by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012
“Jacksonville’s first big downtown apartment building” was built in 1923. All apartments were rented out before construction was complete. The 310 West Church Street Apartments was a lovely, clean, modern, sophisticated six-story Georgian Revival-style structure. Most of the 50 apartments in the building were corner units with good window views, due to the building’s H-shape and two vast courtyards. The exterior of the building was formal red brick complemented by vertical lines of limestone.
Graffiti covering the entire wall of a room inside the Ambassador Hotel reads, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
In 1944, the 310 West Church Street Apartments became The Three-Ten Hotel, in 1947 the Hotel Southland, in 1949 The Griner Hotel—“‘Preferred by Particular People’ Griner Hotel Fireproof Air Conditioned Charlie Griner, Owner” —and in 1955 the Ambassador Hotel. In 1970, Sam Easton, later of the real estate firm Easton Sanderson and Company, bought the hotel and its decline began. By the time it was shuttered in 1998, it had been a low-rent residential hotel for almost 30 years, a high-crime city within itself, with tenants selling crack cocaine and their bodies for sex within its formal brick carapace.
When the Hotel Southland became the Griner Hotel, its entrance moved from 310 West Church Street to 420 Julia Street. The Griner was sophisticated and reserved, as fitted its Georgian Revival architecture, and had a fabulous Chinese restaurant on the ground floor.
In 1993, Mayor Ed Austin included in his River City Renaissance plan a proposal to demolish almost the entire neighborhood of LaVilla, west downtown, its own city in the middle 1800s, 50 square blocks of Victorian-era houses, bungalows, shotgun shacks, large two-story houses with “gingerbread” porches, Carpenter Gothic, and former restaurants and cultural hotspots where Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ray Charles performed, a neighborhood that steeply declined when Civil Rights legislation opened other parts of town to black residents who had the means to move away from their lower-class neighbors, a neighborhood invaded by the devil called crack cocaine in the 1980s, a neighborhood once full of brothels like those of Stephen Crane’s wife, once full of cigar factories like the ones Cuban revolutionary José Marti visited to raise support for Cuban independence in the 1890s, $30 million to destroy 50 square blocks of what had been simultaneously one of the loveliest and one of the seediest parts of Jacksonville. Its residents, its poor and broken people, its crack dealers and crack smokers, its prostitutes, its desperate and destitute—they had go somewhere. Some where.
Dozens of them went to the Ambassador Hotel, 420 Julia Street. The City had demolished their homes in LaVilla, taken them by Eminent Domain, and now the City was evicting them from their new home, their new city within a city in the old Ambassador.
In 1998 City safety code officials shut the building down, issuing notices of thousands of violations like faulty wiring, cracked and fractured walls, poor sanitation, non-working lighting, and locked fire escapes. The building was overcrowded, since many of the current residents had fled their homes during the destruction, the “urban renewal,” the laying waste of LaVilla.
Eighteen year-old Quintana, who had been living in the Ambassador for three months, said the police should take out the people selling drugs, but that nobody else in the building should have to wonder how they were going to find another place to live. A lot of Ambassador residents ended up in the homeless shelters. Some of them just disappeared forever.
The assistant chief of the Sheriff’s Office narcotics unit said that “when they tore down LaVilla,” a lot of LaVilla moved into the Ambassador.
The Ambassador Hotel was LaVilla in exile.
A year and a half after the Ambassador Hotel was shuttered by the city for safety code violations, property manager James D. Williams and his son James B. Williams stopped by the abandoned building one morning and noticed a piece of plywood had been moved away from a door. They crept into the building with handguns and found a 39 year-old homeless man, George William Adside, Jr., sleeping on the floor. The older Williams decided to search the building for other trespassers and the younger Williams held Adside at gunpoint. The homeless man got up and moved toward the younger Williams, and Williams shot him in the chest and killed him. Police said the Williamses were released after the shooting.
“My first week being a Floridian I stayed in the Ambassador Hotel there on West Church Street and across the street from the hotel was a clock that said the time and the temperature and it was January 1970 and the temperature was about 70, and the coldest it’s been since I’ve been here was 7 above 0 in January, 1985, but other places I’ve lived? Missouri? Massachusetts? North Dakota? Brrrrr!”
January 1998, city officials affixed an eviction notice on every apartment room door, and many of them still stick to the doors in the empty self-destructing building.
“CITY OF JACKSONVILLE PROPERTY SAFETY DIVISION DEPARTMENT OF RES CODE ENFORCEMENT BRANCH NOTICE
It is unlawful for this unit to be rented, leased or occupied until it is brought into compliance with the Jacksonville Housing Safety Code. This notice posted pursuant to section 518.135 of Municipal Code.”
Property Manager James Williams said there were some bad apples in the Ambassador, but that was all. An 18 year-old resident named Quanetta said the city could send President Clinton, Mayor John Delaney, and former President Bush “all at once. I’m not going to let anybody close us down. This is a family hotel. We all take care of each other and look out for each other.” Williams said managing the Ambassador was hard work. “It’s just that they don’t know how to live neatly. If they lose their key, they just kick the door in.”
A 24 year-old mother said an “evil presence” lived with her and her three children in their room at the Ambassador. So she asked for a new room and moved. In her prior room, the window sash pinned the hands of her 11 month-old baby, the sash fell on her own head, and boiling water spilled on her seven year-old daughter. A woman in her early 20s, with no education and almost no skills for living in the present world, lives with her three children in a place falling apart on them, a place falling down on top of them. Of course the apartment was out to get them. Of course the universe was out to get them. What else could she have believed? An evil presence inhabited her room with her and her children.
ALL GUESTS CHECK IN AT FRONT DESK
TENANTS: THERE WILL BE NO MONEY AT THE FRONT DESK BETWEEN ___ & ___. PLEASE PAY YOUR BILL AND GET CHANGE BETWEEN THE HOURS OF ___ & 10 PM.
NO LOITERING NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES ALLOWED
Most of the 50 apartments in the building were corner units with good window views, due to the building’s H-shape and vast courtyards. Now the courtyards in the open sides of the H-structure menace the space they surround. Their brick is dark as dried blood, and the pentagonal fold of apartment units around the courtyard comes as an embrace. The windows, dark, abandoned, grimily reflecting the sun or moon or downtown lights at night face inward to the courtyard, six stories high, like the eyes of dead faces still seeing.
It’s easy to personify the long-dark building with some kind of intelligence, something like an alligator’s in the muck, urban-chthonic, deadly alive and alien and knowing both less and far, far more than we know. It’s as though such a building has lived all the lives that were lived within it, whereas you only get your one life, spread from building to building and town to town. Steeped in the decades, the Ambassador Hotel knows far more than any of us ever can or will, and something sinister abides in such an intelligence.
“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
See also Ambassador Hotel: Carrie’s Room