by Tim Gilmore, 7/1/2022
It’s 1816. I’ve come to the first house. In fact, this house precedes the city. The land still belongs to Spain. Though when Jacksonville first arrives six years later, nobody could call that scattering of log houses in the marshes a city.
I’m trying to tell the time from the digital bank clock across the street. It’s 1962. What kind of soothsaying is “telling time”? I think it’s 7:32, looks like morning light, but not summer. I can barely see in Florida summer light. It blinds me.
It happens so fast. Spain grants Maria Raphaela Suarez Taylor, whose first husband Parnel is killed in Fernandina in 1814, 200 acres, almost half the larger land grant Robert Pritchard received in 1791. Parnel is 24 or 25 years old, fighting for the Spanish, ambushed by the so-called “Patriot Army.” Lewis Zachariah Hogans marries Parnel’s widow and they build their log cabin at a cultivable outcrop in the snake- and insect- infested swamp. Small Spanish houses stood here before, but the Florida “Patriots” destroyed them in 1812. This place is Widow’s Land. By Christmas 1816, Zachariah and Maria move into their new house.
Strange the effect this place, really this place above the place, or this place rooted down in it — strange how it affects me! I’m standing directly above that first house, 206 years after Maria and Zachariah build it. I’m trying to see the houses the Florida Patriots destroyed, the houses before the “first house.” I’m standing atop a parking garage, staring up at the city’s tallest building, constructed in 1990.
I walk back and peer through the blinds of rooms empty for decades at the back of another building. Through one of these broken doors behind a rusted fire escape above other doors behind fire escapes all the way down, I am living. I’m hunched sweating over an old typewriter inside. I count the rhythms of the shadows of the rungs on my front doors, down, down and down. My memories fuse and slip and transpose one another.
Zachariah and Maria fell the pines and woodbine, the palmetto scrub, build up the house from the wood taken down. Zachariah clears a field and plants beans, corn and yams and plants a fence between the garden and the marsh. Other settlers give the Hogans’s address as “over on the hill beyond the swamp.” Hogan Street takes its name, without the final ess, from the first house and Forsyth for General John, U.S. Minister to Spain, who negotiates the purchase of the state in 1821. I’m still trying to see the houses that pre-date the “first.”
This great discus, this concrete lily pad, stands on a column that corkscrews from the top of the garage to the ground. Architect Herb Coons designs the garage for Atlantic National Bank in 1962. He laces the length of the garage along Forsyth and wraps the corner around Hogan with copper brise soleil and spirals the entrance ramp on Hogan upward like a fossilized fiddlehead. I want atop the discus, but I’m afraid of heights. I want to stand up there, arms raised to the sun, and await the flying saucers for which some cult might think this a landing pad.
I juxtapose times, stand this structure in that primordial ooze, 2022 in 1816, and I can smell the swamp up here. The cabin outlasts L.Z. Hogans. Somewhere down the river, he dies in one of the Seminole Wars, 21 years later. The cabin lasts four decades, every nuance and pain and joy experienced here in the original house. Maria births Zachariah Thomas and John Raphaela and Sarah Ann and Mary Jane and George Washington here.
The Hogans Well outlasts them all. The Bostonians and Knickerbockers who come down and stay at the new Jacksonville hotels in the 1870s, rocking on the chairs in their suits on the porches, all hear of the Hogans Well. They must see, say the shills in saloons, the well of the original settlers.
Before the Civil War, a woodframe house replaces the log cabin, the Confederates and U.S. troops take turns burning the town, again and again, then the Nichols House rises here on the Original Site, 1875, changes its name to the Duval Hotel, then burns to the ground in 1892. Through every fire, persists the Old Well, like some metaphor from ancient myth.
A new Duval Hotel rises in 1893 and the Great Fire of 1901, improbably, misses the hotel on the Old Hogans Homesite by a city block. Like most every other hotel in this snowbird resort town, the New Duval stands like a pile of kindling, a multistory matchbox. Two stories sweep verandas trimmed in gingerbread filigree across street fronts on both Hogan and Forsyth. The magnificent stone Post Office Tower stands across Hogan.
A baker’s delivery truck, its contours rounded like its contents, parks across Hogan. I’m back in the 1960s again. I can’t stand still in time. A man stops to light a cigarette, cups his hands before his face, just outside Amber House Restaurant, the curves of Chevrolet sedans flow like waves between the lanes, while Woolworth’s Department Store and Jones Bros Furniture wait up ahead. A woman sneezes. A tall dog coughs.
But it’s diagonally across the street, 1906, the photographers set up their equipment before the oldest house in Jacksonville. Hogan and Forsyth, southeast corner. It’s a fluke the house remains. The fire that destroyed the city spared just these blocks. The wind shifted. People call it fortune, luck, God. Diagonally across the street from the Hogans Well, boarders live over the Cafe Belvidere. Modest two stories, second floor porches. Cigars and newspapers and liquor sold inside. At back, the outside brick wall advertises Coca-Cola and lager, both “delicious and refreshing.”
When they tear down that pitiful old house, its roof sagging in its center, it breaks my heart. When they raise the tall Seminole Hotel in 1909, when they say the exterior terracotta Indian heads are self-portraits of the architect, though I’m not sure I believe it, it breaks my heart. These aren’t the Seminoles who killed Zachariah in 1837. When they tear down architect Henry John Klutho’s Seminole in 1974, when the limestone strews across this old ground like bodies broken in war, my heart shatters among the corpses.
I cry all over again when a parking lot replaces the Seminole. All the Original City is falling to parking lots. If the Visigoths sacked Jax, if the Seminoles rose again, if the Timucua rose from their millennia of coastal burials to exact revenge, that carnage would pale beside the damage wrought by parking lots and garages.
Some poor Romantic named Gilmore, descended from sharecroppers, who’ll seek to write his hometown entire, is born when the City of Jacksonville demolishes the Seminole Hotel. In 1990, German architect Helmut Jahn designs a fat blue pencil, tallest structure in the city, the 42 story Barnett Building, where the Seminole stood.
Back on that northeast corner, the Old Well remains. It remains until it doesn’t. Like the Duval Hotel. I’m sure it’s down there still. Like the Spanish houses that came before the “first house.”
Telling a story is something like telling time. You lose track. So I look back across the street to the digital clock. It’s 1962 again. Then again, it’s always 1962. Just as it’s always 1816 and 1892. Perhaps telling time is harder soothsaying that telling a story, but I’m not sure I can tell the difference.
The spiral up from Hogan takes me to the top. The ribbing in the pavement echoes up the tiles against which fades the light, year after year. Fading light walks me to the apex.
In 1962, Herb Coons assembles a team of bright young architects, Ted Pappas and Herschel Shepard, Bob Wolverton and Peter Rumpel, and they design the parking garage for Atlantic Motor and Florida National Banks. Ted meets Mary Lee Bone, a secretary for Coons, asks her out and proposes marriage on their first date. She says no, but says she knows she’ll say yes one day.
I can’t tell the time. It’s already past. It wasn’t that long ago; nothing was that long ago. It’s always the End of the World. I’m trying to evaluate the light. To envision the first Christmas in the first house. To see the Spanish houses that came before it. This is where everything begins.