by Tim Gilmore, 9/14/2015
The three-story building attached to Chamblin’s Uptown northward was built the same year, 1904. At the sidewalk, shopfront display windows bear signage saying, “Gus and Company, Shoe and Luggage Repair, Est. 1904.” The sign indicates the company has moved around the corner, offers a phone number—(904) 354-9770—and presents the handsome little brickfront building as empty.
Above our heads, rusted balconies front the second-floor windows, and an ancient ventilation shaft hangs precipitously out of a third-story window.
Stepping through the front door and facing the red-carpeted stairs, Ron points me toward the main room, and says, “The bar’s gonna be over there, tables and chairs in here, and the stage will be there in the back.”
As yet unnamed, this business, adjacent to Chamblin’s Uptown bookstore and café, will open perhaps as soon as a year from now. Bookshelves will line the side walls, but primarily the space will offer a literary and arts performance venue with a menu and coffee and alcohol.
In the dark, I come face to face with a plastic red Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey dragon about my height. I can’t make it out at first and can only ask idiotically, “What’s this thing?”
Ron explains that events coordinators for Hemming Park just diagonally across the street keep lots of props in this space for now.
Ron points to rotten wooden ceiling beams that have to be replaced and a curved plaster ceiling just inside the front door that needs to come out to open up the foyer.
Up the stairs, we walk into rooms with holes that expose rotten slats through the plaster in the walls, and fissures straight through to outside between this building and brick walls next door. We walk in and out of old bedrooms from the years in the 1960s and ’70s when these upper floors served as one of the many boarding houses of an urban core that was marinating in its own rotting history.
But Ron’s renovation of this building will include apartments on the second and third floors, and the front-window views from up here are stunning. One window stares directly across the street at the Gothic Revival church built of granite and limestone centering a magnificent rose window and cornered by a bell tower. Another cloudy window looks across Hemming Park and its umbrella of trees, known in the 1800s as City Park and then St. James Park, the very center of this 874.6 square mile city.
The fundamental structure of the building is solid, though Ron understands why holes through the walls intimidated previous potential buyers. All the better for him, since he develops a strangely masterful tunnel vision when he decides on a project. It’s the same vision that led him to taken on the burnt-out Crawford Bookmine 40 years ago and convert it to Chamblin Bookmine.
The two upper floors contain a surprising number of bathrooms and tiny cornered kitchens. It’s the nature of boarding houses to carve old buildings into as many small rentable spaces as possible, but these decades later the bedrooms have become empty and unremarkable spaces while the bathrooms punctuate the hallways and plaster walls fall from wooden frames into long abandoned bathtubs.
We walk to the back of the second floor, and though vines grow through the broken windows, and the room feels as old as any space that could hang off the back of a building in the old center of town, this room’s an addition. It was added as a porch decades and decades back, perhaps a sleeping-porch, that charming old Southern space where you could sleep inside and outside at once on pleasant autumnal nights. Long years between this back addition and the building’s boarding-house decay, however, other buildings rose up against it, windows were enclosed, and vistas were blocked by brick walls of other structures.
“Here’s another bathroom,” Ron says, walks a few paces, and says, “and here’s another bathroom. There’s bathrooms all over the place.”
After Ron’s renovations, 225 North Laura Street will contain four upper-floor apartments, two per floor, but in its boarding house days, the building crammed
10 apartments into two floors, a couple hundred square feet per room, alongside numerous bathrooms and nearly hidden kitchens. I hope the people who move into these future apartments can thrive knowledgeably in wonder at how much human life has inhabited this building.
Marv Kramer, who’s worked on and off at Chamblin’s Uptown, and even lived with other employees in Ron’s large suburban Fleming Island house while Ron lived in his self-constructed nest in the back of Chamblin’s Uptown, lived in one of these apartments sometime in the early 1990s. Marv makes mention in John Grisham’s best-selling 1994 novel The Chamber, wherein he’s described factually as a pro bono Civil Rights lawyer and “fourth-generation Mississippi Jew whose family had prospered as merchants in the Delta.”
Ron points to century-old cast-iron plumbing, which he admires the way he admires the mechanics of his 1930s’ Fords, but which pragmatically, he says, “has to be ripped out.” Likewise, the electrical circulatory system of the building gets excised. The whole three stories is re-veined like a Frankenstein’s monster, but with more certain results.
We’ve come up the stairs to the third floor. The banisters seem to drip with layers and layers of paint, as though the years and the lives of the building hang as thick upon it as icing. Number-plates over open doors indicate ghostly old rooms at #6, #8, #10.
Around one corner, Ron says, “You gotta see this, check this out!”
We step into a room, shrink around a corner and duck beneath a lowered ceiling. The walkway into this trapped niche is narrow and low. It’s a bit awkward for me and Ron to stand together in this same space, but he points toward two rounded human figures drawn in black marker, each wearing a bowler hat and floating above a thick black arrow pointing downward. The hat-wearing silhouettes look like iconic images from the TV show Breaking Bad. One holds a sign across his belly that says, “HOT,” and the other, “COLD.”
“Can you believe this weird little cave in the back of this third floor was somebody’s kitchen?” Ron says.
Then he opens a narrow hallway door with stairs crumbling into the wall behind it and says this old approach to the roof leads up to a hatchway.
I ask him if anyone who rents here in the future will have this passageway as access to the roof, and he says it’s an option, “We’ve gotta get with the code people.”
When we walk to the front of the third floor, it’s clear whoever rents this apartment will have four windows from which to look out at the center of Jacksonville. The apartment will span about 1100 square feet, about the size of my first house and the Riverside apartment I rented after my divorce.
As we walk down three floors of stairs, I feel thankful Ron’s spent the last three months talking to me about his childhood and his fears and exhilarations when first opening his own business and his insecurities and inadequacies and his love of old cars, and I see our differences reflect against the stairwell walls as we descend this narrow old building. Ron sees precisely what needs to happen to “the Gus Building,” as he calls it, and I say to him, rather effusively, “I love to think of and try to feel and just stew in the idea of all the human experience that’s happened in a building like this.” Ron says, “Mmmm hmmm,” but it’s clear he’s thinking precisely about what needs to happen to the holes in the walls to make this old structure a better place to rent an apartment than any new pre-fab apartment in the city’s Southside suburbs.
We descend to the ground floor landing and Ron points to side doors that decades back served as shop entrances, but now open only a few inches to the brick walls of the old commercial building next door.
I love the way life and history and the movement of cities and lives across the history of a city rearrange the spaces within a building. So I love doors that open into walls and turn beneath stairs that enter long-ago boarding-room kitchens.