by Tim Gilmore, 3/8/2019
1. The Year of the Skyscraper
The 10 story building next door threatened to collapse. Built the same year, early 1926 photos show the adjacent structure complete and the Barnett National Bank Tower, at Adams and Laura Streets, still skeletal. The bank’s previous headquarters, built like an ancient Roman temple, stood behind it on Forsyth Street.
It was “the Year of the Skyscraper” in Florida’s biggest city. When construction started on the Barnett, soon to be Jacksonville’s tallest building, the Atlantic National Bank Building Annex on the lot beside it began to tilt. The 10 story building’s foundation extended into the taller structure’s space and workers feared it would fall. Lawsuits ensued.
Florida was the pioneer peninsula. With Key West another 500 miles away, Jacksonville had been, for a time, the furthest south most people would go. As Florida developed southward, Jacksonville became “the Gateway City,” remaining Florida’s metropolis even as Miami blossomed in Florida’s 1920s real estate boom.
In 1926, seven buildings at least 10 stories tall rose at once, dramatizing the Jacksonville skyline. Still standing in Riverside are the Park Lane Apartments, and downtown: the Greenleaf and Crosby Building, the Carling / Hotel Roosevelt, the Atlantic Bank Annex, and the Barnett National Bank Building.
The downtown four still stand within a block of each other, assembled like a family. They contribute to an older and more urban feel than comparable city blocks of newer Florida cities like Orlando and Sarasota.
Barnett rose highest, to 18 stories, the tallest building in Jacksonville until the Prudential (now Aetna) Insurance Building on downtown’s Southbank in 1954.
2. The Center of History and Community
Through tall dusty windows, we look out at the Carling, reopened as apartments in 2005. Its first decade, the Carling Hotel rented out 300 rooms. In 1963, fire raged in the 13 story building, then called Hotel Roosevelt, killing 22 people and injuring 100, including 20 firefighters.
Directly across Laura Street, the Florida Life and Bisbee Buildings undergo renovation, while across Adams, the Greenleaf and Crosby stands immaculate over the 15 foot tall Seth Thomas sidewalk clock beautifully restored since a city bus smashed it in 1974.
“We’re downtown because we want to be in the center of this city and community,” Karen Bowling tells me. She’s the director for the University of North Florida’s brand new Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, a business startup generator that will soon open on the Barnett’s second and third floors.
We walk through new classrooms where entrepreneurs will be able to take graduate-level classes. In open loft spaces with rows of computers, Bowling foresees ambitious people working and ideas cross-pollinating. The space flows into a kitchen, to casual seating areas, to a long conference table.
“This space,” Bowling says, “is the front door to the startup community in Jacksonville.” Entrepreneurs will work with UNF students in marketing, accounting, and communications, each earning credit in their separate spheres, until, by the end of a year, they’ll start their own businesses or work with an “accelerator program.” Those lacking in capital will have a chance to access investors.
We step out to a patio that opens from the third floor and looks up the Barnett’s remaining 15 stories. From the eighth floor up, new apartments will begin to rent by the end of 2019.
Rows and columns of windows stare out from brick walls, encompassing the patio on three sides, with tall arches bracing the heights above our heads. Yes, this is the place to work ideas to fruit, here in the city’s heart, in this embrace of brick and fenestration, an alcove only open to the sky. This space is the womb. Here gestate plans that will move the city deliberately and in unforeseen historic orbits for decades, perhaps longer.
Bowling brims over with enthusiasm. “This new project fits so perfectly into the Barnett history,” she says. When William Barnett moved from Kansas with his wife Sarah and started the Bank of Jacksonville in 1877, he couldn’t have known it would grow into one of the largest banks in the South. Though Barnett Bank ceased operations in 1997, its influence will ripple through the world for eons.
“It all fits perfectly,” Bowling says. “We’re working from Barnett’s lineage and creating the future business community of Jacksonville.”
3. Every Inch Tall
The word “skyscraper” meant more than just a tall building.
Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, “the father of the skyscraper,” defined it as “tall, every inch of it tall.” In his March 1896 manifesto, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” published in Lippincott’s Magazine, Sullivan wrote, “The force and power of altitude must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation [so] that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.” The skyscraper, then, was authoritarian, the “peroration,” or final statement, of “sinister, most forbidding conditions.”
What does it mean for a building not just to be tall, overall, but tall in each and every inch? An inch of a skyscraper must, by definition, be taller than an inch of a bungalow, a school, a church.
