by Tim Gilmore, 1/22/2021
1. Open Yourself to the Echoes
Nothing ever really goes away. All that happens in old buildings remains. They’re endless storytellers, if you know how to listen, and the great Gothic brick fortress at Market and State Streets, the old Duval County Armory, has stories enough for a hundred cities.
Stories of thousands of concerts—symphonic, Gospel, rock n’ roll, stories of political debates and politicians’ funerals, stories of grand galas and homeless meals and rifle drills, stories of racism and of integration defiant amidst the sulfurous sociosphere of Jim Crow.
On January 2, 1916, The Florida Times-Union reported the new Armory close to completion. Each company of the National Guard would be assigned “comfortable quarters” by mid-February. Besides the largest drill hall in the state, which could also be rented for dances, the new Armory would feature a 23 by 62 foot swimming pool, a gymnasium, a billiard room and a library. At least 6,000 people visited the Armory on opening night and danced to the National Guard Band. The building cost taxpayers $150,000.
From the foyer into this cavernous auditorium, you open yourself to the echoes. They come. From the rifle fire of the shooting range. From 5,000 angry citizens assembled to demand public servants removed from office. From amateur boxing rounds. From the annual citywide banquet for elementary school patrols and field trips to hear the symphony in the 1950s and ’60s. From the Ukrainian Chorus in February 1924 and Marian Anderson in January 1952 and Janis Joplin in May 1970 and explorations in preparation for this story, the history swells.
2. Under Southern Skies
The first armory stood closer to the river, beside the county courthouse with which it burned in the Great Fire of 1901. A new armory at Market and Adams Streets incorporated the remaining walls of the courthouse, but the city floated a bond issue to build a bigger armory yet. It rose right here, 1916, a brick citadel with entrance arches and corbeling and parapets bookmarked with three-story square towers topped with battlements. While it headquartered the National Guard, it also became one of the city’s main public meeting places.
It was Saturday, June 30, 1917 when Florida Governor Sidney Catts, the only gubernatorial candidate of any state elected from the Prohibition Party, who, in his inauguration speech, praised his voters for withstanding “the fierce opposition of the press and the organization of the negro voters,” told a full crowd in the Duval County Armory, “The greatest menace the country has to face today is the Catholic Church.”
It was Saturday, October 13, 1928 when “a very brilliant event in Jacksonville society,” the Confederate Ball, occurred at the Armory on the last night of the 38th annual reunion of the Florida division of the United Confederate Veterans. The Florida Times-Union reported “festoons of red and white electric lights” alongside Confederate flags and pennants in “the large ballroom.” The musical review Under Southern Skies featured the Leo Kitchen Orchestra, a “banjo medley,” and a group of eight black children with the overtly racist name of “the Pickaninny Chorus.”
It was Friday, February 1, 1929 when 5,000 citizens filled the Armory to petition Governor Doyle Carlton to remove W.F. Bunch and J.C. Coppedge from the Duval County Board of Public Instruction and “roared,” according to The Tallahassee Democrat, “approval of the findings of the citizens’ fact finding committee,” holding the men accountable for “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and incompetency in office.”
William Maierfeldt was a child when his father bought tickets for the two of them to hear the legendary and controversial attorney Clarence Darrow debate a local preacher at the Armory, Mayor John T. Alsop moderating. It wasn’t long after Tennessee v. Scopes, the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial,” when Darrow defended John Scopes against the State of Tennessee for teaching evolutionary science. The Armory debate concerned Prohibition and Darrow nearly started a riot when he produced an illegal pint he said he’d purchased within a block of the railroad station upon arrival in Jacksonville that morning. Prohibition, he said, didn’t work. By the end of the debate, William recalled, men were throwing chairs at each other.
The basement branches out byzantine. The watermarks rise above our knees in the brick labyrinth beneath the streets. Did McCoys Creek not flood a century ago the way it has the last several decades? The old rifle range spans one side of the basement, opposite the long-ago filled swimming pool.
