by Tim Gilmore, 1/25/2020
1. Demise and Afterlives
The Great Fire of 1901 missed El Modelo by two blocks north and four to the east. To this day, the Jacksonville inferno is considered the third largest urban fire in American history. Since the fire started at the northeastern edge of LaVilla and jumped the city line to burn down Jacksonville, the sparing of “The El Modelo Block” might seem divinely ordained. If you believe in that sort of romance.
Until six weeks later. National newspaper headlines declared, “Another Fire at Jacksonville.” This story took much less ink than that of the Great Fire of the third of May. On June 17th, newspapers reported, “The third floor of the El Modelo block here was destroyed by fire early this morning.” Jacksonville Knitting Mills had occupied that top floor and Fernandez Bros. Cigar Factory, also heavily damaged, the second.
Though seeming but a footnote to the Great Fire, the El Modelo blaze altered the history of the cigar industry in Florida, pivoting manufacture, despite the Jacksonville headquarters of Jno H. Swisher and Son, later Swisher International, toward Tampa and away from Jacksonville. In April 1904, The Weekly Tribune of Tampa reported that El Modelo “would be rebuilt in Tampa.” Tampa’s cigar manufacturers had determined that “if it reopened in Jacksonville,” then “other factories would follow it, thus prove an opening wedge” to keep Tampa from its newly cemented “prestige as the great center of the clear Havana cigar trade.”
In September 1910, Tampa’s Bustilo Brothers and Diaz Company relocated to El Modelo Block to avoid a Tampa Cigarmakers’ Union strike. The company had kicked into quick business when representatives from the Tampa union arrived by train in Jacksonville to pay the scabs a visit. Given the tendency of such contests to turn bloody, Jacksonville police met the Tampa delegation at the station, accompanied them to the factory, bade them back out peaceably, and advised them to go home. They did. The scab operation soon rejoined its Tampa brethren.
Though headlines claimed the Modelo Block Fire of 1901 destroyed it, news of its death was greatly exaggerated. The 1887 building housed hotels much longer than it headquartered cigar factories. For half a century, beginning in 1915, the former factory served as the Plaza Hotel, not to be confused with the Plaza Hotel and Bexley House at Forsyth and Liberty Streets, then the Hillsboro, the Southern and the New York Hotel.
By 1965, though the upstairs hotel in the Adams Building next door never shut its doors, El Modelo’s two upper floors stood empty but for rats, eerie shadows and the likenesses of ghosts. Only a pawn shop on the first floor still operated. In 1971, when retired banking executive Ray Norton bought the building as an investment, he walked through the second-floor lobby, right upstairs from the street entrance, as in the Adams Building next door, ran his fingertips through the accumulations of dust on old desks, on the nightstands and iron bed frames left oxidizing lonely in old hotel rooms.
In 1983, the maritime law firm Moseley Prichard Parrish Knight & Jones began restoring the old hotel and cigar factory and has called El Modelo home now for nearly 40 years. Maritime law, Jim Moseley, Sr. tells me, is so conservative, so slow to change, it’s almost ahistoric. So it’s somewhat ironic these dramatic historical paintings like Jacksonville, 1931 by Paul McGehee and The City of Jacksonville Returning Home to Astor’s Wharf, 1895 by John Stobart, conservative themselves in their dramatizations of the past, incidentally feature ships like the Broward brothers’ gunrunner and filibuster boat called Three Friends and show black and white longshoremen working the docks together when skin color in Southern industry seemed less dangerous than the work that waxed the commerce and flow of the world.
2. Envy of Intrigue
Jacksonville historians called the sweeping house, wrapped all the way around in verandas two stories, cobwebbed in carpenters’ wooden filigree, the “Senator Austin Mann House.” Mann, like so many late 19th century Jacksonville politicians, had fought for the U.S. against the Confederate States in the Civil War. Moving south, he’d won election to the Florida Senate in 1883.
More than two decades later, say histories that date the Silver Street address to 1906, Senator Mann “came to Jacksonville” and “moved into this house.”
Gracefully eliding that contradiction, chief city historical planner Joel McEachin tells me, “All indications are the house was decades older, due to style—Italianate in the 1870s and ’80s—and the presence of a mature grape arbor in the 1906 photo.”
To the house’s being located, according to newspaper chronicles of Marie’s murder, “near the corner of Hogan Street and the Old Panama Road,” Joel says, “The 1913 Sanborn [Fire Insurance] map lines the house along the right-of-way of the Old Panama Road, which disappeared when incorporated into the plat of the northern portion of Springfield. Sections of the Old Panama Road,” Joel says, can still be found, disconnected and broken off and lost, trailing up through the city core north of Springfield.
