by Tim Gilmore, 9/13/2019
Haunted, as Anna Fletcher believed it to be, or not, the intersection of Church and Julia Streets easily qualified as the most prestigious crossroads in the city, two of its four houses those of Florida senators. At the northwest corner stood the Thomas Porter House, the W.S. Ware House southwest, the James Taliaferro House at the northeast corner, the Duncan Fletcher House southeast. The crossroads had risen thus from the Great Fire.
Duncan Fletcher built his house while mayor, not long before the start of his 27 year reign as the longest serving senator from Florida. He was the newcomer to Church and Julia, since Porter, Taliaferro and Ware had built here prior to the Great Fire of 1901, which devoured their grand houses in its hunger for the whole city.
The corner lies just east of where the Hart family built a mansion on an entire city block between Ashley and Church Streets, north and south, and Clay and Bridge (now Broad) Streets, where in 1874 Ossian Hart came home to die. Governor Ossian Hart, son of the city’s founder, had hoped to reclaim Florida from its Confederate past and the Hart name from his father’s having stolen and resold slaves. Dying of tuberculosis, coughing up blood, Ossian felt devastated. His brother Oscar had supported slavery and Secession. His father Isaiah supported slavery but not Secession. Ossian hated both.
If Anna knew about Ossian’s death from tuberculosis two blocks to the west, she never mentioned his ghost haunting Church and Clay Streets. The ghost Anna spoke of was a foolish old woman who cared too much for her possessions. Anna knew what it was like to lose one’s home, as she had when the Fletchers lived on Adams Street, between Laura and Pine (now Main) Streets, during the Pine Street Fire of 1891.
Of the four grand houses that stood at this crossroads in the 19-aughts, only the Porter House remains, though not where it first stood. First Christian Church moved the house to 510 Julia Street in 1925, removing the veranda that wrapped three sides, and built a rear addition. Perhaps it was also the church who removed the widow’s walk from the peak of the house.
When in 1901, Henry John Klutho moved to Jacksonville after reading in New York papers about the fire that reduced the city to a clean slate, he scrambled for commissions and designed the new house for Thomas Porter and the new City Hall. Before Klutho adapted Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style to the South, he called his Porter design “Classic Colonial.”
In September 1907, Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine said of the Porter House, “The portico with its lofty columns gives dignity to the whole structure. The interior hall and stairway follow the same style and are of liberal proportions, giving an air of amplitude as you enter.”
In a 1905 architectural brochure, Klutho wrote, “The columns are modern Corinthian and so is the entablature. The general lines of the ‘Classic Corinthian’ have been followed, but made more delicate in every detail. The roof is covered with best black, unfading slate.”
In his 1983 book The Architecture of Henry John Klutho: The Prairie School in Jacksonville, Robert Broward writes, “The Porter house was finished in mahogany on the interior and white-painted cypress on the exterior,” while on the first floor, “much of the furniture was built in. The attic contained a large billiard room with arched dormer windows punctuating a mansard roof. Three great brick chimneys balanced the composition.”
Meantime, by the printing of the September 1907 issue of Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine, featuring a crisp photo of the Ware House, the State of Florida had brought William S. Ware, et al. to court on charges Ware and his associates had formed a Jacksonville “ice trust,” an economic conglomeration to corner the market. The state brought its case amidst the trustbusting glory of Theodore Roosevelt’s eight years as president. Among at least four law firms defending Ware was that of his neighbor across Julia Street, Duncan Upshaw Fletcher.
In 1908, William James Bryan of Jacksonville, the brash young man who “busted the Jacksonville ice trust,” as state newspapers put it just after the New Year, was appointed by Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward of Jacksonville to fill the senate seat of Stephen Mallory II, who’d died in office. Bryan bragged he’d be “the best senator any state ever had.” He served for three months and died of typhoid fever on March 22, 1908. He was 31 years old.
The largest house at the crossroads, Senator James Piper Taliaferro’s house, Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine called “a large fine house, suitable for any locality North or South” and said, “[T]he grouping of the columns about the veranda gives a very effective appearance and lends to the whole structure an air of solidity and strength.”
Taliaferro’s tenure in the Senate overlapped with Duncan Fletcher’s, Taliaferro serving from 1899 to 1911 and Fletcher from 1909 until his death in 1936. Architect J.H.W. Hawkins designed both the Taliaferro House and the Ware House. The Ware House was handsome enough, a veranda wrapping two sides, dormers, dentils, balusters and so on. Taliaferro’s house seemed certain and stalwart, terraced in lines from its balustrade wall at the sidewalk to the same at the veranda and the second floor balcony to the dentiling at the roofline and its crown of a widow’s walk.
The Fletcher House, besides being supposedly haunted, was the most architecturally distinctive of the four. A three story octagonal tower rose through the center of the face of the house. Diamond-paned windows looked in all directions from the observatory at the tower’s peak, which wore its sloping tile roof like the cap of a mushroom. A matching cap topped one side of the veranda that lined the mansion’s façade. Anna had heard that “an old woman had lost her life upon that spot when she returned to her burning cottage to secure some treasures.” Rather harshly, Anna later wrote in her 1929 book Death Unveiled, “Only her spirit emerged and her so-called treasures were useless.”
“If mortals could realize,” Anna wrote of the nameless old woman who’d lost her own home here, “how little real value there is in possessions which are not of the Soul, how many of the world’s heartaches might be avoided.” Thusly she lectured from the city’s greatest wealth.
Strange occurrences abounded in the Fletcher house. Whether to attribute these events to the death of the anonymous old woman or some previous tragedy, Anna knew not, and reminded herself all ground was the site of losses now unknown, losses themselves lost.
One day, a “small picture fell from the wall” in the music room, and “about ten days later a small picture, hanging in an upper hall, fell, with the wire broken in the same way.” Then, in the same room where the first picture had fallen, “an image toppled off its pedestal.”
Similarly, “on a landing leading to an upper hall,” a “grandfather clock” stopped and started of its own will. “It would start in the middle of the night, after days of silence.” Everyone heard “creaks and knocks about the home.” Then, one day, “a young lady” walked by the grandfather clock, “not touching it in any way,” and the clock “cast itself upon her, pinning her to the floor.”
Anna spoke of “poltergeists” in the house. Voices spoke out in the night in dark spaces deep in the Fletcher mansion, but when anyone emerged from their beds to answer them, they found no one present.
“We are told from the other side,” Anna wrote, “that ‘earth-bound spirits’ are not necessarily evil spirits, but often those who in life were deeply attached to some place or things or persons and who for a period may not be able to withdraw from those mortal attractions.”
How the nameless old woman, dead but “deeply attached” to her “useless” “so-called treasures,” felt about the rise of the Fletcher House, Anna seemed not to consider. In any case, the attack of the grandfather clock resulted in “nothing more serious than a demolished hat.”