by Tim Gilmore, 6/28/2021
1. Fairyland Concentric
“Royal Hues, Shapes and Forms of Arabian Abstractions Give House Romantic Look,” said the subheading in the “Homes and Gardens” section of The Florida Times-Union on December 29, 1962. Features writer Nancy Campbell described the house as “built around an enclosed swimming pool in the shape of a grand piano,” while enclosing the house stood “a roof-high white cement wall that took three months of hard labor to make into its peanut-shaped design, inset with blue ceramic tile.” Photo captions referred to the house, as the “‘Arabian Nights’ Home.”
White iron gates opened to a bridge of gravel that crossed the moat planted with “palms, bull rushes and flowers of the Near East.” Those incredible front doors, made from “three dimensional turquoise plastic and gold ceramic tile,” Campbell attributes to “a battery of Miami artists,” whom she, frustratingly, doesn’t name. She doesn’t name the architect either. Similar frosted plastic panels bejeweled with turquoise and gold formed a whole wall of the master bedroom.
Campbell describes the sunken living room, divided from the formal dining room by a gold balustrade echoing the “peanut theme,” as she calls it, and white carpeted stairs. She finds “the influence of the Near East” in the “19 rows of colored ceramic beads strung on iron poles between the hallway and the sunken living room.” In case the house isn’t enough of an Orientalist pastiche, “a black marble living room fireplace set off by a Chinese paper of gold and orange that resembles blocks of tile” juxtaposes the white carpet.
If the house is built in concentrics—house around pool, wall around house—it’s also built, like a crystal, out from this facet: a mural illustrating The Shahnemah, sometimes called The Book of Kings, an epic poem of 50,000 couplets written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi around the year 1,000. “The house’s exterior,” Fran Wilensky told Campbell, “was designed to look like the castle in that mural.” I don’t see a castle, but perhaps she meant the concrete wall, the brise soleil, around the Wilensky house was intended to look like the walls in the mural.
The 10 year old future judge named Daniel occupied a bedroom “designed as a captain’s quarters aboard ship,” with built-in bunks and paneled walls. The master bedroom, “furnished in gold and white, against the background of white, silk-flocked paper,” was lit by “chandeliers of hand-strung crystal beads.” Daniel’s older brother William’s bedroom gets no description.
The piano-shaped pool, 35 feet by 35, “as large as some houses,” Campbell says, “doubles as a hot house for orchids and a variety of tropical plants.”
The feature ends strangely by calling the fact “small wonder” that since the Wilenskys live in this pastiche of Orientalism, they’ve lost interest in traveling “to interesting places around the globe and would just as soon stay home.” That turquoise and gold panel of frosted plastic jewel shapes in the master bedroom also shone from the other side of that wall by the swimming pool. Ms. Wilensky said the panel was especially gorgeous “at night, when the lights installed outside the panels are on,” transforming the bedroom into “fairyland.”
2. Fort Wilensky
“The house was built in 1960,” says Judge Daniel Wilensky, then backs up. “Well, it was started in ’60. My parents bought it in ’61 and even after we were in it, it took another year to finish it.
So this strange house’s origins still wear a shroud of mystery. Why did the original owners choose such a strange design? What made the Wilenskys decide it was for them? Why did the original owners leave it behind? And who’s the architect? Whose design is it?
Wilensky says the Meyers family commissioned the house, Bert and “one of Bennie Setzers’ daughters.” The couple had two children, a boy and a girl. Benjamin Setzer, a Lithuanian immigrant, founded the Setzer’s Supermarket chain, which he later sold to Food Fair Stores, then started Pic ’N Save Drugs. Why the Meyers family backed out mid-construction is, all these years later, unclear.
The judge has lived in this midcentury mystery house, with the exception of his time as a law clerk at the Florida Supreme Court and a brief interval in Mandarin, for 60 years. He moved in when he was nine years old. His father died two years later. Now that he’s moved out to build a new house next to his daughter in Mandarin, he’s ready for the house to leave the family for the first time since 1961.
Wilensky says the house is “built like a fort.” In fact, the family has often called it “Fort Wilensky.” He describes its construction material as “heavy plaster on concrete block with steel I-beams throughout the house.” The whole house has Terrazzo flooring.
As if that wasn’t enough, the “decorative concrete wall,” the brise soleil, comprising breeze blocks, cast concrete with steel rebar and hand-inlaid Mexican tile, surrounds most of the house. In old photos, you can see how it hovers off the ground, achieving an illusion of defying gravity, though the palms and plants grown in front of it today hide the gap. The wall is composed of multiple interlocking panels, each of which weighs 780 pounds.
One difference you spot by looking at 1962 photographs and visiting the house now is that it’s missing the iron front gate that enclosed the courtyard before the front doors. Wilensky says a tree uprooted by a tornado crushed the gate.
A difference you wouldn’t spot is the missing moat. Wilensky says it was six feet wide and made of white tile. At first he tells me the moat was filled with alligators, “but little alligators.” When I express surprise and note how “little alligators become big alligators,” he says, “Actually they were caimans. My cousins brought them from South America.” When Wilensky was a little boy, he played with them and fed them. The family also had lots of dogs and two pot-bellied pigs as pets.
Because the house was built like Fort Knox, or “like a Setzer’s warehouse,” neighbors often came over during storms. When Hurricane Dora hit Jacksonville in 1964, half the neighborhood filled the Wilensky house. “This house” the judge says repeatedly, “would withstand a missile attack!”