Sullivan describes an aesthetic of tallness that exceeds mere measurable height. Some shorter buildings are taller in each inch than buildings much taller. A 10 story building can be more “skyscraper” than a 40 story building. And how “American,” in this supposedly democratic republic, is that “sinister” condition that imposes, dictatorially, a verticality admitting of no “dissent”?
4. Sculpting Founders, Standing on Shoulders
Bank founder William Barnett and his wife Sarah had just moved into their new East First Street mansion in Springfield, just north of downtown, when the third largest urban fire in United States history decimated the city. Only McCoys Creek separated Springfield from incineration. Surely the stories that the Barnetts sipped expensive liquor and watched the Great Fire of 1901 from their second floor veranda are not true, populist urban legends born of “Eat the Rich” sentiment perhaps in the Great Depression.
The lifesize bronze William Barnett, sculpted by Charles Adrian Pillars, who designed the “Winged Victory” centerpiece of Memorial Park to the south, stood for years in the lobby of the 18 story tower and stands now in a corner of the First Street Barnett Mansion. He’ll return to the old lobby when current tower renovations are complete.
The Bank of Jacksonville, formed in 1877, was renamed the National Bank of Jacksonville in 1888, then Barnett Bank in 1908. Executives and Barnett descendants posed pensively for photos before the bronze founder in the lobby, decade after decade.
Bion Barnett, William and Sarah’s son, “every inch tall” with Scottish features, like Louis Sullivan’s skyscrapers, sits mustached and stern and bowtied behind a desk in a black-and-white photo. Bion came to Florida when he was 20 in 1877, his father having brought his mother to Florida when Northern physicians frequently prescribed Florida’s (though yellow fever- and malaria-ridden) climate, and died in 1958, 101 years old, having made his father’s bank the leviathan of Florida’s finance.
Making his way up through Central Florida banks in the 1970s, Charles E. Rice, repeatedly declaring homage to Bion throughout the years, could, in no wise, stand as tall as the man on whose shoulders he eventually lost his balance.
5. The Skyscraper Race and the Tower of Babel
The 18 story Barnett National Bank Building, though obviously influenced by the Chicago School of Architecture, stood not as pure in form a skyscraper as, for example, Henry John Klutho’s 1911/2 Florida Life Building, which even in the 1980s, architectural writer Wayne Wood called “perhaps still Jacksonville’s purest example of a skyscraper.” Only 11 stories tall, the Florida Life’s whole emphasis stresses verticality.
Two decades previous, the Barnett’s architects, Mowbray and Uffinger, had raced to build Jacksonville’s first skyscraper. Their 1908/9 Atlantic National Bank Building, still standing at 121 West Forsyth Street, lost out by a matter of months to Klutho’s Bisbee Building, still standing at 47 West Forsyth. Ironically, it was the new 10 story annex to their 1909 building, the two structures connected from Forsyth to Adams Streets by tunnels beneath downtown, that threatened to collapse onto their 18 story Barnett Building construction site in 1926.
Though Louis Montayne Mowbray and Justin Maximo Uffinger designed buildings in Sanford and Pensacola, Florida, in Savannah, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama, they were headquartered in New York and known for bank designs and vault engineering across the country. Not long after the Barnett rose to the zenith of Florida’s skylines, Mowbray and Uffinger had designed more than 400 bank buildings, often merging Neoclassical elements like pediments and tall front columns with Gothic features like tall arched windows and pointed parapets. Above the two-story arch-windowed arcade on the Barnett, runs a band punctuated with stone lion heads, medallions, and gargoyles.
Not everyone welcomed the new vertical emphasis and architectural aesthetic. In early August, 1926, William Boring, the Columbia University architect who’d co-designed the Ellis Island Immigration Station, penned an editorial, nationally syndicated, of deep disapproval. Professor Boring decried as “ugly office buildings” America’s new steel-constructed skyscrapers, pronounced the new science “simple,” and suggested America might build structures “ten times as high as the Tower of Babel.” Though “most skyscrapers are ugly,” Boring suggested architects look to New York’s Woolworth Building, the so-called “Cathedral of Commerce,” then the tallest building in the world, that if skyscrapers rising in towns like Jacksonville “would adopt the same tapering Gothic effect,” these soaring new spires would silence all critics.
6. “No Power on Earth”
In the fall of 1926, as Florida’s economy came crashing down from its recent peak, the duPonts, Alfred and Jessie, lived on a St. Johns River yacht in the center of Jacksonville and opened 15th floor offices in the new Barnett National Bank Building.
