San Marco: Swisher House (John H.) / Villa Alexandria

by Tim Gilmore, 1/13/2018

The formal dining room steps down to the living room and the tall wide windows facing the river fill the center of the house with light. It should not feel lonely.

The coffered oak ceilings hover powerfully over the dining table and floor tile. The ceiling beams cross the fireplace. It’s the stateliest part of the John Swisher House. The rooms are reserved. The living room does not live.

The Mediterranean Revival architecture reminds Christina of San Diego, where she and her husband, Frank Gatlin, lived for years, and she’s never lived in a friendlier neighborhood. When the Gatlins came north to Jacksonville from Fort Lauderdale in 2015, so did Gatlin Development, a shopping center development company with a heavy focus on Wal-Mart properties.

“We don’t really live in this part of the house,” Christina says. These rooms are mostly for “entertaining,” and, she laughs, “The kids do not come in here.”

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Though the house is more than 9,000 square feet, it’s much smaller than the Gatlins’ San Diego house, which was closer to 20,000.

But all big houses harbor the loneliness of unpeopled space. It’s why ghost stories are so rarely set in small structures. Some rooms prefer their own company.

“It always felt vacuous to me,” says Heather Cavanagh. Though the house was built for John Swisher, his son Carl moved into it after the patriarch’s death in 1944. Heather’s grandmother, Amy Cavanagh Swisher Wilcox, was Carl Swisher’s last wife and widow. “Compared to some of the houses people build today,” Heather says, “I don’t even know if it was that big.”

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 old Villa Alexendria in the new Mediterranean-style development of San Marco for his and his son’s houses.

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. John’s house is 2252 River Road, and Carl’s stands next door at 2234. Both houses went up in 1929 as the American economy collapsed.

Most of Heather’s memories come from before she was 10 years old, when she found the house disorienting.

“I remember getting in the elevator in the house. The door would close. Then it would open and a different room would be there. And I was very small. I didn’t understand the elevator went up and down. I thought that somehow it swapped the rooms around.”

Heather remembers a menacing life-sized painting near the top of the old stairs that depicted a strange man playing cards. She thought he was the Devil.

“We don’t use the old stairs,” Christina Gatlin says. “We use the newer back stairs, by the family room and the bedrooms.”

The original stairs contour upward with a graceful balustrade, inset mosaic tiles, and arched leaded glass windows rising in concord.

Heather’s father John Cavanagh, whose mother Amy married Carl Swisher in 1957, remembers the Swisher parties on Christmas day. Carl played the piano beside the stairs and sang Christmas songs while guests gathered around him and joined in. John stayed in the house for three Christmases and three summers, his mother having married Carl in John’s first year of college.

So he too partook of the Christmas Tom & Jerry cocktails—cognac, rum, hot milk, boiling water and “Tom & Jerry batter” (eggs, butter, confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice).

Looking out, from where the piano once stood, to the winding marble steps that descend the back yard to the swimming pool, the pond, and the dock that stretches into the St. Johns River, Christina says, “Villa Alexandria sat right here, right where John Swisher built his house. If you look toward the river, you can see the same cypress and the same oak tree from an old photograph from the 1800s.”

from Debra Webb Rogers’s Images of America: San Marco

“Mrs. Mitchell visits,” Christina says.

In 1867, Martha Mitchell came from Milwaukee to Jacksonville with her husband Alexander Mitchell, a Scottish-born railroad magnate and banker, and by 1872 moved into her new winter residence on 140 acres. She called it Villa Alexandria. Her husband stayed in Milwaukee, where he was buried in 1887, but Martha filled the house with European art, hired 50 servants, and had 95 varieties of roses planted.

Villa Alexandria, 1870s, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Garden parties at Villa Alexandria raised funds for All Saints Episcopal Church and St. Lukes Hospital, including an 1876 gathering that brought 500 guests across the river aboard two steamships.

“She died in the house,” Christina says beneath the coffered ceiling, “and it stood here abandoned for another 20 years. It became a shambles.”

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Storms blew out windows. Branches punctured the roofline. Mice and owls brought the outside in. Elegant sofas and portieres stuck soft with rain and humidity and rot. Saplings rose from eaves and porches. Swifts circled in wide bands that tightened and descended the chimney. Roses went wild, reverted to old rootstock. Citrus trees froze and shattered.

