San Marco: Swisher (Herbert) / Balis House

by Tim Gilmore, 2/10/2018

Trick-or-treaters always want to go up in the turret, front and center of the house. When the Patakys’ son Andrew was a teenager, he’d hide in the turret and run down the spiraling clay-tiled steps to scare kids in their Frankenstein and Cat-in-the-Hat costumes.

Though the turret calls attention, it’s not melodramatic. The house is big, but still personable. The man for whom the house was built, Herbert Swisher, was born into wealth, but is remembered mostly for winning bridge tournaments and giving money to Florida State University, his alma mater. It was the Balises, the second owners of the house, who brought to it a dynamic story.

John H. Swisher of Swisher and Son, the mammoth cigar company, maker of King Edwards, had built the two houses across the street, one for himself and one for his son Carl, in 1930. In 1936, when John saw a house he liked in Miami Beach, he brought the architect, Arnold Southwell, to Jacksonville to build the same design for his grandson.

“John doted on Herbert,” says Robin Robinson, author of Southbank Sojourn: A Photographic Guide through the Early Days of San Marco and South Jacksonville. “John and Carl made enough money that John left all his money to his grandchildren. Herbert was the product of that skipped generation’s trust. He was a trust fund baby.”

The three Swisher houses dominate their section of River Road where the 19th century Villa Alexandria once stood, but Herbert’s house stands across River Road from the other two, half the size of each, with Lillian Davin Park, the villa’s former carriage road, in the median between. John’s and Carl’s houses ramble along the river behind tall walls, while Herbert’s stands open facing the corner of River Road and Arbor Lane and looking out on both, its turret in line with the street corner.

When Jon and Debra Pataky bought the house in 2005, they reinforced the circuit between River Road and Miami Beach. Debra grew up in Miami and shortly after moving into the old Swisher house, she and Jon drove up and down Miami Beach’s North Bay Road and found the original.

“It was astonishing how similar the house was,” Debra says. “It was like looking at the double of our Jacksonville house, but back in the place where I grew up.”

Herbert Swisher moved into the house when he was 20; it’s his grandfather’s name on the building permit. He worked, nominally anyway, for his grandfather’s company much of his life, though after nine years in this house, he moved to Havana for 20 years, presiding over a tobacco and cattle farm. When he retired in 1965, only 49 years old, he called both Jacksonville and Tallahassee home, but appeared most often in newspapers when traveling the world and playing bridge.

Herbert appears in dozens of old newspaper articles from the 1950s through the ’70s with ledes like, “Eleven tables played in a mixed-pairs club championship at Duplicate Bridge Club Saturday in two sessions.” His May 6, 1990 obituary says, “[H]e received the title of Life Master at duplicate bridge.”

Other stories have him going here and there on the arm of his wife, to Paris, to San Francisco, to Hawaii, to Mexico City, to Sweden and Denmark, to the Capitol City Country Club in Tallahassee, “Mrs. Herbert Swisher” wearing “a black velvet cocktail suit buttoned with rounds of rhinestones and bloused in white silk peau de soie with a cowl neckline.” When they saw the French singer Patachou at the Eiffel Tower with friends, they “kept drinking toasts to four Americans in Paris.”

Robin Robinson “socialized with” the Swishers in their later years when her husband Jay became Herbert’s financial planner. Robin says Herbert “didn’t have a specified career,” and that everywhere he went, he kept an unlit Swisher cigar in his mouth.

When Herbert left the house his grandfather built him and moved to Havana, Sheffield and Abla Balis bought it. Abla lived here for the next half century, outliving Sheffield by 20 years. While Herbert Swisher, nicely and genteelly enough, just kind of walked around in his life, from Geneva to Havana to Luxembourg, wearing a stodgy bow tie and musty mutton chop sideburns, an unlit King Edward in his mouth, the Balises had come to Jacksonville from the bloodshed of the Franco-Syrian War in 1920.

The repercussions of European colonialism and the Ottoman Empire’s falling to pieces with the end of World War I included countless fights between European holdovers who’d drawn the lines of nation-states across Middle Eastern cities and tribal lands and the people who’d called those lands home for millennia, fights that have never really ended.

And in 1920, a tenth of Jacksonville’s “foreign-born white population” was Syrian, while Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Jordanians and Palestinians comprised the city’s “original Arabic community,” according to Katherine Cohen’s 1986 thesis, “Immigrant Jacksonville: A Profile of Immigrant Groups in Jacksonville, Florida, 1890-1920.”

In 1940, five years before the Balises moved to 2209 River Road, census takers recorded S.H. and Abla Balis living at 2363 Acosta Street in Riverside. Census records list his birthplace as “Lebanon,” hers as “Damascus.”

The Balises must have felt about the third Swisher house just as the Patakys do. With its human-sized dimensions, unlike the cavernous craw of large parts of the John and Carl Swisher houses across the street, and its two-foot thick walls, Jon Pataky describes the house as “both home and a fortress.”

Behind the turret, the spacious floor-tiled foyer opens into the dining room along Arbor Lane and the living room along River Road. In the living room, two great windows face each other to merge their light. The windows stand between the fireplace, on one side, and the recessed stairs that spiral upward in indoor mimicry of the turret steps outside. The gabled ceiling angles 20 feet over the particolored ceramic floor tiles.

But it’s the house’s walls Jon says are his favorite feature. During recent Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, the Patakys felt entirely secure as 75 mile-per-hour winds battered the house. He describes the stucco walls as “blocked and then filled in with bricks.”

Of course Abla and Sheffield Balis never left. They’d uprooted their lives from an ancestral homeland where an empire had fallen in the largest and bloodiest war history had yet known and where colonial powers far on the other side of that fallen empire divided up their home. They’d made their new home together in a house with walls no storm could shake.

Abla Balis died in 1996, her husband in ’76, 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 rising in Oaklawn Cemetery, 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.

cont’d as Oaklawn Cemetery: Balis Tower