A year later, the duPonts bought a controlling interest of Florida National Bank, founded in 1905, and moved further into Florida finance. By April 1929, six months before the Stock Market Crash of “Black Tuesday,” more than 80 Florida banks had already closed, leaving many towns with no means of banking at all.
Just as later newspaper retrospectives painted the couple “helping to prop up the state’s tottering banking structure,” I can picture them standing uniquely privileged even among the tenants of this particular Gothic skyscraper, peering up into its heights. Their philanthropy is complicated.
The duPonts and their wealthy friends led Florida campaigns to help elect the conservative millionaire businessman Herbert Hoover president, just at the end of the Florida real estate boom, 1928, precipitating the economic crash that began the decade-long Great Depression. A 1953 Orlando Sentinel retrospective says, “Mr. and Mrs. DuPont left in March that year for Europe.” That was ’29. The stock market crashed in October. Soon the economic refugee camps inhabited by those who’d lost all wealth and financial wherewithal became known as Hoovervilles. Banks across Florida shut down, terrified citizens withdrawing all their money.
Edward Ball, brother of Jessie, cabled Alfred duPont on holiday in Europe for a banking infusion in the astonishing amount $15 million, almost $223 million in today’s currency, to forestall runs on Florida banks. Alfred duPont’s injection of cash cushioned Florida’s banking industry from panic. Heading into the Great Depression, duPont kept opening banks. Though his wealth saved lives, it wasn’t selfless. Ironically, it illustrated the great gulf between rich and poor.
The Depression deepened. The duPonts’ personal wealth withstood bank runs. Monies preserved they redeposited. William Barnett had entrusted his son Bion with five pillars of business, one of which was the Golden Rule. Treat others as you’d be treated. His second principle potentially countered the first: “Give a man 50 cents if you can make a dollar off him.”
In the economic depths of 1931, Alfred duPont was wealthy enough to casually tell a friend on the Virginia Supreme Court to just “Let this Depression pass, and it will surely pass. They all pass.” Only someone distant enough from the suffering of the Great Depression could comfortably make such a statement.
“There is no power on earth,” he said, “that can stop the growth of Florida. It’s the nation’s last frontier.”
At the inception of his presidency, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered all banks to take a holiday. Citizens couldn’t “run the banks” if banks temporarily ceased operation. Florida’s banks had staggered, trembled, fell to their knees. Then the progressive new president hit a previously unforeseen “pause” button.
Alfred’s support of Hoover, the subsequent banking collapse, and the mitigation of Florida’s deep economic pain through duPont’s own personal wealth, led his wife, Jessie Ball duPont, to change directions. She pushed through charities and supported Roosevelt’s New Deal, becoming a member of the board of the Florida National Bank of Jacksonville in 1934. Her husband died the following year.
By the 1950s, The Orlando Sentinel characterized her work according to five categories of financial assistance: “ crippled children;  old people;  college students;  colleges; and  churches.”
In the early ’50s, she started her day “around the shack,” meaning the wealthy estate called Epping Forest.” Then, said the Sentinel, “She goes to the Barnett Bank Building, usually arriving around 10 a.m. She stays until 5:00 or 5:30.”
In her personal office in the Barnett Tower, Jessie Ball duPont worked “between an old roll-top desk (which she has used since 1935) and a flat-top desk. On it are stacks of correspondence, many of the letters appealing fervently for help.”
Suntime Magazine said duPont worked “briskly,” had “an affable and gracious manner,” still retaining “a ‘Northern Neck’ Virginia accent.” Suntime said, “Her hair is graying but her eyes sparkle.”
Alfred having died in 1935, by ’53, Suntime reported, “Her office is plain,” a photograph of her late husband one of the only pictures adorning the walls. She could look over Florida maps to see “duPont holdings in just about all of the 67 counties,” but also looked into “the hearts of men and women” to see what she could do for them.
Disappointingly, however, her looking into hearts failed to include those in non-white bodies. In November 1951, Ball duPont wrote Dean Stanley Brown-Serman of the Virginia Theological Seminary, for which she had been a major donor, “I have been told that one or more Negroes are members of the student body […] I do not contribute to schools in the South that take Negroes as students.” She sent a followup letter stating, “As long as the Virginia Theological Seminary is open to Negroes, I have made my last contribution to it.”
