Berney’s Restaurant, Downtown

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

“A pretty little three-room cottage.” Added to the rooftop of the 11-story building. 117 North Laura Street. The rooftop was cultivated with a lawn and shrubs. The small skyscraper was built in 1912, and the rooftop penthouse was added in 1914.

photo courtesy The Jacksonville Historical Society

In 1940, a self-styled leprechaun moves into the room at the top of the middle of town.

Dine with “THE MAN IN GREEN”   Trade Name Reg.   From “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”   BERNEY’S RESTAURANT   Bar and Mirror Cocktail Lounge  Jacksonville Florida   South’s Most Talked Of Place to Dine   Dining Room and Cocktail Lounge   Bar and Package Department

A green suit, a green fedora, green loafers, a green cane. Green: the chairs, booths, the floor tiles, the columns, the bar itself. The menus were green.

Forsyth Street, corner of North Laura, from 1927 to 1962, through the Great Depression and Civil Rights, restaurant at the corner of the Elks Club Building with its second-floor arcaded gallery, just next to the Roosevelt Hotel, the neon sign out front featuring a nearly life-size image of the entrepreneur and the arcing invitation: DINE WITH THE MAN IN GREEN.

Peggy, the Boston Terrier, also wore green. At night, Berney and Peggy walked a half block from the green restaurant to the penthouse with green interior atop the Florida Life Building in the middle of the city, looking over the cathedrals and plazas and limestone and marble buildings and the streets with Buicks and Chryslers and men and women in hats. The town was theirs, but so was this private rooftop home.

Berney’s Restaurant Bar and Package Store   THE MAN IN GREEN   As featured by Robert L. Ripley in Believe it or Not.   BERNEY wears only GREEN CLOTHES Head to Foot.

When, Green Man, when last stood anyone in that “pretty little three-room cottage” atop the limestone-fronted skyscraper that has itself stood abandoned, empty even of windows, for so many years now?

The Man in Green was not Irish at all. He was a Russian immigrant. He said that even as a small child he had worn mostly green, that as a child he had found green relaxing. Most of what anyone seems to have known about Bernard Berney was a color, and what newspapermen most had to say about him was that he was a “colorful character.”

But who the hell was Bernard Berney to himself, in the rare moment he was alone with himself? He worked 18 hours a day in his restaurant for 35 years, and when he had been dead for 48 years, he ended up in a chapter of This Kind of City.

No record exists of the quality of the food. Nothing is left but the color green.

In the middle of the 1990s, NationsBank, who owned the building at the time, destroyed two enormous terracotta scrollwork cornices from the top of the building after a piece of copper flashing fell to the sidewalk during a storm. The Florida Life Building has stood thus mutilated ever since. Many people believed the destruction was a work of sabotage in retaliation for preservationists blocking the demolition of the building and redevelopment of the property.

When Henry John Klutho moved to Jacksonville after the 1901 fire had decimated everything, he saw a tabula rasa where he could establish his artistry in the form of a resurrected city. He quoted Erasmus, “In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king.”

Last chance. The buildings went to a German investment group, were then bought by the City of Jacksonville, given to the Police and Fire Pension Fund, bought by Florida development mogul Cameron Kuhn, dispersed from Kuhn’s bankruptcy, picked up by a Limited Liability Company, who now plans apartments, hotels, and restaurants in the buildings. Last chance.

photo courtesy the Jacksonville Historical Society

Green Man, what was it like in the fall twilight up there at the shrubs and lawn at the cottage on the skyscraper, looking out over those massively ornamented cornices at the center of everything? Last chance—did you ever tell yourself that? You incarnated Berney’s Restaurant for 35 years. And all that was so many last chances ago.

January 18, 1937, Time magazine, letter to the editor:

Sirs:

“Poet André Breton, who frequently dresses entirely in green, smokes a green pipe, drinks a green liqueur . . ” (TIME, Dec. 14) is not unique in his obsession for green.

No surrealist is Berney, owner of Berney’s Restaurant, Jacksonville, Fla., but a wide-awake, up-and-coming restaurateur, who carries out a green motif from A to Z, scattering Irish shamrocks about his establishment with finesse seldom equaled by a Jew. Dressed completely in green day and night, he will give to any woman dressed entirely in green the choice of his menu, gratis.

Food and drink excepted, the only non-green object to retain its true color is the red-and-yellow Shell miniature gasoline pump through which cigaret-lighter fluid is dispensed. The fluid, alas! has succumbed to the mania of the “Man in Green” (so named by Believe-It-Or-Not Ripley).

The only man in Florida to drive an automobile with a green license, he has even painted the ‘White Horse’ Scotch whiskey statue green.

J. B. CHARLES JR.

Jacksonville, Fla.

When the Elks Club Building was renovated in the 1990s, part of the dining room was opened up for the first time in more than 30 years. A tall mirror backed a bar covered in dust. Christmas decorations grew mildew with tables and chairs. The cash register was empty.