by Tim Gilmore, 12/3/2021
Stepping upstairs in the Old Federal Reserve Bank Building at 424 North Hogan Street, I feel both elevated and dominated. Angles seem just slightly off. Brooke Robbins, the architect transforming this monumental bank building into restaurant and banquet space, acknowledges its oddities. A woman architect restoring, in 2021, the 1924 work of a woman architect, she focuses carefully on “complementing the quirks.”
The massive beams of this vaulted ceiling upstairs remind me of the contradictory connotations of the word “vault.” We are standing, after all, in an old bank building. The word denotes a bank vault as easily as it does a mausoleum, yet a roof vault projects ribbed arches just as an athlete pole vaults over the bar.
That kind of paradox works well for Henrietta Dozier, Jacksonville’s first woman architect, who, as Sharon Weightman wrote in her July 1, 1994 Florida Times-Union article, “They Called Her Harry,” sometimes signed off as “Mr. H.C. Dozier, architect.” It was “scandalous” when Dozier wore pants and a hard hat. As the only woman graduating in her class from Massachusetts Institute for Technology in 1891, her commencement program called her “Harry Dozier,” and family members called her “Cousin Harry” and “Uncle Harry.”
Partly these variations of name reflect the practicality of working in a male-dominated field, just as the Victorian novelist Mary Ann Evans went by George Eliot and the Bronte sisters – Emily, Charlotte and Anne – first published as Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell. But the nameplay indicates something else about Dozier too, something evident in her architecture. Dozier knew the rules and mastered them, and if not breaking them, she masterfully and playfully bent them.
Peering out an open window, I try to count layers and contextualize them. The streaks on old glass. The weathered stone balustrade. The concrete track of the Skyway monorail system. The terracotta and limestone ornamentation atop City Hall across the street.
Henrietta Dozier did not care, she said in 1939, for “the modernistic trends in architecture.” She said that “a squib in an architectural magazine” had recently referred to “the modernistic” as “nudist architecture” and Dozier entirely agreed.
“The modernistic,” she declared, was “only a fad” and she gave it “about five years to wear itself out.” Dozier, who’d moved her architectural practice to Jacksonville in 1914 after 13 years in her hometown of Atlanta, was speaking to the prolific interviewer Rose Shepherd for the Federal Writers’ Project, which funded writers as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.
“Speaking of prophets,” Dozier told Shepherd, she had already predicted “a five years’ existence for the craze for the Florida-Mediterranean type of construction and it did last for just about that length of time.” She doesn’t mention how the 1929 stock market crash and onset of the Great Depression immediately halted the 1920s Florida development boom and, with it, its signature “Mediterranean Revival” architectural style.
Meanwhile, if Dozier, whose usual photograph shows her tightly collared and buttoned up, unsmiling, hair kept tight to her skull, sounds prim and downright puritanical about architecture, her own designs differed. Eclectic, yes, at times, it’s almost postmodern, collages of idioms of varying styles. It’s no surprise then that she would see architecture under the influence of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, whose “Less is More’ is always quoted to define the stripped down minimalism of modernism, as “nudist.” Since the idiosyncratic interplay of motifs and idioms that she so loved was being eradicated, it was, ironically, the nudists who were the puritans.
The strange Welshan-Palmer House on Goodwin Street in Riverside, for example, starts with a portico with two columns, the space there constrained, then rises in quoins on either side of the tall central front bay to a balcony before a soaring arched window. The window totally dominates the tighter space beneath it, rises from it between wide windowless expanses of brick as the apex of a triangle, creating a sort of distorted Palladian effect, only to be crowned by a rooftop balustrade. Dozier told Shepherd the house was “almost pure Georgian in style,” but its proportions rather mocked the Georgian.
While that house stands like a riverfront amalgam of neoclassical motifs, the Lampru Court Apartments on Boulevard in Springfield, built the same year, featured variations on the “Florida-Mediterranean” style Dozier mocked in her later interview. Asymmetrically, the Lampru Court had an apartment foursquare on one side of its courtyard and a single bank of apartments, one on the ground, one on the second floor, on the other side. Dozier gave the building, sadly demolished in 2007, octagonal columns, a roofline with a stone parapet with cloverleaf designs, a rooftop garden and a basement with a “social cave.”
The design Dozier spoke most highly of, however, was the Federal Reserve Bank Building, for which she wasn’t the primary architect. Built the same year as the Lampru Court and the Goodwin Street house, the bank building stands as stalwart as a bomb shelter. Dozier served as associate and supervising architect for Atlanta’s A. Ten Eyck Brown and strangely, speaks not of its artistic merit, but of its durability, sounding more like an engineer.
“There is not a crack in the entire building,” Dozier tells Shepherd. “The Federal Reserve Bank is well built and soundly constructed,” she says, “one on which the ‘shifting sands of time’ have had no effect, for its foundations are firmly anchored on a clay bed which extends two and one half feet below the deepest footings. On account of the mean 13 feet above water level of Jacksonville, it is sometimes a difficult engineering problem to secure firm foundations for large buildings and skyscrapers.”
And that’s it. Nothing about the array of neoclassical imagery, the pedimented doorway, the portico with four colossal two story columns and pilasters, the street-level and third floor balustrades, the grand two-story arched windows, the overhanging copper eaves perched on limestone brackets that I can see up close from the glassless window frames of the Florida Baptist Convention Building being restored next door.
Considering the playful prim complexities and the rule-bending contradictions of Henrietta Dozier, Brooke Robbins and I stand behind the glass entrance doors with their chipped lettering reading, “Physicians and Surgeons Building,” marking the Old Fed’s last use before being abandoned, and two stories beneath the tablet engraved “Jacksonville Branch Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.”
Brooke is restoring both Dozier’s Old Fed and architect Henry John Klutho’s 1924 Florida Baptist Convention Building to the west. These two buildings make a courtyard with the historic Seminole Club, once the city’s good-ole-boy meetingplace and now Sweet Pete’s Candy Store and restaurant. The courtyard will share dining space among the three buildings, across from Klutho’s 1912 Prairie Style masterpiece, the St. James Building, now City Hall.
And so a city, after decades of neglect, of White Flight and urban desperations, comes back, one corner (or six or seven) at a time. For like any city, Jacksonville isn’t one city, but a constellation. Other corners light up across alleyways and rooftops and balconies and treetops and weathered histories and storied stone landscapes. And this is how it happens. Not merely one grand gesture, but thousands of smaller indications and intimations, each of them a world in and of itself.