Berney’s Restaurant, Downtown

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

In that “pretty little three-room cottage,” on the rooftop of the 11-story Florida Life Building, resided the “Man in Green.” 117 North Laura Street. The small skyscraper was built in 1912, the rooftop penthouse added in 1914. He’d cultivated his yard, the roof, with a lawn and shrubs.

photo courtesy The Jacksonville Historical Society

The self-styled leprechaun moved into the room at the top of the town in 1940. He’d lived for a while in the Roosevelt, just next to his restaurant on Adams.

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. No restaurant reviews seem to exist, though post cards listed “Sea Food, Steaks, Chops, Everything that is Good to Eat.”

Adams 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, 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, at times reported to be a bulldog, wore green too. At night, Berney and Peggy walked a half block from the green restaurant to the penthouse with green interior up on the top of the city, looked over the cathedrals and plazas and limestone and marble and the streets with Buicks and Chryslers and men and women in hats. The town was theirs, Berney’s and Peggy’s, but so was this private rooftop home, any such moment worth a lifetime.

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’s itself stood abandoned, empty even of windows, for so many years?

The Man in Green was not Irish at all. He’d come from Russia to the United States in 1905 at age 12. He first worked in the Mason Hotel, which became the Mayflower, and rose from janitorial work to management.

Even as a small child, he said, he’d worn mostly green, found the color “relaxing.” Most of what anyone seems to have known about Bernard Berney was a color; newspapermen reported him a “colorful character.” Some stories made national headlines, but they too concerned the color green.

On May 6, 1937, the Associated Press reported the Florida Senate’s passing a bill to let “Bernard Berney, Jacksonville restaurant proprieter,” have a green license tag. Senator John Beacham of West Palm Beach and a handful of other legislators introduced the measure, which passed unanimously with the exception of Senator Walter Rose of Orlando.

Earlier that year, mid-January, a letter to the editor of Time magazine read:

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.

Portrait of Andre Breton, Victor Brauner, 1934

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).

courtesy ripleys.com

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.

After working 18 hours a day for decades, the Green Man wearied, fell ill, and closed his restaurant, his lifework, in 1962. Five years later, when Bernard Berney died, 73 years old, the first line of his obituary called him, oddly, “the brother-in-law of Mrs. Leah Greenhut [!] of Pensacola.” The official Green Man mythology never mentioned a wife, but his obituary announced him “survived by the widow, Mrs. Frances Berney of Jacksonville.” In 1947, the Berneys had built the boxy and austere white International Style house at 1308 Lakewood Road south of downtown, and the Man in Green traded the Greenhut atop the skyscraper for a house, however avant-garde, in the suburbs.

rear balcony of the Berney House, built 1947

When the Elks Club Building was renovated in the 1990s, Berney’s Restaurant, cobwebbed like Miss Havisham’s wedding party, opened to the light and air for the first time in more than 30 years. When the writer Glenn Emery walked through the dining room, “The bar still remained, covered in dust and backed with a long mirror that featured a fish in the center. There were also a few tables, chairs, several Christmas decorations, and an empty cash register.”

City leaders had voted to blow to bits the Mayflower Hotel in 1978 to build a parking lot. A holding company defaced the terracotta scrollwork that ornamented the cornice of the Florida Life Building in the 1990s.

Florida Life, original terracotta cornice, photo courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

The city absorbed all Berney’s life into its ever-moving organic fabric, and much as the greatest glory is the dissolution of self into landscape, surely Jacksonville owes the Green Man the right sculptural representation on the street corner nearest where the restaurant stood. Conscientious citizens, chefs and poets, should pause at the curve uphill at the corner of Laura and Adams, say his name, realizing none of us knows his Russian birth name, that most of our knowledge is the color green, and most of every human being is privacy and mystery.

photo by Jack Spottswood, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com