by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012
What was once the Heart of Jacksonville Hotel sits empty downtown at the corner of Main and State Streets, five stories of stucco and concrete, shattered glass, and empty window frames, surrounding a long unused swimming pool bordered with lush palm trees. People without homes sleep in abandoned rooms. In the central swimming pool area, the downtown traffic is inaudible, and a strange silence prevails.
In 1975, the wallpaper was a velvety brown with large paisleys and curlicues. A bartender and data entry clerk named Mae Drayton met her female co-worker and a man at a rented room in the Heart of Jacksonville Hotel. They got drunk and watched The Jeffersons on TV. Then the women left the hotel and went to a nearby nightclub. Sometime before dawn, someone killed Mae Drayton at her Eastside home. They beat her, shot her dog, shot her in the neck. No one ever solved the murder.
The Heart of Jacksonville Hotel was built in 1966 at 901 North Main Street, on the corner of Union Street. Its sign featured a big Valentine heart shape, with “Heart of” in cursive lettering, atop a rounded banner that said, “Jacksonville.”
In 1996, after the Heart of Jacksonville had become the Park View Inn, an electrical shortage ignited a fire in a vacant room. None of the 300 guests was evacuated.
In January 1997, at the Park View Inn, a three year-old girl woke up her mother because her two year-old sister had set the bed on fire. The family and 20 other people were evacuated.
In November 2000, a man was rushed from his room at the Park View Inn with second and third-degree burns over half his body. Police said he had deliberately set himself on fire. It was the third fire in the building that year.
The Park View Inn didn’t have guests anymore. It had residents now and the rent couldn’t be much lower. Right before Christmas, 2000, its 100 residents were given one day to evacuate the building permanently. A 22 year-old woman with her two little girls said she had no money and didn’t have anyplace to go.
After three fires in one year, city inspectors found more than a dozen electrical and fire code violations, fire-damaged walls and ceilings, holes in the roof, elevators that didn’t work, hotel rooms stuffed full of mattresses and appliances, and emergency exits chained shut.
The fire marshal cut off the electricity just before Christmas, 2000, and it’s been dark ever since.
April 2007, police arrested a 48 year-old man for throwing pieces of aluminum off the balcony of the Park View Inn. At first he refused to leave the balcony and yelled, “I’m just homeless.” When he tried to leave by climbing a wall, police arrested him and charged him with burglary.
During the Great Fire of 1901, panicked residents worried the Gasworks near Main and State Streets, which converted coal into gaseous fuel, would explode. The fire didn’t come close enough for it to explode, but the Gasworks did pollute the ground deep down for more than half a century. When the Heart of Jacksonville was built on the site of the former Gasworks in the 1960s, it was constructed in bedrock of deep contamination.
Developers have proposed new possibilities for this sprawling concrete carcass, but no one is willing to pay the cleanup costs. The Heart of Jacksonville stays empty, a dead carapace, haunted, polluted.