by Tim Gilmore, 11/24/2019
1. Fighting Bears with Sword Canes and Republicans with Whigs
(See also: “Lions of Drew and McConihe”)
One night in the winter of 1849, just around the corner from where I sip coffee in the courtyard of the Drew Building, the old building Ottis Toole once gutted with fire, Columbus Drew escorted Jaquelin Daniel and 16 year old Bill L’Engle home from choir practice. As the trio rounded the southeast corner of Forsyth and Ocean Streets, they came face to face with the great beast.
“We encountered,” Bill L’Engle wrote to his Aunt Leonis, “What do you think? A huge black bear just at Mr. Reed’s corner, as we turned to cross the bridge at the causeway. I was not ten feet from the fellow’s nose.”
L’Engle had been walking with his father’s sword cane, a young dandy sauntering through the swamp populated by six blocks of wooden buildings east to west, three blocks south to north, and “negro huts” on all sides. The teenage boy chased the bear, if we can believe his epistolary braggadocio, though “Mr. Bruin,” as Bill called him, moved too quickly through the night.
Columbus Drew had come from Alexandria, Virginia just the year before, leaving behind a prestigious newspaper career with The National Intelligencer and The American. He’d arrived in this primitive backwater to take over The Jacksonville Republican, soon renamed The Florida Republican, the newspaper of the Florida Whig Party. He edited the paper in a house on the southwest corner of Market and Bay Streets. Prospects in this town of about 1,000 citizens seemed both hopeful and dismal.
Though the Whigs advocated “liberal” policies like federal funding for national transportation projects, they skewed right in supporting protectionist tariffs. In the 1850s, the topic of slavery divided the party, causing many Whigs, including Abraham Lincoln and three other future presidents, to switch allegiance to the new Republican Party. The southernmost state’s Whig newspaper ceased when Drew ended his editorship in 1855 and opened the city’s first bookstore.
During the Civil War, both Confederate and United States troops burnt Jacksonville repeatedly. Finally, in the post-apocalyptic ash, Columbus Drew rebuilt his bookstore, a decade after its founding.
“The gradual return to normalcy,” writes Richard Martin in his 1972 book The City Makers, “began to revive those gracious aspects of home and social life which are so near to women’s hearts.” Thus the wives of city founders, Martin says, could “pamper [themselves] with the latest books from Columbus Drew’s newly [re-]established bookstore.”
The antebellum C. Drew, Bookseller & Stationer and Columbus Drew, Stationery and Printing Company became, after the war, C. Drew and Son, which included Horace, a year older than the bookstore. Later the business became H. Drew, then H. Drew and Brother and in 1900, the name by which it was known throughout the coming century: H. and W.B. Drew Company.
2. Curse of the Third Floor, Part One
First there were just two stories. Then the deaths and injuries upon the building of the third. Then the halted demolition with wreckers on site. Later still, the third story’s destruction by fire and another planned demolition. This morning, I sit in the midst of that whole history and sip coffee and look through the skylights.
Originally the sign read, “Columbus Drew—Books, Stationery & Printing.” After the Great Fire of 1901, when the store moved from around the corner on Forsyth Street to its new home at 45 West Bay, the banner out front said, “Drew’s Book Store.”
In a photograph from the 19-aughts, women in hats and long full skirts look into large display windows. A bicycle’s parked at the curb. Another leans against the wall behind it. Postcards and photographs paper the windows. A sign advertising “Kodaks” hangs over the accommodating entrance. On the second floor, the sashes of windows are thrown open. There’s no third floor yet, just as there’s no third floor now. Nobody knows what architect designed the building in 1901 and confusion ensued about who designed the third story.
Newspapers in the summer of 1909 reported scaffolding snaked up the front of the building and said Henry John Klutho, who would become the city’s most historically significant architect, was designing an additional floor. November of the following year, newspapers reported construction ongoing and named the designer as Wilbur Bacon Camp. Whoever designed the third story, part of what delayed its completion was the collapse of the roof, which killed two workers and injured five others.
Architect Robert Broward noted in his 1983 book The Architecture of Henry John Klutho: The Prairie School in Jacksonville that Klutho probably created the original design, “then handed over the job of preparing working drawings and supervising construction” to Camp, who’d previously worked with Klutho.
