Cathedral District: Elena Flats

by Tim Gilmore, 2/17/2016

They crossed her name to come home. From the building’s early days as an upscale apartment house to the 1980s that sardine-packed 25 units into these four original suites, the threshold bore her name.

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Courtesy Joann Tredennick and Jack Meeks

Elena was the daughter of the Irish blacksmith and farrier who bought this apartment building in 1914 and named it the Elena Flats. The tiles at the foot of the entrance spell her name. Sometimes I call the building Elena. Sometimes I call her “the building.”

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The Elena Flats in the 1970s. Courtesy Wayne Wood, Joann Tredennick and Jack Meeks

The brick veneer has been long painted white. And the leaded-glass transom windows above the front doors. Says JoAnn Tredennick, who’s restoring the Elena Flats with her husband John Meeks, “If it didn’t move they painted it. Repeatedly. There must be a million gallons of paint on this building.”

At least they didn’t paint over her name. When the Irish immigrant John Crowley bought the flats five years after its construction, his daughter Elena was nine or 10 years old.

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Standing on the marble front porch, JoAnn knocks on one of the round wooden columns to demonstrate its solidity. The balustrade that once surrounded the porch is gone. Only one column retains its Ionic capital. The others were long ago decapitated.

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Jack and JoAnn live in a beautiful Queen Anne-style house built around 1890, just north of downtown in the Victorian neighborhood of Springfield. The house is wrapped ’round with a veranda and cornered with a round three-story tower topped with a conical roof. It’s the favorite house of residential portraitist Kiley Secrest. He calls it Perry, after Arthur Perry, its first owner. He draws it over and over again, can’t help himself.

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rendering by Kiley Secrest

Just a year ago, JoAnn says, Perry, to use Kiley’s name for their house, was tented for termites. It was during the week of One Spark, the crowdfunding festival that brings tens of thousands of attendees downtown.

JoAnn stayed downtown in a hotel and Jack was out of town. Since Jack and JoAnn had restored several old buildings, Lisa Sheppard of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission called JoAnn to ask her opinion of the viability of restoring the Elena Flats.

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Courtesy Joann Tredennick and Jack Meeks

JoAnn rode her bike to the building and fell in love. She rode back to her hotel room, then back to Elena again.

“When Jack came back to town, I said, ‘Let’s go look at something.’”

For years, the atmosphere had been contained, bottled between the heart pine floors and walls dripped through with spots of rot and rain and settling humidity, and the smell of must and mold cloyed heavy and thick.

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For 12 years, no one had lived here, and Elena was stored full of junk. Rolls of carpet to Jack’s and JoAnn’s hips stood in hallways and rooms. Dank rotten mattresses stank in stacks. For more than a decade, only rats and detritivores had called the Elena Flats home.

“There was a room full of doors,” JoAnn says. “There were rooms full of dressers. One room was full of light fixtures from some hotel down in St. Augustine.”

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We shine flashlights in the ground-floor rooms. Originally each floor had two suites, with parlors and bedrooms and kitchens to the side of a front-to-back central corridor. The Elena Flats, brought back to life, will reverse the floorplan, bringing kitchens to the front, taking bedrooms to the back. Even the moderately formal dining rooms stood at the backs of the flats, where they still contain original wainscoting, chair rails, and coffered ceilings. In the last half of the century, since Elena was young, kitchens became gathering and entertaining places in American homes, no longer relegated to the back in private.

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In the years when smaller rooms, more and more of them, cut into the original plan of the building, increasing the number of rooms for rent, drop ceilings obscured the original 10-foot ceilings. The restoration will reveal them once again.

For those who’ve lived here, the difference in psychological impact between the original open, grandiose, and high-ceilinged configuration and the drop-ceilinged, boarded-transomed, increasingly divided rooming-house space is immeasurable.

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Though the number of rooms changed from four in 1909 to 25 by 1989, the building only ever featured four bathrooms.

We look at long-boarded bay windows, plywood replacing the glass in transoms, paint-encrusted eight-rayed leaded-glass stars. We find one transom with original glass, several filled with chicken wire. Between bedrooms and parlors, upstairs and down, pocket doors close and open as they have for a hundred years. A skylight shows blue sky atop the stairs.

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The transoms will be restored. Those spring and fall days, so few, so highly prized, when there’s no need of air-conditioning, opening external windows and the transoms above interior doors with that thin pole that unhooks the latch, Florida breezes will circulate life again through Elena’s lungs and veins and bones.

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When Elena opened in 1909, Jacksonville had not only rebuilt itself from the Great Fire of 1901, it had far exceeded its losses. By 1913, this dense portion of northeastern downtown contained 22 small hotels, boarding houses, and urban flats.

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With the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church right across the street, built around the same time as the flats, Mount Zion A.M.E. Church rebuilt after the Great Fire at Beaver and Newnan Streets, and the glorious St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral perched on Billy Goat Hill at Duval and Market Streets by 1906, the area became known as the Cathedral District.

Immaculate Conception recently sought to demolish the Elena Flats to make room for more surface parking—the eternal bane of historic preservation. Looking through the second-floor leaded-glass windows, we see through the trees the Immaculate Conception standing prominently, and Elena’s leafy corbels in our peripheral vision.

Courtesy Joann Tredennick and Jack Meeks

Dean Kate Moorehead of St. Johns Episcopal speaks of reinvesting in the surprisingly large stock of historic houses in the district and making the cathedrals the great providers at the center of this community, as churches were historically when they riveted the centers of medieval European towns.

JoAnn and Jack attend St. Johns. She loves Moorehead’s idea, but jokes that the church’s central function would lack medieval beheadings and trials by fire.

*    *     *

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Some old houses, JoAnn says, give her bad feelings, “not that I think I’m unusually susceptible to such things,” but Perry, hers and Jack’s own house, has always given her “a very sweet feeling,” and so does Elena.

We talk about the psychological effects of place and the psychology of the histories of buildings.

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Though Elena’s been stabilized, the scaffolding of which took months to steady, her skeleton feels ready to admit a new heart.

Just as anyone who’s lived much has suffered, so Elena has witnessed the pain of historical turnings upon human lives. Any habitation that’s lived has suffered the deaths of habitants. It doesn’t mean it’s not ready for new life. We die when we die, but Elena’s ready for more living.

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We stop and JoAnn chips at layers of paint, much of it leaded, to reveal the original hardwood in old doorframes.

Near the back of the second floor, between a dining room and pantry, paint upon paint gives way to original wallpaper. We imagine the psychological effect of Victorian-Edwardian floral wallpaper on a bedroom corner or parlor on a solid second floor in 1910, the substantial quality and solidity of materials.

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Courtesy Joann Tredennick and Jack Meeks

These houses and apartments, so many demolished in the 1970s or ’80s, were constructed of wood strong enough to last centuries.

Even the wallpaper, floral and geometric and arabesque, was designed to adorn a room for hundreds of years. To be young, a small child, within such walls, was to seem, with no rational understanding, to inherit some stable ancient place, quiet and centuries-old but yours, patterned with floral curves and curls, where the moment would persist forward into indefinite nights.

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Somehow I remember such rooms, recall such childhoods, remember how safe I felt in such loveliness this secure and strong. Somehow I remember such rooms in such nights where and when I never did live.

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Scratching our fingernails through leaded paint to original wallpaper, faded, faint, lined and pixilated, occasionally a bloom flashes forward in our interpretations of its long-fading forms, like a ghost stepping into the room and disappearing before we’d realized our awe in its presence.