It wasn’t unusual at all, when Wilensky was a child, for neighbors to come over and demand a demonstration from the family’s Tappan Co. “electronic oven.” Nobody else had ever seen one. We take them for granted and called them “microwaves.” The family kept kosher hot dogs frozen for when neighbors would stop by to see a Frankfurter cooked in 45 seconds. They just couldn’t believe it.
In Wilensky’s earliest memories, nobody lived between his family and the St. Johns River. The houses that later rose on the curve from Smullian Trail North to Smullian South made the end of the street something of a cul-de-sac. But Wilensky once loved roaming the woods over the river, picking oranges from ancient trees with thick trunks that had survived and rewilded from a citrus grove long ago.
He cherishes memories of the pool, back then topped with a balcony and glass, in the open center of the house, filled with neighborhood kids “playing ‘King of the Mountain’ in the water, or beside it, two week long Monopoly games.”
And the judge remembers the developer, Herb Smullian, who owned Smullian Building Supplies up on Evergreen Avenue and is credited with helping fuel the city’s post-World War II suburban explosion. Herbert and Rochelle Smullian made a portmanteau of their first names to call this subdivision, with its single circular drive, HerbRoc Fountains.
Wilensky remembers there once were rock gardens and fountains in the median. The San Jose area, south of San Marco, consists of several one-block subdivisions, and the Smullians weren’t the only husband and wife to splice together their names to name their development. Decades earlier, Thomas and Ella Canipa Keller had spliced their names for a single-block subdivision they called “Kelnepa.”
Smullian paid a young Dan Wilensky to climb atop the gates to Smullian Trail North and South at busy San Jose Boulevard and change the light bulbs when they burned out. Wilensky laughs about it. “I climbed up on those pillars and risked my life for Herb Smullian for 50 cents.” When the Smullians went out of town, Dan watched and fed Professor, whom Herb swore was the world’s smartest hound. Then the Smullians divorced and “Roc” remained, while “Herb” moved away.
Wilensky moved away from home for college and to clerk at the state Supreme Court. Like many children from his generation, he dealt with the death of his father at a young age, his mother lasting longer. But not by much. He was 11 when his dad died, 25 when his mother followed. Then he returned, married and raised his own children in the same house where he grew up. He’s seen Fort Wilensky from all angles.
But back in 1979, he and his Golden Retriever found a six-acre site on the river in Mandarin. He bought it and hung onto that land for decades. Then his daughter built on an acre, talked him into not selling the rest, convinced him to build on two. The judge says he’ll miss the house he’s known all his life, but he’s facing the sunset on the St. Johns as next chapter.
3. Mid-Century Modern Mystery
Mesmerized by black and white photos from 60 years ago, I walk this mystery “Mid-Century Modern” and note both its faded-glory gothic and the potential for restoring its splendor.
The front gate is gone. The front concrete wall hovers, but its defiance of gravity, its first-impression magic trick, is covered by sago palms, grasses and shrubs. The moat is buried, but still down there.
Over the panels of glass that front the house, concrete barrel vaults, similar to the ones on architect Ted Pappas’s St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church, point forward. Behind the brise soleil that blocks the heat, the expanse of glass brings in tempered light from the front courtyard and across the sunken living room, which also receives sunlight from the swimming pool enclosed behind it.
The old china cabinet in the dining room, up three steps from the living room, has yellowed with the years. The dining room table is gone. The judge has moved it to his newly built house out in Mandarin. The base of that table, and Wilensky’s not sure how his father got it, is a Corinthian capital from the demolished Duval County Courthouse, built shortly after the Great Fire of 1901. Atop those stone acanthus leaves lies a surface of Brazilian marble. Probably it’s the last architectural artifact remaining from the old courthouse.
The pseudo-Persian mural on the dining room wall offsets the descent to the living room and the beaded rods that form the room’s front wall. The mural has faded. No one can explain its relevance to The Shahnemah, the thousand year old poem, and some of the scenes remind me of Disney’s Aladdin.
Not only is the carpet in the sunken living room gone, not only is the black fireplace now “non-functional,” but throughout the house, over the years, various laminate floorings have covered the original Terrazzo.
In that front corridor by the bead wall, the original lighted ceiling panels of arabesque designs are also gone. In the pool area, the interior brick and tile are painted white. The bright jewel panels that Dan Wilensky’s mother described 60 years ago as turning the master bedroom into “fairyland” have been replaced with a plain white wall. Today, the pool area swelters beneath an old Fiberglass ceiling. The spiral staircase stands crooked above the pool.
And still there’s the mystery of who designed this strange and wondrous house. Wilensky says, “I don’t remember the architect. I did many years ago.” City archives have no blueprints or drawings, because in 1960, the house stood outside city limits.
Despite the barrel vaults, it’s not a Ted Pappas design. It was built eight years before he started his firm. When I ask him on Tuesday if he knows who designed the house, he says, “I’m not sure. It’s not Broward.” Other Mid-Century Modern Jax architects? It’s not George Fisher, Brooks Haas, Taylor Hardwick. And none of them are still around to ask.
Ted thinks about it over the next several days. Hardwick used breeze block brise soleils. If only this house used concrete folded plate, one of Hardwick’s favorite features. Saturday morning, Ted says he’s changed his mind. “I think it’s a Broward,” he says. “It’s the barrel vaults that threw me off. I don’t know of Bob using barrel vaults. But when I look at everything else, I think it’s a Broward.”
Unless the plans turn up somewhere, we may never know for sure. The romance of the “Arabian Nights House,” as Nancy Campbell called it, hangs on to its MCM mystery, its secrets, while it waits for new life, new laughter, new inhabitants.