Haydon Burns Library, Downtown

by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2012

The Haydon Burns Library, Downtown; Or,

the Hardwick-Klutho Chess Match across the Center of the City and the 20th Century (She Cried and Cried and Cried)

Taylor Hardwick’s library design was human. It was loving. It was good and pure and bright and bold. It was the architectural answer to the cold, sterile and impersonal box shapes of the buildings of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his imitators. New York could keep the Seagram Building. The whole exterior of Hardwick’s rectangular building seemed to dance with the strange buoyancy of the vertical fins that undulate up all sides. Though the fins were concrete, they rose up the building in waves that slung upward toward taller buildings around it.

The old man tells me, “I watched them tear it down to build that ultra-modernistic library building. That building they tore down was a masterpiece. I stood across the street and watched them tear it down. They tore down City Hall to build that library monstrosity. City Hall with a big, beautiful copper dome and a clock on top. The inside of the dome was covered in these canvas murals that were complicated and allegorical. And here’s what I saw. All these decades later, I still can’t believe what I saw.”

Old City Hall, designed by Henry John Klutho, courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

“What did you see?” I asked him.

“I saw the wrecking machine standing in the debris of that beautiful palace of a building, and I saw, oh God what I saw, I saw the giant canvases of those murals fluttering all ragged and torn over the wreckage, the torn canvases of the murals flapping in the savage wind up over the destruction.

one of the lunette tapestries from inside Klutho’s City Hall dome, courtesy Robert Broward

“And I’m sorry to say this, because I’m a religious man, I’ve been a good Christian as many of my 93 years as I could, but I had this horrible feeling all over me. It was like I saw them stand there and desecrate a Bible. That’s what I felt like.”

Old City Hall, designed by Henry John Klutho, courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

Now watch this ironic zigzag trajectory. In 1903, Henry John Klutho designs the first public library for the city on East Adams Street. The building’s still there. It’s early Klutho, not yet identifiably his style, still redolent of the City Beautiful Movement epitomized by the White City at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

The first public library building was built catercorner from Klutho’s Jacksonville City Hall, which was even more City Beautiful, in fact entirely Beaux-Arts, and if not yet identifiably Kluthoesque, it was perhaps the most beautiful building the city had ever known. The library and City Hall were built at the same time.

in front of the First Public Library, designed by Henry John Klutho, courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

The City tore down Klutho’s City Hall in the early 1960s to built Taylor Hardwick’s new Main Library building. So the new main library would destroy Klutho’s City Hall diagonally across the street from Klutho’s first public library.

In the late 1990s, the St. James Building, usually considered Klutho’s magnum opus, was reopened on Hemming Park, after extensive renovations and two decades of abandonment, as Jacksonville’s new City Hall.

Less than a decade later, Taylor Hardwick’s Haydon Burns Library was abandoned as the Main Library moved to a new location in a new building (that followed demolition of a number of old buildings) catercorner from the new City Hall in the old St. James Building.

The St. James Building stood no longer empty. Now it was the seat of city government. Taylor Hardwick’s Haydon Burns Library, that now-nostalgic vision of 1960s modernism, pointing to the bold brightly-colored world of tomorrow, that had demolished Klutho’s first City Hall, now stood empty.

The architects Henry John Klutho and Taylor Hardwick played chess across the squares and blocks of the gameboard of Downtown Jacksonville. Both of them had lost. Both of them had won.

one of the Atlas figures inside the dome of the St. James Building, courtesy Robert Broward

If you can go that far back, memory feels unadulterated, if also not completely formed. Everything is primary colors and bold basic shapes. “For me,” the young librarian says, “that far back, the primordial Edenic world is not one of trees and streams, but one of books and drawings, aisles of illustrated imaginations and dreams and fairy tales housed in brightly colored green and blue bricks and tiles in the middle of a city. It was everything. It was security and stability and love and warmth and stories and the pictures of the stories of anything I could imagine. It was the perfect world you didn’t know you were losing and you didn’t know you would never get back.”

inside the Haydon Burns Library, abandoned, photograph by Robert J. Willis