In the dark, a hole in the plaster gapes. Behind it, stairs rise and cut a corner. Why and when someone sealed this doorway in the back of the basement and where the stairs go after they turn right, perhaps nobody alive now knows. Worlds obtain within worlds down here, beneath the levels of State Street and McCoys Creek, underneath the square brick towers at the front of the fortress.
And as this hulking brick mammoth shifted purposes through the decades, it grew inside itself. Panelboard walls from the early ’80s turn strange corners where city bureaucracy carved offices into offices. The Department of Parks, Recreation and Entertainment left the building empty after 37 years in 2010.
Windows are painted shut and painted over. A handscrawled sign in red marker on the frosted glass of Door 215 admonishes, “Keep Door Closed at All Times.” Constellations of blackened dried blood on floor tiles orbit corner mounds of feces, though it’s nearly impossible for the down-and-out to get into the Armory these days. A baby stroller idles at a drinking fountain. In rooms behind rooms, somebody left the lights on.
4. Ye Mystic Man in the South
It was Friday, May 2, 1930 when Jacksonville’s Mardi Gras group Ye Mystic Revelers held its eighth annual coronation ball at the Duval County Armory. Members of Tampa’s Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla joined in to form the “court” of the “Conquest of the Nile.” Newspapers reported “the entire auditorium transformed to resemble the interior of an Egyptian palace. A hand-painted frieze 350 feet in length, entirely covered the balcony rail and drop. This was decorated with Egyptian figures and symbols, which upon close observation revealed […] highlights of Florida history, the hurricane, a scene of bootleggers and the Bahamas, the citrus industry and other subjects.”
The decorations created “the illusion of a palace hall,” while “ladies of the associate revelers wore masquerade costumes.” A tableau vivant and “dramatic pantomime” featured “Queen Floripatra,” who “so impressed” King Tutput “with her beauty that he laid siege to her heart,” as well as a panoply of queen’s maids in “metal cloth, studded with jewels,” courtiers “in rainbow cloth” and “slave boys” in “short skirts of red and white striped satin with red sandals and headgear.” Festivities raged until 2:30 in the morning, in this year at the height of Prohibition, at which time revelers departed elsewhere for “breakfast parties.”
It was Monday, June 22, 1936 when U.S. Senator Duncan Fletcher, having served in that office for a quarter century after serving twice as mayor of Jacksonville and as Florida state representative, laid in state in City Hall while as many as 5,000 mourners passed his flag-draped casket before funeral services in the Duval County Armory, where Reverend W.A. Hobson of St. Petersburg, the senator’s longtime friend, having served as pastor of Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church until that final sermon on June 18, 1923, attended by 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan in full regalia, spoke of Fletcher’s long service and his place as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “man in the South.”
It was Friday, August 14, 1936 when FDR’s Works Progress Administration’s Music Project Group brought Giuseppe Verdi’s grand four-act opera Aida to the Duval County Armory. Before a full house, Radamès, buried alive, found Aida hidden in the dark vault to die beside him. They declared their love for each other one final time. Thousands attended, people stood in the aisles, and overflow crowds waited outside.
It was Thursday, March 8, 1945 when basketball fans, coaches and players complained bitterly that the Class A high school basketball tournament was confined to two days, requiring finalists to play four games in 48 hours. Hillsborough and Landon High Schools faced off in the Duval County Armory before the sun even rose. The Big 10 Conference had pled for the event to span three days, said sportswriter Pete Norton of The Tampa Tribune, but without success.
5. History as Atmosphere
A single metal folding chair waits in the mess hall. Tiles encircle the concrete that fills the swimming pool. Only a very few bricks show damage where floorplans show the firing range.
The echoes are more like atmosphere. They fill your lungs before your head. Frick and Frack and the Chorus Line of the Ice Follies. The Harlem Globetrotters, nothing with a basketball they couldn’t do and nobody made their fans laugh harder. Billy Graham thundering Jesus against Communists and the sins of an America turned Sodom and Gomorrah.
Upstairs in the Officers’ Club, a spacious brick fireplace stands incongruously under drop ceilings. In an oval above the hearth, a figure in mosaic, hair long and wild, genuflects before a fire, warming his hands, or worshipping the primordial energy.
