by Tim Gilmore, 1/18/2020
1. Rebuilding the Broken Man
At the top of the stairs, the hotel manager greets me with a smile. In his dark face, his eyes shine kind against these old walls in dim light. Some of the rooms sleep one, some two and some six. Only the latter are currently available.
The walls, painted green, shine dark above the wainscoting. The leather of the sofas and armchairs in this second floor lobby look comfortably worn. To touch the ceilings, I’d have to stand on my own shoulders while standing on my own shoulders.
“So much history in this old building,” I say, as Ricky walks me through the halls. “Oh yeah,” he says, “but a lot of making it right, too.”
Hank Smith tells me his tenants might stay anywhere from one day to 33 years. That latter postulate has yet to be tested, since Hank’s run St. James Recovery Center in this 125 year old hotel for just 16 years. He describes what happens here as “deinstitutionalizing the human being and rehumanizing the broken man.”
These strong wooden steps that lead up from the street don’t creak. Sunlight scatters through the door frame from the sidewalk into the shadows. The inn is dark, a masculine space—not just because only men live here, but because of the wood and the colors and the leather and the light—masculine, but somehow comfortingly so.
It can take just as long to rebuild a man, Hanks says, as it took for prison to break him.
2. Housing as Many Histories
Robert Starrett remembered many a raid on the Adams Building Hotel. It was the first day of July, 1975. He spoke from his office as security chief at the Port Authority on Talleyrand Avenue. Outside, plumes of toxins poured from atop the industrial district and bathed the city. As Starrett sat by a window in his yellow tie and short-sleeved white button-up shit, the air outside had the smell and the consistency of a spoiled egg.
A quarter century before, Starrett headed the city’s vice squad, and from those days he knew the old building well. It had long been a cheap brothel, where johns could pay to partake or pay to watch. “If walls could talk,” people said. Hell, these walls watched. Starrett said each room had “peep holes” in the walls.
The stone in the parapet above the central entrance gives the building’s name and date of construction: “Adams” and “1895.”
The hotel, first known as the Prospect House, was built as one in a long line of Bay Street railroad accommodations, extending out like rays, or like steel rails, almost half a mile from the central rail terminal that, by the 1920s, brought 20,000 passengers a day into the city. The Bay Street Line lived more histories than many small towns.
The Prospect House rose in the midst of vice battles between the towns of Jacksonville and LaVilla. LaVilla today is but a decimated district of western downtown, nearly 50 blocks of which Mayor Ed Austin’s “River City Renaissance” campaign of “urban renewal” bulldozed in the early 1990s. A century before, lines of jurisdiction divided politics and police forces on opposite sides of the intersections of Bay Street and Clay Street, and the borders were bloody.
LaVilla, the densest urban settlement in Northeast Florida, had grown up mostly black from its days as a slave plantation. But “mostly black” included other categories in Jacksonville’s Reconstruction and Jim Crow years. “Mostly black” meant also Chinese, Syrian, Lebanese and Cuban. And since being black meant, by default, outlaw, LaVilla defaulted as the place whites went for vice.
LaVilla was infamous for its row of brothels along Houston Street, then called Ward Street, and LaVilla’s most infamous outlaw bore the surname. In his 1972 book The City Makers, Richard Martin writes of Colonel Sam Houston, not the third president of the Republic of Texas, after whom the biggest city in Texas is named, but the LaVilla “liquor ring boss […] and owner of the garish saloon popularly known as ‘The Store.’”
In 1887, Martin writes, LaVilla (and future Jacksonville) Mayor J.E.T. Bowden “fought an outrageously corrupt city council, personally raided houses of prostitution, and tried to close, single-handed, one of the most notorious bistros along the LaVilla section of Bay Street.” That bistro was Houston’s “Store,” less than a block from where the Adams Building stands.
Cops who’d knocked heads with “night sticks” in LaVilla’s back warrens started the day with gin and moonshine distilled in wooden labyrinths in secret back corners. They drank with and violated and fell unconscious upon the young daughters of Georgia and Alabama tenant farmers in wooden rooms tacked on backs of buildings dark even in the light of day. Some of those girls killed themselves. Some of those cops fell into fits of catatonia and weird seizures, their bodies wracked with alcoholic poisoning.