7. Jack in the Time Machine
1997. The cover of the final edition of the corporate magazine Barnett Action showed William Bion Barnett, great-great grandson of William Barnett, great-grandson of Bion, seated before the Adrian Pillars sculpture of the bank’s founder in the lobby of the tallest building in Jacksonville, the 42 story Barnett Center, a block south of the previous two headquarters, designed by architect Helmut Jahn.
For 28 years, 1926 to 1954, the bank owned the tallest building in Jacksonville. Jahn’s design rose amidst national buyouts of Jacksonville banks, a big middle finger crowning the city’s skyline. Once again, Barnett owned the city’s tallest structure, but only for the last seven years of its life.
1976. Barnett first introduced automatic teller machines, ATMs. Unwittingly, Southern working class families often called them “time machines.” Barnett created further confusion by marketing its new ATMs as “Sam the SuperTeller.” The idea was to humanize the new automated service by starring a seven foot tall robot, Sam, the Super Automatic Machine, in publicity stunts and ads. The Sam costume, made of plastic and heavy foam, with a low-energy battery pack that lit Sam’s mouth, eyes, and ears, malfunctioned strangely in public. Barnett soon limited Sam to magazine ads showing pretty women embracing a new robotic being that looked like the lovechild of Star Wars’ C3PO and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Unwittingly, Sam figured perfectly into working class fears of automation.
1955. Barnett placed its first drive-through bank teller on Laura Street next to its tower. Whatever her real name was, they called her “Jack in the Box.” The teller’s windowed cube was air-conditioned and bullet-proof. When the bank opened at 9:30 in the morning, the teller waited underground for the hydraulic elevator to raise her booth through the sidewalk beside the fire alarm box. An off-duty police officer directed traffic and led cars into a banking lane on Laura Street. At 1:30, the booth again descended beneath the street. The 97 year old former bank president Bion Barnett, chauffeured by a granddaughter on the last day of May, was the drive-through’s first customer. He’d been retired for three years. He’d live, just past his birthday, another three years.
8. Never Sell
Jacksonville’s “Big Three,” the trinity of banks that ruled finance in Florida, sold out, one by one, to bigger national corporations. First Union Corp., which merged with Wachovia National Bank to form Wachovia Corp. in 2001, first picked off Atlantic National Bank in the mid-1980s, then Florida National Bank in ’90. Barnett, the oldest banking institution in Florida, became the sole survivor. Until 1997. Chief Executive Charles Rice returned from rehab for alcoholism and put the 120 year old company up for sale.
Rice had boasted theatrically that he’d never sell “Bion Barnett’s bank” a decade before selling it to NationsBank, which made him board chair, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Within a year, NationsBank merged with Bank of America and demoted the CEO who’d never sell. In December 2008, Rice drowned in his own swimming pool in Boca Grande, the last leader, obituaries noted, of “the last statewide banking company in Florida.”
9. Know Yourself
Karen Bowling feels excited to see the old bronze sculpture of William Barnett, long bearded face chiseled in full Scottish detail, return from the Barnett Mansion on East First Street to its original location, the lobby of the first of two Barnett towers to stand taller than any other structure in the city.
She speaks to business groups, to women’s groups, drumming up support, hoping to bring every necessary component to the best new business ideas and make history building the future, with entrepreneurs who might otherwise never have ignited their dreams and ambitions, here in the old Barnett.
We take the elevator to the main lobby, note the golden polished brass letter boxes—marked “U.S. Mail. Cutler Mailing System. Cutler Mail Chute Co. Rochester, N.Y.U.S.A.”—connecting pneumatic tubes that, for decades, shot messages up and down the building, high above banking tunnels beneath the streets. I’m dying to slip small accidental poems into antique chutes and spring them on unsuspecting recipients who might throw them in the trash or fall to their knees in hosannas, marking such samizdat as new chapters they’d never expected to live.
At street level, arched glass panes mismatch windows of tall old buildings across the street. Skyscrapers rise pure, “every inch tall,” dictatorial though romantic, like faces soft with gray-blue eyes but high cheekbones and elegant chin and aqualine nose, like hands long and tender, hands slender and all finger, like every dexterity of poetry, craft and beauty. The last century taught us not to trust purity, but history’s still making.
Determine your responsibility to your haunting. Move into floor X, eight through 16. Raise your arms. Hold up your palms. Accept into the cage of your ribs all this town radiates from this specific historic and psychogeographic gut and crux. All that’s happened here, both good and ill, assume into your heart, for what good is the future if the wrongs of the past, and not just its salvations, can’t advise it?