But the mystery wrapped itself further in knots. Not quite 65 years after Camp’s death in 1918, someone found a stash of Camp’s architectural drawings in the attic of the house he’d designed for himself at 2024 Pearl Street, now demolished, just north of downtown in Springfield. One design showed a third story addition to Drew’s Bookstore that never was built.
Camp had warned the construction foreman at Drew’s repeatedly, Broward writes, not to stage heavy materials on the newly laid third floor. “The joists were strong enough to support the addition, Camp maintained, but not to support the immense, concentrated weight of bricks brought up in contravention of his specific orders.”
After the tragedy, workers finally completed the third floor, but misfortune wasn’t through with it. Five days into 1982, architect Peter Rumpel stared into what seemed the utter destruction of four years’ work to restore the old H. and W.B. Drew Building. Firefighters, 75 of them, had responded to the conflagration reported at 3:14 a.m.
3. Omnipresent Ottis
These were the days when arsonist and phony serial killer Ottis Toole’s pyromania hit its peak. The same night the Drew Building burned, firefighters put out three blazes in Springfield, where Toole set most of his fires and had spent most of his life. That same night, Toole set the grand Victorian house, sliced into a rooming house at 117 East 2nd Street, ablaze.
In the summer of 1982, the fire marshal’s office posted “Arson Epidemic” flyers all over Springfield and walked house to house, knocking on doors, warning Springfielders a serial arsonist lived in their midst. It was the death of a boarder named George Sonnenberg in that January East 2nd Street housefire that soon sent Toole to prison.
When researching my 2013 book Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic, I spoke with Regina Hersey, who broke her back jumping from a second floor window in that fire. From what she later learned, she said, “Ottis Toole set a great deal of Jacksonville on fire that week.”
The Jacksonville Journal reported on January 5, 1982 that if firefighters hadn’t defeated the fire in the Drew Building, the entire block of Bay Street could have burned. The fire destroyed the first floor Loading Dock Restaurant and Rumpel’s office and the second floor offices of attorney Lyman Fletcher. The third floor, where the fire started, had been unoccupied.
A hundred years ago, a fire that started in one building often took the block, then jumped a block over. Several such largescale fires, most notably the Pine Street [later called Main Street] Fire of 1891 and the Great Fire of 1901, one of the largest urban fires in American history, started similarly. From prison, Toole once said, “I’d like to see a whole city burn down. I’d like to see a whole city. I’d like to see the tallest building burn down.”
The Jacksonville Journal also noted the critical injuries of George Nicholas Sonnenberg and the backbreaking fall of Regina Hersey. That fire was reported at 9:45. p.m. By 1:16 a.m., firefighters were at 1554 North Pearl Street in Springfield, “fighting a fire in an apartment above the Deluxe Cleaners.” Less than an hour later, firefighters noted “a glow in the sky down the street.” They felt sure “whoever set the fire at the cleaners went around the corner” and set the next fire in “an old Springfield house being remodeled.” The Drew Building took fire about three a.m.
However much of Jacksonville, in Regina Hersey’s words, Ottis Toole set on fire that week, it amazes me how often he rears his head in the Hieronymus-Bosch-like visions of central-Jacksonville-as-Hell in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
4. Curse of the Third Floor, Part 2
Rumpel told the Journal the Drew Building had risen from the ashes of 1901, that after Drew’s Bookstore, it housed [Senator Fletcher] Morgan’s Furniture Company for years.
Jacksonville Journal headlines back in January 1976 referred to a “Klutho Landmark” that would get a “New Face.” Story ledes referred to “the old Morgan’s Department Store Building.” In fact, the building had been vacant for about 15 years and was slated for demolition when architects Pete Rumpel and James Clements purchased it to save it.
Rumpel first fell in love with the building in 1974 when he looked down on it from the 29th floor of the new Independent Life Building across Bay Street. The 37 story building, then the tallest in Florida, had replaced the five story McConihe Building of 1901, into which H. and W.B. Drew had moved in ’21. Rumpel was surprised to find the smaller Drew Building still standing and looking up at him from far down below.
