Oaklawn Cemetery: Balis Tower

by Tim Gilmore, 2/10/2018

cont’d from San Marco: Swisher (Herbert) / Balis House

Abla Balis outlived her husband Sheffield by 20 years, but the monument she raised in his name will long outlive them both. In 1980, a United Press International photo showed the five story memorial surrounded by construction scaffolding. It cost $250,000. During their long, industrious lives, the Balises had always been frugal. Now Abla moored one enduring extravagance, in the name of her husband, to their adopted homeland.

Standing before the Balis Tower in Oaklawn Cemetery, just south of San Marco, I think about how much longer it will stand than did the Hart Tower. In 1852, Isaiah David Hart, founder of the city, built a 35 foot tower and tomb just north of downtown that soon housed the remains of Hart, his wife, and several of their children. In 1896, grave robbers desecrated it. In 1901, the Great Fire scorched it. In 1902, city leaders had it dismantled and moved the founding family’s remains northward to Evergreen Cemetery.

Old Hart Monument, 1852-1902, Northeast Florida History, The Journal of the Jacksonville Historical Society, 1992

Cemeteries reflect the socioeconomic backgrounds of the people buried there as much as the neighborhoods where those people once lived. People treat the dead with the same value judgments they treat the living. In Oaklawn, the Balis Tower will stand for centuries, maybe millennia.

The tower soars, concrete and indomitable, a silent square minaret of mourning rising into windows of intersecting tracery near the summit. Above the mausoleum’s gateway, pink and white marble bears an inscription from Abla to Sheffield, in English and in Arabic.

Long after Abla’s memory of her husband and our memory of Abla disappear into the earth, the memory of her memory will last.