On our way out the door of the outer office that tucks in the club room, I notice the phone’s been left off the hook, perhaps for 15 years. I hold it up to my ear and all the stories of this citadel come through.
6. Racial Integration in the Wings
In his 1933 autobiography Along This Way, poet, novelist, civil rights activist and diplomat James Weldon Johnson, one of Jacksonville’s most famous natives, writes of the drill room of the Armory as the “largest and finest auditorium” in the city. One of its earliest concerts featured the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s trilogy of cantatas, The Song of Hiawatha. Johnson arranged with one of the white women producing the show for “a small group of colored people” to attend. She was delighted, but next day phoned him to say the National Guard would not allow Negroes entrance. Johnson asked her “if she thought the militia officer knew that the music to be sung was the work of a Negro composer.”
It was Tuesday, January 22, 1952 when tickets for Marian Anderson’s concert at the Duval County Armory were taken off market for whites. It was Wednesday, January 23rd, when they went back on sale. It was 12 years before the Beatles refused to play to a segregated audience at the Gator Bowl in the gusts trailing Hurricane Dora, with John Lennon reportedly fuming at the Florida town’s backwardness until officials finally relented, when officials relented to let an integrated Jacksonville audience hear the great black American contralto, who’d already performed opera and “Negro spirituals” in London, Paris, New York and many of the world’s great cities.
A clause in Marian Anderson’s contract stated she would not sing before a segregated audience. She arrived in Jacksonville on the 22nd. Reporters asked Colonel Edward Henry, head of the Armory Council, if the ban on integrated audiences might be lifted if Anderson refused otherwise to sing. “No chance whatsoever,” he said. The Armory refunded 250 white ticket buyers on Tuesday and resold 200 tickets to white concertgoers on Wednesday.
It was Thursday, November 11, 1954 that Marvin Strickland, described as “a 36 year old ex-Marine who ran for governor this summer on a White Supremacy platform,” president of the Jacksonville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, asked Acting Governor Charley Johns to “use his powers” to help the NAAWP use the Armory for “a White Supremacy rally.” National NAAWP President Bryant Bowles of Tampa was scheduled to speak at the Armory the following Tuesday, but the group was denied permission at the last minute. Johns, best known now for the anti-gay interrogations of the “Johns Committee,” after failing to prove Communist influence in Florida Civil Rights groups, seems not to have responded.
Dave Franklin met Duke Ellington backstage at the Armory in the mid 1950s. Dave was a white teenager and only black concertgoers could buy tickets to hear black musicians. So when Dave and his friends stepped inside, a National Guardsman put them out. The boys lurked around outside and while looking up at the backstage windows on the second floor, “the maestro himself,” so Dave remembers it, looked out. Seeing their red corduroy band jackets, the Duke pointed them to the back door and brought them into the green room; they hung out with some of the greatest jazz musicians alive and watched the show from the wings.
7. Janis Joplin’s Sweat
“It was Janis Joplin up close and personal,” Angie Rodeillat Smith says. The hard-drinking singer wore feathers in her hair and carried a bottle of Southern Comfort. “When she came out on stage, I was surprised at how small she was, even with heeled boots on.” She looks back in time for a minute, then says, “That big voice out of that tiny body!”
Angie and her friends were some of the first people inside the Armory on May 30, 1970. “It was cavernous,” she says. “Wooden floors, lots of echo. And it was so hot.” When they first came in, they sat on the floor at the stage, close as they could be.
Angie’s crowd got in for free and got in early. They’d hit all the record stores, head shops and teen hangout spots to hang flyers for local concert promoter Sidney Drashin. They advertised at Abe Livert’s Records and Paulus Music Downtown, the Naked Pear on University Boulevard and the Garage Boutique, Edge City in Five Points and Hoyt’s High Fidelity in Roosevelt Mall.
There were no barriers on stage and nobody in front of Angie and her friends. Janis Joplin was only six feet away.