The building nearly came down anyway. The city condemned it the same year Rumpel fell in love with it and two years later, as Rumpel and Clements secured financing, wreckers began demolition. The Journal later explained, “The Drew Building exists now only because Rumpel hustled downtown one day in 1976 and stopped workmen who had already started bashing interior walls and the roof on mistaken orders from City Hall.”
Now city leaders had ordered a “stay of execution,” Rumpel said. “Another hour or two would have been too late.”
But the building, some said, seemed to have a death wish. “The old Drew Co. Building,” The Florida Times-Union reported on January 6, 1982, “which escaped destruction by condemnation six years ago because of its historic importance to Jacksonville, was ravaged by fire yesterday and will be torn down.”
The same day, The Jacksonville Journal reported, “Architect Peter Rumpel, who began restoring Jacksonville’s historic Drew Building four years ago, said today he doesn’t hold much hope the fire-damaged building can be even partly saved.” While emergency discussions with city officials, insurance reps and building tenants had begun, Rumpel said, “We are being asked to remove at least the third story immediately for the possible hazard of it falling.”
Doug Hutchins, division chief of codes enforcement for Jacksonville’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, told Otis Perkins of The Florida Times-Union, “The inside wall is leaning eight inches out, and if it goes, the front [of the building] would go.” He added, “A strong wind could cause the outside wall to fall across part of Bay Street.”
As Broward wrote of 45 West Bay that same year for his book about Klutho’s architecture, “The ruined walls, fallen into the street, seemed to be a ghostly reappearance of the rubble that fell during the first tragedy 72 years earlier.”
5. The Whole History in Each Part
The stories of buildings are the stories of the people who’ve used them, abused them, loved them, lived in and lived them. The story of a building old enough serves as refraction of the whole history of the city.
Seven decades before the fire, Drew’s Bookstore had become perhaps the most prominent representative of Jacksonville, and indeed Florida, to the rest of the nation and the world. Specifically, H. and W.B. Drew became the largest producer of postcards in the Southeast. While its bookstore on Bay Street served as its biggest retailer, its Florida postcards sold throughout the country and internationally.
Though various companies had printed postcards for decades, as an October 1980 article in The Antiques Journal noted, they became Florida’s most popular tourist item early in the 20th century. Though Jacksonville’s time as southernmost tourist destination had peaked, the state kept developing southward, and Jacksonville businesses like Drew’s capitalized on that trajectory.
Drew’s became the visual representative of all further southern exploration, promoting and publishing postcards for Silver Springs and Green Cove Springs, then St. Augustine, Daytona Beach and finally Miami and Key West. “Bookstores which formerly did a thriving trade in literature,” John Walker Harrington wrote for American Magazine in 1906, are now devoted almost entirely to their [postcard] sale.”
(Cue the later prophecies of the murder of reading by radio, by TV, by the Internet. Long before postcards were presumed to kill poetry and good writing, religious institutions burnt books and sometimes writers in public squares. Try harder. Writers are tougher than cockroaches.)
What Drew’s postcards captured shows a strange and vibrant, pseudo-exotic and racist Florida. Crowds of people roam Jacksonville streets alongside streetcars and Model-Ts. Women in wide-brimmed straw hats and long skirts sit in rocking chairs on the wide porches of wooden hotels. Osky’s Alligator Store, a block west of Drew’s, sells stuffed dead reptiles. Harnessed alligators pull children in carriages at Jacksonville’s Alligator Farm. Men ride on the backs of giant racing birds at the Ostrich Farm. Alligators snap at the pants of an old black man, his hands folded in supplication as he prays “The Darky’s Prayer”—
“Oh Lawdy, please deliber me / From dese ’gators dats gold hold of me / If I only had de chance / I’d gib dem my pants / If de’d only let de rest of me be.”
A postcard depicting an interior view of the bookstore shows rows of large display cases, containing tea sets and atomizers and ceramics, to either side of a central aisle. Books line the east and west walls, top to bottom, with sliding ladders to reach the upper shelves beside multi-globed light fixtures depending from a stamped tin ceiling. A cuckoo clock ticks on a central column and railed light wells on the second flood look down past framed portraits.