City historians failed to connect Senator Mann’s address to the Gato residence and murder site until just before the house was demolished in 2000. By then, every day, parts of upper rooms and hallways fell in on themselves, though Joel visited the house just before bulldozers did. He walked into the parlor, stood still there, finally understanding the house’s story and connecting its many histories, cognizant of Marie Louise Gato, who’d bled to death, where Joel now stood, more than a century before.
Joel’s convinced Eddie Pitzer, though acquitted of the murder, deeply and passionately in love with the deep- and dark-eyed Marie, her olive skin and thick dark wilderness of hair, felt inadequate compared to other suitors, since he’d staked no involvement, as had seemingly every other Jacksonville youth, in the city’s sudden surge toward smuggling guns and revolution. When Pitzer found Marie reportedly engaged to a Jacksonville “freedom fighter,” then heard rumors of another, his envy of the intrigue and adventure overcame him.
3. “I Will Die Facing the Sun!”
Nathaniel Borden, Jacksonville shipping magnate and lumber merchant, sailed three ships for José Martí under the English pseudonym “Mantell” in January 1895. The Cuban writer Jorge Mañach y Robato’s 1933 Martí: El Apostol, a “biographical novel,” Martí the Apostle, imagines the Great Revolutionary moving through “The Cubans of the South” toward Cuba:
“As the train continues toward the South, the countryside opens up. A brighter light shines down among the endless pine trees. Tobacco fields and warehouses pass by […]
“The Cubans of the South are calling him […] How had he not kept in mind the fact that these settlements in the South of the United States were something like subsidiaries of Cuba?”
Robato’s hagiography of the warrior-poet brings him to Jacksonville to look death in the eye. Martí perished in battle, rushing Spanish troops in the Battle of Dos Rios on May 19, 1895. Indeed, Martí, Huau and their band of revolutionaries, their junta, moved up from Jacksonville, 36 miles to an inn called Florida House in Fernandina, from which they departed on January 18th for Cuba.
Writes Robato: “Martí flies to Fernandina. He cannot show himself because the small port is swarming with Federal agents, police and spies […] Desperate, Martí summons Collazo, Mayia and Qiieralta to Jacksonville. They find him that night in a room at the Travelers’ Hotel, where he has registered under an assumed name […] Again and again, he stops and, raising his arms, sobs,
“‘It is not my fault! It is not my fault!’ […] This is the sudden, inconceivable failure of three years of virile action, and all that is feminine in his spirit flows freely in this instant. The visible depth of his sorrow stops the reproaches that Collazo and Rodriguez had stored up for two months against his secret activity. Now, before that man who weeps, they have nothing but respect.”
Indeed did Martí depart, as he himself seems in his poetry to have prophesied, from Jacksonville to his martyrdom, if you believe in that romantic principle. He probably last stayed at the New Travelers Hotel at the northwest corner of Bay and Cedar (now Pearl) Streets, two blocks east of El Modelo. Indeed did he leave Jacksonville for the rightful end—Viva la revolución!—of a great Latin American poet, if you subscribe to that romance.
“He remains,” writes Robato, imagining Martí in his Jacksonville inn preparing his ultimate charge, “for a long moment of silence, with his chin sunk on his chest. Finally, he lifts his face, now filled with a new light. He will triumphantly hold his entrails in his fist!”
José Martí and a young soldier improbably named Angel de la Guardia charged the Spanish, seemingly suicidally, at the merging of two rivers among palm trees. When first the Spanish recovered his corpse, not realizing whose dead body they handled, they buried him respectfully. When they discovered whom they’d secured in the maternal warmth of the earth, they wrenched Martí’s lifeless form back up from the dirt.
If Cubans wondered how their chief revolutionary and a soldier named Guardian Angel had charged the Spanish alone, with said angel leaving Martí dead on the battlefield, this story told them both that their cause had come to its hopeless end and that the success of their cause was inevitable. Both determinations fueled the Cuban defeat of the Spanish and the independence, finally, of the Republic of Cuba.
Many Cubans and Floridians believed Martí had foretold his own death at age 42 in his earlier poetry collection Versos Sencillos, “Simple Verses,” of 1891.
So wrote Martí, “No me entierren en lo oscuro/ A morir como un traidor/ Yo soy bueno y como bueno/ Moriré de cara al sol.”
“Do not bury me in darkness / to die like a traitor. / I am good, and as a good man, / I will die facing the sun.”