San Marco: San Marco Building / Towne Pump

by Tim Gilmore, 1/29/2017

“He won the bet, but really he lost it,” says Billee Bussard.

Her husband, Dick Bussard, was city editor for The Jacksonville Journal in the days when Jacksonville supported two major newspapers, albeit both owned by the same publisher, when newspapers published morning and evening editions and had real power to challenge City Hall and expose corruption in local and state politics.

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courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Dick won a bet over a city election, whose or for what office Billee can’t recall, and the loser paid for as much of his favorite drink as he could handle. After Dick downed 27 shots of Wild Turkey, The Towne Pump hung a plaque on the wall in his honor.

For half a century, The Towne Pump was a significant civic institution. City officials hit the tavern regularly, many of them nightly, and Jacksonville Journal City Desk employees, who began their workday long before sunup, hit the Pump after work at one or two in the afternoon.

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The bar was long and narrow, ill lit, and cigarette and cigar smoke eddied in soft clouds. Reporters told stories of long dead reporters who’d told stories on the same bar stools, where the spirits of spirits and wine had for so long imprinted their shadows.

Alliances formed and occasionally altercations broke out. Most city politicos were conservative Democrats, remaindered Dixiecrats, while many newspapermen saw their most important role as questioning and challenging the establishment.

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courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

The San Marco Building, the first commercial structure in what would later be called San Marco Square, first housed a pharmacy called Towne Pump Drugs and Sundries in 1928. The Mediterranean Revival style building centered on a three story tower, with parapets, a red tiled roof, and a sidewalk arcade. The arches, for outdoor seating, were removed by the late 1930s, but replaced in the early 1980s. The ornate design was the favorite style of the 1920s Florida real estate boom that built the surrounding neighborhood of San Marco.

Whatever those sundries might first have included, the pharmacy became a tavern and liquor store when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. In 1937, The Jacksonville Journal referred to the San Marco commercial district as “the Towne Pump Sector,” which included Economy Dry Cleaners, Sam’s Liquor Package House, and Landon 5 Cent to a Dollar Store.

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courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Though the phony Ye Olden English ‘e’ fell off the end of the “town” in some unknown year, owner Paul Ortis said the tavern was still called The Towne Pump when it closed in November 1983: “The signmaker messed it up, I guess.”

Most of the stories from The Towne Pump’s days as a watering hole for politicians and journalists are as long gone as the immeasurable volumes of bourbon and scotch its regulars imbibed.

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Several widows of journalists and editors told me their husbands frequented The Towne Pump, though they themselves rarely if ever set foot inside. Sarah Wood Hunt, whose husband Zeke Wood was the Journal’s editor, said she’d heard plenty of secondhand stories but had forgotten them all.

Dick Bussard was a divorced city editor in his 30s when he met 18 year old City Desk clerk and cub reporter Billee, who says the time her husband spent at The Towne Pump “tested” their marriage.

When Zeke Wood died in 1999, Florida Times-Union columnist and Zeke’s longtime friend Charlie Patton described him as “a big, handsome guy built like Robert Mitchum, with broad shoulders and a massive chest.”

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Humphrey Bogart reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep in the movie trailer for The Big Sleep

Charlie remembered the Jacksonville Journal staff, when he’d first joined them in 1977, as “characters out of a Raymond Chandler novel, hard-drinking, hard-boiled, profoundly cynical, their hides grown thick to protect their souls from the brutality and corruption it was their job to chronicle.”

Richard Bowers, who worked for Mayors Jake Godbold and Tommy Hazouri in the 1980s, first began working in city government in the early 1970s, around the time he had his first drink at The Towne Pump.

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At the long smoky bar, Dick met up often with Jack Newsom, “Mayor of The Towne Pump” and press aide for Mayor Hans Tanzler.

Dick remembers Newsom as “one of the real characters back then,” a raconteur who knew everybody, a walking archive of stories from his decades of life in politics. Standing 6’6”, Newsom always wore a black suit, with a white shirt and black tie, saying he was ready at any moment for either a funeral or a cocktail party.

When Newsom was arrested for Driving While Intoxicated after speeding away from The Towne Pump three sheets to the wind early one October afternoon in 1977, Tanzler sent him away for treatment and held a press conference saying he’d ordered his staff to stop drinking on their lunch hours.

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“It’s going to be hard on some of you,” he said, “but it’s not going to be as hard as finding another job.” Tanzler recalled the days when most white-collar men drank cocktails and highballs at lunch, but told his staff, “I don’t do it, I haven’t done it in years, and you’re not going to do it.” Times were changing. As had they always.

Whereas Newsom had been the Mayor of The Towne Pump, a July 1984 Jacksonville Monthly article refers to John Curington as “the Prince of San Marco.” The Towne Pump Sector was now San Marco Square, which City Councilman Gifford Grange lauded as “Main Street USA” and San Marco Preservation Society President James Rink merrily called “Sesame Street.”

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1983 had been a brutal year, apocalyptic. The serried ranks of the ghosts of stories once told loudly over so much laughter and ire and political prognostication stood hushed in the gutted shadows. Closing time. 1983 was the end of The Jacksonville Journal and The Towne Pump.

The Journal merged with the larger Florida Times-Union, which published the Journal under its own aegis until 1988, nominally the Journal’s centennial. The Towne Pump had always been the Journal’s base. Times-Union reporters tended to hang out at the Riverside Lounge in Five Points.

John Curington had bought the San Marco Theatre and The Towne Pump Building and led the effort to revitalize San Marco Square. In January 1983, Curington refused to renew the lease for the local chapter of the League of Women Voters on the second floor of the San Marco Building, and in November, he evicted The Towne Pump itself.

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Owner Paul Ortis told reporter Jessie-Lynne Kerr, “My customers feel terrible about the closing. I can just picture them walking out front wondering where to go.”

He’d hung a sign in the front window that announced, “After 50 Years, Closing Forever.”

Other restaurants and bars moved into the San Marco Building, with its S/M escutcheon near the top of its central tower. Several gin-and-tonics found me 15 years back listening to a local jazz band in Café on the Square. When I came back to hear them another night, I found instead a Grateful Dead cover band called the Glass Camels. Then came Square One and the Thai lounge called Indochine.

On a recent gray and rainy Saturday morning, I walked up to Indochine to meet a friend for lunch. Not realizing the restaurant didn’t serve lunch on Saturdays and Sundays, I found instead several agitated men faded in fedoras and suits. They too had been unaware the place was closed.

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Then the proprietor caught my eye. He leant a shoulder against the restaurant, hands in his pockets, a sad smirk smudged into his face. He stood there picturing us walking out front and wondering where to go, and I was surprised to notice I needed a drink so early in the day.

Nobody calls the San Marco Building the Towne Pump Building anymore. No one refers to San Marco Square as the Towne Pump Sector.

Times change, but sometimes one bleeds through to another. Or they always do, and sometimes we notice.

The proprietor stood straight, reached out to me, and shook my hand. It was a strong manly handshake. He looked me in the eye and said, and I recognized his words as the front page headline on the very last issue of The Jacksonville Journal, “So long, Jacksonville. It’s been good to serve you.”