added external stairs that he and his wife climbed to their second-floor apartment.

Klutho House 6

The upstairs room where Klutho slept each night for decades. Photo courtesy Jefree Shalev and Carolyn Brass

One longtime downstairs resident collected model trains. There’s still an oil stain on the floor where the transformer sat.

A decade after Klutho’s death, the next-door neighbor who’d known him personally bought the house when a nearby church sought to demolish it and replace it with a parking lot, the almost-cliché fate of so many architectural masterpieces across the city’s old neighborhoods in the 1960s and ’70s.

But she bought the structure dirt-cheap late in Springfield’s long decline and offered Klutho’s house, for a few years, in the 1970s, to nobody but her cats, while she continued to live next door, and so saved one of Jacksonville’s most wonderful works of art.

Forty years later, the Klutho house is the greatest acquisition in Jeff’s and Carolyn’s superb art collection. No wonder they feel Klutho’s presence in this house. They’re keeping him alive.