“I don’t think they had air conditioning in that place,” Angie says, “and Janis was slinging sweat. We were that close. She would sing, then take a swig, then sing some more. She drank that stuff like it was water. I think everyone there was drinking.”
Janis Joplin sang like a mezzo-soprano archangel ripping her heart out through her throat. The Armory show was one of the best concerts Angie ever attended, she says, “and there weren’t many that I missed.” She’d gone to see the Monkees at the Jacksonville Coliseum on July 8, 1967 and wondered who the strange black man was, the opening act, playing electric guitar with his teeth. It was Jimi Hendrix’s first night opening for the Monkees. Nine nights later, after being booed for seven shows, Hendrix quit, flipping the audience a middle finger.
Last year, one of those original flyers Angie and her friends hung 50 years ago sold through an online auction site for an undisclosed price. It announced the showtime as 8:30, doors open at 7:30. Tickets were six bucks at the door, five in advance at Abe Livert’s, Cosmic Tree, Californian, Paulus, Hixon’s Surfboard Revolution and Marvin Kay’s.
Five months later, Janis Joplin was dead of an accidental heroin overdose compounded by alcohol. She was 27. The four studio albums, including Pearl, released three months after her death, were powerful, but to see and hear Janis live was otherworldly. Angie Rodeillat Smith watched Janis Joplin belt “Another Piece of My Heart” from the depths of a soul too large for her body that boiling May night in that castellated brick fortification. Janis’s sweat ran down Angie’s body with her own.
8. Vision and Resurrection
Fewer shows came to the Armory after the Civic Auditorium and Jacksonville Coliseum were built in the 1960s. At the outset of 2021, dozens of doors open to the ground floor drill hall and auditorium. On these old hardwood floors, a dirty winter sunlight shines down from over balconies and catwalks, on basketball goals and speed cones left from Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office training sessions with police dogs and flash bangs.
It was Tuesday night, June 15, 1971 when Dennis Riggs called the Associated Press to report on the Florida middleweight fight at the Jacksonville Armory. “Dennis Riggs is the new middleweight champion of Florida,” he said, offering details of his sixth round knockout of Tommy Torino of Hollywood. “Asked to identify himself at the end of his report,” the Associated Press reported, “the caller said, ‘Oh, this is Dennis Riggs.’”
Johnny Brewer boxed every other month at the Armory. He’d signed up with the Riggs Promotion, a Florida boxing organization started by Jimmy Riggs before his brother Dennis became Florida middleweight champ. Every month, Riggs boxers competed at the Armory. Johnny won his first bout by Technical Knock Out, when he burst the lip and nose and eye of a Fernandina boxer he knocked down three times.
So we walk across the stage, a faint cloud painted on a light blue backdrop. It’s the stage where the Tallahassee National Guard Rifle Team accepted its plaudits for drill competition in the late 1950s. It’s the stage where Mayor Haydon Burns spoke at his “gigantic state-wide Birthday Rally in Jacksonville’s Armory” to kick off his first campaign for governor. It’s the stage where the band Spirit played “I Got a Line on you, Babe” in 1969 and where the Allman Brothers Band played their first big gig on March 30, 1969, covering Jefferson Airplane’s “She Has Funny Cars” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.”
Outside second floor windows, blue-green cedars grow both haggard and stalwart against the dark red brick. Behind the stage, a walkway barely wide enough to navigate shines with sundogs and light shadows through tall arched windows.
Above a door in the basement hangs the sign for the sign shop, forever circuitous. Broken ceramic molds litter the floor. I think of the story of a sign that dropped a letter, a tale from a sermon I heard as a child, and I ask myself why the city lets its Armory sink and fester, abandoned, alone. How did this city lose touch with its stories? Whence and why did it abandon itself? I think of how, according to that sermon, a church quoted a Bible verse on its sign, Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” how, this being a cautionary tale, the “W” stencil fell off, and the congregation inadvertently advertised: “Here, there is no vision. The people perish.”
In city archives, I find an old photo negative of the front of the fortress. Pure potential. Redeem the echoes. I invite the resurrection.