Catalogs and Literary Digest ads listed Drew’s as carrying histories of Florida, Bush’s Digest of Florida Laws, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Edmund Reed’s arguments that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Francis Bacon.
Before Horace Drew died in 1926, the postcard market had begun to slide, just ahead of the end of the Florida Real Estate Boom and the start of the Great Depression. Horace’s son Hodson became president of the company, after a six year leadership hiatus, in 1932.
By then, the Drew Bookstore Building at 45 West Bay had been abandoned for a decade, last home to Senator Fletcher Morgan’s furniture store. The Florida Times-Union printed banner headlines and full-page stories in May 1971, bemoaning the demolition of Drew’s flagship buildings, which contained its printing operations, in the center of the block where the new Independent Life Building would rise, the tallest in Florida.
“An Era Ends,” the headlines pronounced. The “Ax of Progress” would “fell” the last prominent sign of one of the oldest businesses in the city. “Nostalgia Swirls About Structure on Bay Street Here,” a subhead read above a synopsis of the family history. For the first time in 122 years, the Drew Co. had no home in the city.
In the days after the fire in 1982, headlines evolved from “FIRE: Drew Building in Ruins” to “Drew Building May Be Razed” to “Drew Building May Be Partly Saved” to “DREW: Architect Planning Complex.” Rumpel and Clements had lost 90 percent of their architectural drawings and files in the fire, but Rumpel could not and would not let his beloved building die. By October 23rd, headlines announced, “Drew Building Renovation Begins.”
The building was returning “to its original two-story, turn-of-the-century exterior elegance.” Clements, Rumpel Associates had sold the building to real estate developer Robert LeMoine, but designed a new interior to replace what the fire had gutted. Inside the Drew Building, retail, restaurant and office space would surround a central courtyard.
I’m there now, having coffee at a bistro table, looking up at the sleek metallic lines of stairs and rails, columns and beams. Light falls through skylights on banks of glass angled on a thousand rhythms and variations of old red brick. These walls are my elders. I’ve come to listen to their stories.
By the end of September 1984, newspaper ads for St. Vincent’s Family Medical Care Center and Pharmacy invited guests to its grand opening in the “Historic Drew Building.” Visitors would receive free t-shirts, tours, refreshments and blood pressure screenings.
More than 30 years later, I met my friend Claire Goforth, then editor of Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative newspaper, here at the company’s new downtown digs. She introduced me to the new arts editor, artist and writer Madeleine Peck Wagner, and let me dig through the archives to find a story about a cold case murder.
Back on December 2, 1977, a Jacksonville Journal story about this building quoted Downtown Development Authority Director Don Ingram: “If cities are to be viable, they must be interesting. People can’t relate to megastructures.” Surely Ingram had read Jane Jacobs’s 1958 essay, “Downtown is for People,” which mentions Jacksonville and defines a healthy urban area as “an enormous collection of small elements.”
Rumpel’s and Clement’s architectural redesign of the Drew Building interior is a miniature model of a city. So, indeed, is this building’s whole history, more dramatic, storied and varied than that of many an entire small town.
Thus could there hardly be a better place for the headquarters of the city’s alternative weekly, founded in 1987? In recent years, Folio has given us Shelton Hull writing of the life, times and “final breaths” of F. Kyle Marshall, a beloved d.j. who somehow became the shadow mayor of the city; Claire Goforth writing of the epidemic of black transwomen murders in Jacksonville; Julie Delegal writing of Mayor Lenny Curry’s complete “roadblock” of any new efforts to fund maintenance for basic needs—including wiring, air-conditioning, crumbling walls and plumbing—for public schools; Dan Brown writing about how Jax-based Indian American writer Sohrab Fracis’s novel Go Home divides into three sections, “not unlike Dante’s Divine Comedy.”
These are the stories of the city; this building is the story of the city. This courtyard is the alt-Hemming Park—that central city square in front of City Hall, itself housed in Klutho’s architectural masterpiece, the St. James Building. People have often said the Drew Building seemed to have a death wish, just as they’ve said of Jacksonville. Its curses and blessings are braided together inseparably. That’s the deal. Its most beautiful moments will always break your heart and its tragedies will ever birth hope.