In three months, three murders occurred around Sam Houston’s Bay Street “Store,” but J.E.T. Bowden’s LaVilla aldermen and police force couldn’t be bothered. In fact, Bowden found two LaVilla cops in bed with prostitutes when he personally raided a Houston Street brothel. Publicly the mayor called his aldermen and cops drunks and pimps who wouldn’t think twice before “sell[ing] their votes” for “a drink of whiskey.”
Who built the handsome brick Prospect House and for how much, no records attest, but the hotel joined the Hieronymus Bosch line of bars and sin dens and brothels that radiated out from the railroads. Its ground floor always sold liquor and held a saloon; its upper floor always offered cheap rooms. The Great Fire of 1901 that started in northern LaVilla and burned Jacksonville to the ground never touched the brick buildings of LaVilla’s West Bay Street.
Hank Smith, who runs St. James Recovery Center in the Adams Building’s upstairs hotel, says around 500 people stayed in the Adams Building in the aftermath of the fire. It makes sense. Within eight hours, more than 10,000 people became homeless. I find no documentation for the number of refugees the Adams Building sheltered, but surely a stalwart brick hotel two blocks south and four blocks west of the edges of the third largest urban fire in American history, housed as many displaced people as it could.
Further east down Bay Street, “Poor Sam Russ, one of the best, most brilliant and widely known” writers in Florida, drank himself to death in a “cheap lodging house in 1909.” A decade before Russ’s death, Hamilton Jay, “a brilliant writer of prose and poetry,” the unofficial “poet laureate of Florida,” drank cyanide in his Bay Street room, leaving a note saying “the voices” kept calling and he could “hold back no longer.” Then in 1912, T.J. Underhill, proprietor of the Terminal Hotel, directly across Bay Street from the train station, in the words of The Tampa Tribune on July 24th, “sent a bullet crashing through his brain in his room at the hotel early tonight.”
LaVilla was the wild outlaw South and the Bay Street Line offered its rooms for all North Florida’s desperation, dislocation and dissolution.
“When I took this building over,” says Hank Smith, “it wasn’t the place it is now. I mean police and fire trucks came by multiple times a day, every day.”
He could never have foreseen that such a building, a slum hotel, would come into his life, nor that it would offer him such purpose.
A musician and handyman, Hank rebuilt the storefront for Fox Jewelry and Loan, which the Lesnick family has operated here since the 1940s. Photographs from the 1970s show Fox on the opposite side of the building, while Pete’s Jewelry and Loans stood across the hotel doorway from Fox, and Blue Bird Bar and Grill, its signs advertising “Dancing” and “Coca-Cola,” operated where Fox is now. Signage at Pete’s said, “We Make Loans On” and the list included “old gold,” pocket watches, pistols, rifles, shotguns, cameras, TVs, guitars and “fish equipe.” Fox displayed guitars and a drum set in its windows.
Hank also wanted to build a recording studio for his company, Triclops Records, in the Adams Building, and when the building’s owner saw his initiative and capability, he asked him to take over the upstairs hotel, the James Inn. Hank “absolutely declined the offer.” For nine months. The place was a nightmare.
Finally he moved into the rental office, hidden behind a steel door, where for 62 days he took money through the window slot and wondered what the hell he’d gotten himself into.
“Then one day, I’m in that office and these four kids come up the stairs and start smashing shit, just kicking and destroying everything around them, and that was it.” So Hank emptied the building, replaced the steel door with a glass door, and remade the James Inn.
Hank owes his life to 12-step recovery programs. He’s been clean for 25 years. Now came the epiphany. “I saw how I could use this building,” he says. “What kind of recovering addict would I be if I didn’t want to help other people?” A “recovering addict,” he says, “is somebody who took and took until he could not longer take and then it’s time to give.”
Hank still looks every bit the metalhead, with his long dark hair pulled back into a pony tail and his Black Sabbath and Pantera t-shirts. The shelves of his office are lined with model sports cars. He’s adamant and passionate about the St. James Recovery Center, about his life’s work, about helping the men who stay here.
He tells me more that’s off the record than what’s on. “These men are offenders, not predators,” he says. “Put that in your story.” He stresses a “strict zero-alcohol, zero-drugs, zero-weapons policy. When I say ‘zero,’ I mean ‘zero.’ We don’t play games.
