by Tim Gilmore, 1/6/2023
See also: “San Marco: Swisher House (John H.) / Villa Alexandria” and
Lori Boyer has called this house home for 35 years. Here, she’s mourned a husband and married another, raised and blended families. Along the way, she’s added about 3,500 square feet to the original 5,500 square foot house. Now she and her husband, retired Circuit Judge Tyrie Boyer, are selling the house for $5.75 million, though they’re not going far.
“We used to fill this house up,” Boyer says, “when the kids were growing up, when we threw holiday parties. Now the kids are grown and it’s an awfully big house just for the two of us. It’s time for another family to fill it up again.”
It’s an authoritative house, its red clay roof tiles, long white stucco wings spanning out from the central two stories. It looks out behind long white walls along River Road, with a “commanding” view of the river. Of San Marco’s three Swisher mansions, you might assume this one the patriarch’s, when in fact, John Swisher built this Mediterranean Revival style house at 2234 River Road for his son Carl and the complementary house next door at 2252 for himself. The house built across the street for Herbert, the grandson, came a few years later.
When Jno H. Swisher and Son, which became Swisher International in 1992, moved to Jacksonville in 1924, manufacturing its King Edward cigars, soon to become the most popular cigars in the world, John sought out the site of the grand old Villa Alexandria in the new “Mediterranean”-style development of San Marco.
John and his brother Harry had inherited the company from their father who’d started it in 1861. John bought Harry out in 1913 and Swisher Brothers became Swisher and Son. Swisher chose architects Marsh and Saxelbye, who also built Jacksonville’s grandest Mediterranean style structures, Epping Forest and the San Jose Hotel, now Bolles Hall, in the late ’20s.
Both houses rose in 1930, after the Florida Land Boom ended and just into the Great Depression. A 1933 book called Florida, A Land of Homes, on display in the original high-beamed living room, shows the exterior of Carl Swisher’s house its first years. Carl lived here throughout the Depression, then left this house for the one his father built for himself when the old man died in 1944.
Lori and Ron Nemeyer, a real estate developer from Connecticut, had lived in Avondale and eyed this house for most of a year before Lori decided to commit to it in 1987. Though she wanted to make a house her own, Carl Swisher’s old house offered details that weren’t up for negotiation. She points to original mosaic tiles facing out from the sinuous front stucco staircase with its wrought iron banister. “Whoever lives in this house has to appreciate its history,” she says.
The massive exposed beams, large fireplace and arched windows of the living room make that case. The loggia behind it, however, with its fountain, original coquina floor and arches with iron gates framing the river, was added by the Nemeyers to replace a sun room.
Short in stature, Lori Boyer can seem as forceful as the lion statues in San Marco Square. She donated the funds, in honor of Ron Nemeyer, who died of leukemia in 1993, for one of the three bronze lions, designed by Alan Wilson and Angela Schifanella and sculpted by Hugh Nicholson, at the centerpiece fountain in 1998.
Typically, when politicos write about Lori Boyer, they use phrases like “fiercely smart” and “scary smart,” and say she has “an eye for detail” and a “probing curiosity.” Less flatteringly, they might say she “micromanages.” She’s conservative, but more in the blue-blooded Republican sense than today’s typical Florida “culture warrior.” Indeed, as Jacksonville City Council president, she helped pass the city’s long-delayed Human Rights Ordinance, giving anti-discrimination protection to its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender residents.
In 1976, Lori Tofflemire married Edward Moorhouse in her home state of South Dakota, where she’d been crowned “Miss Young Democrat” at a banquet in 1970 and became a state champion in high school forensics in ’72. The couple came to Jacksonville in 1978 after both graduated from Georgetown University and University of Florida Law School, then divorced in 1985.
When Ron Nemeyer died in ’93, Lori was left to raise their children R.J. and Quinn and run her late husband’s real estate investment and management companies, which owned property from Florida to Massachusetts. In 1997, she married Tyrie Boyer, judge and son of a judge, who had two daughters.
Tyrie thinks of the family room, on the other side of the kitchen, as also the library, with its first editions of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and books about African big game hunting. The subject serves fittingly for a transition to the next room.
The game room mirrors the living room on the other side of the foyer, but it’s an addition. Its massive heart pine beams once fortified the ceiling of an historic warehouse, now demolished, on industrial Talleyrand Avenue. With the house for sale, half the purpose of the game room has moved into storage.
For this was the room where the family played games and where Tyrie displayed his big game hunting trophies. The pool table remains, but the niches on either side of the fireplace, each painted with rocky landscapes, no longer feature the mountain sheep the Boyers stuffed as trophies. Gone from throughout the house are the leopard and zebra skins, elephant hides, antelope and warthog heads that until recently decorated the house’s interior.
The Boyers can’t help but point to what I would see were the home not up for sale. Making our way beneath tiled barrel-vaulted ceilings and past dumb-waiters and wall sconces that once hung in Epping Forest, before the mansion was converted into a yacht club, Tyrie stops me by a bookcase and says, rather surreptitiously, “I want to show you something.”
He moves the glass louver back from a lower shelf and grabs an old copy of Scottish Sporting Gazette Magazine, then flips quickly to a page featuring a photo of himself and Lori posing with a big-horned sheep they’ve killed.
Judge Tyrie Boyer, Jr. learned African game hunting from his father, Judge Tyrie Boyer, Sr., whose online 2013 obituary pages showed photos of the older judge posing with his rifle and the African lion he’d just killed in 1996 and the African elephant he’d killed in 1992. These photos are hard to look at. Dead faces of wondrous creatures lie lifeless on the earth, while a comparatively puny biped with a big gun stands smiling blithely to the side.
We move into the courtyard that leads to the greenhouse, the bright tiles of the fountain, central blues and surrounding yellows and greens, repurposed from an upstairs bathroom the Boyers dismantled. In the herb garden grows an olive tree, rosemary, sage and thyme. An iron plate above the door of the greenhouse says, “Built by Lord and Burnham Co., Irvington, N.Y.C.” Original mechanical wheels and pulleys open and close glass roof panels and windows from inside.
Tyrie says that somewhere between Lori’s tenure as City Council president and CEO of the Downtown Investment Authority, she used to grow a glorious rose garden nearby.
If the greenhouse doesn’t sell the Carl Swisher mansion to its next buyer, the sight of the sunset over the river, behind the stately old oak and original swimming pool, as seen from the master bedroom, might do it. Besides sunsets, Lori has loved “watching the storms come out of the West. You can watch them coming. Then you see the rain move across the water and finally the moss blowing in the oak limbs.”
The Boyers will miss the house, but they’re not planning to go far. They own the smaller lot immediately to the north, where they say Villa Alexandria once stood, and where they plan to build a smaller home. All three Swisher houses stand on the former Villa Alexandria estate.
The socialite Martha Mitchell named her 140-acre estate for her husband Alexander in the 1870s. While Alexander Mitchell, a railroad magnate and banker, stayed in Milwaukee, Martha filled the house with European art, hired 50 servants, and had 95 varieties of roses planted. Her garden parties became famous, including an 1876 gathering that brought 500 guests across the river aboard two steamships.
While the house can seem magisterial, and big personalities have called this place home, Lori Boyer seems humbled by having had the chance to live and raise a family here. “You’re a period in the history of the house,” she says, “but that’s all you are. It’s your home, but it’s not your house.”