Said The Jacksonville Journal, April 22nd, 1930, “For many years it has been known as ‘Villa Alexandria’ and is the site of one of the earliest estates to be established on the river.” With the boathouse moved across the river to Brooklyn, and the grand old house and estate demolished, the land lay “covered with a dense growth of many varieties of trees, palms and shrubs” and awaited new construction. It came.

from The Jacksonville Journal

The Telfair Stockton Company planned to develop Villa Alexandria, starting with the Swisher houses, and “practically double the size of San Marco.”

“I don’t think Mrs. Mitchell liked that they tore her house down,” Christina says. Sometimes she hears her walking in the house when no one else is home. She’s left the kitchen with the chairs pulled up to the table and returned a few minutes later to find the chairs all pulled away. “It’s never been anything I’ve been afraid of, but she makes her presence felt.”

In the back yard, a small pond bordered by ginger and asparagus ferns connects to a creek alongside the house. The creeks runs beneath River Road and burbles up through the coquina fountain built in 1930 over the artesian well from which horses drank when Martha Mitchell lived here.

The long narrow Swisher Place, or Lillian Davin Park, proceeds 500 x 50 feet down the center of River Road, from the old well at Elder Lane to Arbor Lane, through two lines of live oaks. “Down the center of this park,” said The Jacksonville Journal in 1930, “is a double row of large camphor trees, which were originally planted on each side of an old carriage lane on the Villa Alexandria estate.”

The camphors lasted more than a century, but hard freezes snuffed them out in the early 1980s. In 1985, the live oaks replaced the inherited camphors, and Swisher Place was renamed Lillian Davin Park, after the wife of Joseph Davin, one of Stockton’s primary associates, who died the same year.

The Swishers built their grand estate at the start of the Great Depression. The cigar company hired hundreds of workers at its factory on East 16th Street as national unemployment skyrocketed. The Swishers threw enormous parties they called “Spanish fiestas,” for which barges with live music floated down the St. Johns to the Swisher estate. At the plant, Roy Hill remembered to The Jacksonville Journal in 1977 when he’d been with the company for 44 years, a single worker hand rolled 600 to 700 cigars a day. By 1939, about 3,000 workers, mostly women, worked across three shifts at the plant, and an “industrial nursery for children” was installed on the second floor.

When John Cavanagh was in college, Carl Swisher got him jobs at the plant each summer—rolling cigars, section foreman, personnel, sales, public relations.

“It was a wonderful experience. He was always so good to me,” John says. John’s father Stuart, a lawyer and amateur actor for Theater Jacksonville at San Marco’s Little Theater, died when John was 14. John’s parents had divorced when he was eight. Carl took him fishing and hunting.

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

For a while John shared a bedroom and was close friends with Carl’s son Johnnie. John Swisher had built Carl’s older son Herbert the third Mediterranean-style Swisher house across River Road at 2209 in 1936. Johnnie Swisher moved to Miami and drank himself to death.

Everywhere Carl Swisher went, he carried jokes torn from Reader’s Digest in his pocket, always ready to stop someone and read them the jokes he found funniest. Q. Where does a ghost go on vacation? A. Mali-boo.

Heather Cavanagh remembers Carl Swisher in the last days of his life, early 1970s, sitting in his red leatherette chair and watching Walter Cronkite in his TV room over the garage. She found the greenhouse, which stood where the brick home at 2300 next door would be built in 1989, overwhelming and “jungle-like.” Her favorite memory of the estate is ignoring the Easter egg hunts and rolling down the hill behind the house.

Heather’s father John remembers the greenhouse full of orchids, and her mother Gae recalls collecting orchids from the greenhouse for Women’s Club festivities and tulips thriving in the gardens around the front yard.

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

At Swisher’s industrial nursery, two little boys and a little girl wearing overalls sit on wooden swings on the playground, talking, smiling, a litter of small children behind them. They believe in ghosts and God. Their mothers work in the largest cigar factory in the world. It’s 1948. Carl’s moved into his deceased father’s house. The family still uses the original stairs. Martha Mitchell walks when no one else is home. The camphor trees at Swisher Place are thriving.

Q. Why did the headless horseman go into business? A. He wanted to get ahead in life.