“Men come here with their heads down,” he says. “We make them raise their heads up. The common idea of the ex-convict is that they’re doomed for life.” Instead, more than 900 men have “re-entered society” through St. James. They’ve gotten college educations. They’ve become contractors and cooks.
But Hank’s not glib. Many of the men who live here “have done truly terrible things,” and they arrive having been “institutionalized by prison.” He says, “I’m not just talking about having been in jail. It takes 10 to 15 years for prison to institutionalize a man. We sometimes have problems with guys who have spent less than five years in prison, but we have no problems with guys who’ve served more than 10 years. Between five and 10, it’s a gray area.”
He compares the difficulty, but also the process, of de-institutionalizing an ex-convict to that of an addict coming clean.
“I’m talking about guys that have sat in a cell so long, they’re broken to the point of becoming subhuman. To reverse that takes as long as it does to make it happen. It’s a psychological reversal and reversing the psyche of a human being takes years. If you’re a drug addict, being clean a year doesn’t mean you’re gonna stay clean.”
America’s prison system doesn’t work, Hank says, because it “incarcerates, but doesn’t rehabilitate.” He doesn’t mention the fact that America has the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth, nor that the United States contains little more than four percent of the world’s population—As Kurt Vonnegut writes in Slaughterhouse Five, “Hardly anyone in the world is an American”—but 22 percent of the world’s prison population. He does say, “It’s not the fault of ‘the system’ if a man commits a crime, but it’s the fault of the system when it fails to rehabilitate a broken man.”
4. Such Places
Toward the end of its first quarter century, ownership of the Adams Building changed hands every year or two: 1918, 1919, 1920, 1925. In 1968, Peter Lesnick, who owned both Fox Jewelry and Loan and Pete’s Jewelry and Loan, bought the whole building. He gave little thought to the hotel rooms upstairs as long as they supplied rent and repairs didn’t affect his overhead.
Today, Richard Lesnick, the third-generation owner of Fox, stands behind a display case of Rolex watches and hands me a business card. It was Richard who put his faith in Hank Smith, giving Hank new serendipitous purpose to his own life and to the lives of hundreds of men society would rather terminate.
The building’s narrative file with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission notes, “Although there is no question that the condition of the building and the caliber of the clientele has dropped substantially, this building was probably never one of Jacksonville’s finer hotels.”
The file notes LaVilla’s vice wars, that Sam Houston’s “Store” stood just around the corner. In 1913, Prospect House became Hotel Moncrief and ever occupied the Adams’s upper floor above liquor stores and saloons. Only Forsyth Street stood between Ward / Houston Street’s line of bordellos and this “transient” hotel (as though all hotels aren’t “transient”).
In 1975, the Historic American Buildings Survey noted: “Stairways: Central stair from street side to second floor. Rear fire escape.” Noted: “Ceramic tile mosaic letters ‘Adams’ in vestibule at stair leading to upper floor.” Noted: “Floor plan: Central entry stair to upper (hotel) floor; stair opens onto lobby with skylight and reception desk.” The walls up in the old hotel were painted black.
“In 2008,” Hanks tells me, “I walked downstairs into the street and found a bunch of people picketing. They didn’t want us here. So I picked up a sign and I started walking with them. I did it in good faith. I wasn’t mocking them and I wasn’t being disrespectful. So one lady says to me, ‘Don’t you live here?’ and I said, ‘No, I own the business.’ And she said, ‘Why are you picketing?’ So I said, ‘Because the thing you need to know is if you close this place down, you put these men in your neighborhood.’ The picketers were gone in five minutes.”
There’s a drizzle in the morning fog, both conditions granting the illusion of softening brick and concrete and street and bone. I wonder what a masculine world means for my daughters, for whom, pacifist though I am, I know with all that I am, I’d kill and I’d die. I leave a copy of Tess Gallagher’s story collection At the Owl Woman Saloon in the rich damp wet for the small lending library in the lobby up the stairs.
Gallagher’s story “The Leper” begins: “When a place is too beautiful, there are repercussions. Such places attract disruptions, encroachments, noxious pollutants of sound and deed. Things of the daily sort that would pass unnoticed in an ugly suburb, or even on some normal residential street, work a vengeance here. It is a burden, I’m saying, to live where I live.”