by Tim Gilmore, 5/28/2021
1. Architectural Home and Self-Portrait
The fisheye lens best captured the curves of the landing and stairs. The lens bends the blond wood of walls and the windows inward. The historic H.C. Hare Co. Building, which architect Ted Pappas customized into his own offices, was a kind of self-portrait, and I’m thinking of the great 1974 John Ashberry poem named for the 1524 Parmigianino painting, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
Then there’s the photograph of Ted Pappas standing before those very stairs and curved blond cypress landings for a December 1980 Florida Times-Union story. He looks down at the camera from left of center, great drapes of houseplant tendrils hanging from exposed rafters down the corridor to the other side.
Pappas has always worked from the inside out. On wilder and more natural sites, in the mountains or at the beach, the outer wilderness came in. At the Pappas Building, city center, the stone exterior yielded interior soft yellow cypress and houseplants in corners and corridors. Photos of the front lobby show houseplants, exposed pipes, internal porthole windows, blinds, architectural castoffs like corbels from older historic structures, and dark plush carpets.
Florida Architect Magazine featured the Pappas Building in its Fall 1980 issue. The jury who’d given it an award for “Excellence in Architecture” praised its “clarity in execution” and called it “a strong concept, a building within a building.”
That phrase could hardly be more apropos for Ted Pappas. As each of his designs began within and “worked itself out”—literally by working outward, each was a “building within a building.” Moreover, that phrase fit Ted’s double focus, looking to the old and creating anew. The Pappas Building epitomized that principle. It resurrected a handsome but aesthetically modest building, barely “historic” (especially by standards elsewhere) as it dated only to 1940, and made the interior entirely new.
Beside a photo of a middle-aged Ted Pappas, thick piping in primary colors behind him, wearing a white polo shirt, leaning his dark and hirsute arms across blueprints and looking daringly at the camera, ran a quotation from Ted about “the challenge” being “twofold.” Obviously the “economic equation” had to work, but he also hoped “to give the building” a “spiritual uplift.”
Later seeking landmark status for the building, Ted wrote Thomas Purcell, chair of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission, “Constructed of brick and ornamental cut stone, the building was designed by Clyde L. Harris with Mellen C. Greeley serving as consulting architect. A 1949 addition was also designed by Clyde L. Harris. The 1896 date over the doorway refers to the founding of the H.C. Hare Company.” Three years after Hare left in 1963, a vocational school, Florida Technical College, moved in. When Pappas and partner Doug Milne, Sr. purchased the building in 1979, it had stood vacant for years.
From outside at night, the contrasts of old and new, of exterior and interior, worked a strange magic. The strong white stone façade broke only in three tall rectangular windows and the windowed doorway, each topped by thin horizontal bars of glass, all fenestration puncturing the exterior stone with tempting views of soft light on amber interior scenes. The effect was spellbinding, a secret view into soft warm nurturing light in the hard contrast of urban night.
2. “Haskell’s Highway”
Then along came Haskell’s Highway. “Architect Ted Pappas estimates that half of Jacksonville’s downtown buildings have been bulldozed in the name of progress,” wrote Beverly Keneagy for The Florida Times-Union on March 6, 1993. “He doesn’t want the same thing to happen to his office building—just so a road can come through.”
Pappas said, “We’ve lost half of downtown because people have bulldozed fine old buildings.” He added, “Anytime you put an interstate highway through a neighborhood, it ruins it.”
That neighborhood was Brooklyn, between Riverside and LaVilla, and its destruction has continued unabated. Platted just after the Civil War by a Confederate veteran named Miles Price who sold lots to former slaves and United States Colored Troops veterans, Brooklyn remained a historically black neighborhood until recently. Since the year 2000, five-over-one style apartment buildings have replaced block after block of historic Brooklyn. The style takes its name from the legalization of increased flooring built entirely of wood, frequently resulting in five floors of cheap woodframe construction built atop a single floor of concrete platform.
But the dismantling and demolition of Brooklyn had begun years earlier. On March 25, 1997, Folio Weekly headlined a story, “Construction Mogul Extols the Virtues of a $22 Million Riverside Ave. Widening,” above which ran a photo of Ted Pappas and the question, “Haskell’s Highway?”
Folio pointed out that the expansion would bring Riverside Avenue closer to “the offices of one of the city’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen—construction mogul Preston Haskell.” Yet, “while Haskell has been the project’s most outspoken proponent, he insists the widening is being done to benefit thousands of downtown commuters.”
Buildings on the west side of Riverside Avenue, however, stood in the way and taxpayers would pay $17.6 million to purchase and remove them.
“The building at 100 Riverside Avenue,” Folio said, “is one of the project’s speed bumps. For 17 years, it has been home to Pappas Associates, Architects. When Ted Pappas bought the building, it was abandoned and desperately in need of repair.” After “transforming it into a showpiece,” Pappas and his building were “preparing for the seemingly inevitable sacrifice.”
Asked about the fate of the Pappas Building, Haskell said, “This isn’t one person’s project or one property’s project. This is a project for the whole of Riverside.”
It wasn’t. It was a widening of a corridor between interstate exit ramps and Downtown at the expense of Brooklyn, several historic Riverside Avenue structures, and architect Ted Pappas’s masterwork of simultaneous forward-facing art and historic preservation.
3. Loss of Heart- and Headquarters
Ted fought the loss of his artistic home and headquarters for a decade. On April 6, 2002, The Florida Times-Union’s David Bauerlein wrote, “The state Department of Transportation’s long and costly march to clear the way for a wider Riverside Avenue took another stride this week with the demolition of Jacksonville architect Ted Pappas’s former office.”
The Pappas family stood on the opposite corner and watched bulldozers demolish it. Mary Lee wept, while Ted kept an arm around her and watched, his mouth set into his face, reserved and stoic like a heartbroken smile. Heavy metal claws smashed through the very spot in the building where his personal office stood.
“It was done so quickly,” Ted said, “and all your experiences run through your mind, so many wonderful experiences, and just seeing the environment for those experiences demolished in a matter of minutes,” oh, “it was devastating.”
At one point, as the Pappas family watched, the interior of the building opened up wide in the lights of the night. It was an irony. Ted always said the interior determined the exterior. That was the creative impetus. Now the opposite crashed in and demolition machinery ripped open the interior and exposed to the night that sensuously curved blond cypress stairway.
That stairway had always been central. Showcase in the fisheye lens. The curved soft hardwood of the building within a building of rectangular stone. The place, Bauerlein wrote, “where Pappas’s son Mark first met his future wife Jennifer, when she was working as Pappas’s assistant. Within minutes, the staircase was gone too, joining the growing pile of debris.”
I almost failed to find the followup story, from four days later, written by Sandy Strickland. The Pappas Building had been demolished, yes, but the architect had done something with those stones. Something unusual. They hadn’t gone to the landfill. He was keeping them somewhere, deep in the center of the city. I had to find out where. I had to find the stones. I had to ask them for hope.