Heart of Jacksonville Motel

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

The last vestiges of what was once the Heart of Jacksonville Motor Hotel sit empty downtown at the northeast corner of Main and State Streets. In its last years, its five stories stood, stucco and concrete, shattered glass and empty window frames, surrounding a long unused swimming pool bordered with lush palm trees. That’s the pool the pop band The Monkees once swam in, as Ric Klein described in his tour diary published in Flip Magazine in 1967. At the end, decades later, in that abandoned swimming pool sanctum, downtown traffic was inaudible and a strange silence prevailed.

The Heart of Jacksonville did not have a propitious beginning. Try not to see that sentence as heavy-handed metaphor, Titivillus be damned. (And never mind that early settlers once proposed that the city’s central square be used as a graveyard.) The Heart of Jacksonville took form a block east of the long-ago desecrated grave of Isaiah Hart of Jacksonville, city founder. Heart to Hart. The grave, topped with a tower that rose 35 feet high, was dismantled after the Great Fire of 1901 and multiple grave robberies.

The motel’s sign featured a big Valentine heart shape, with “Heart of” in cursive lettering, atop a rounded banner that said, “Jacksonville.” Just before Halloween 1967, three months after The Monkees swam in the pool, just two years after the motel’s opening, its owners filed for bankruptcy, scoring only a 44 percent occupancy rate the previous year.

from The Pensacola News-Journal, October 12, 1967

In early February 1969, “two tall white robbers,” as the Miami News Service called them, using the Heart of Jacksonville as “a base of operations,” kidnapped the president of Florida National Bank, Henry Lewis, and his wife Marguerite from their home, demanding and receiving $70,000 in ransom money. The two tall thieves, both wearing trench coats, dumped the banker on a downtown street, left the banker’s wife two miles from home, ditched the bank-owned Volkswagen at the Heart of Jacksonville, and left town.

from The Miami News, February 15, 1969

And so it went for the Heart of Jacksonville Motor Hotel: the occasional robbery, the occasional rock band, construction workers, Bible conventioneers, weekend flings in the lounge.

“Dear Joan,” wrote Gordon Mattoon of Gulf Breeze, Florida to his wife on the back of the postcard dated June 1, 1971. “Well I made it back. Broke but I had a good time. We stayed here this weekend. I was cold last nite and hot today. I spend most of the day In a Jeep. We get paid Friday I may get more then enough to pay the Ins all Bills and have some left. I am glad Helen is watching out for you. Remember don’t bother her as she has a lot to do. I love you.”

In 1975, 47 pugilists gathered at the motel lounge to throw boxing promoter Jimmie Murdock, who’d managed the Main Street Arena across the street from 1937 to the ’50s, a “testimonial dinner.” They recalled all those matches at the North Main and Beaver Street venue, boxers Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey and wrestlers like Gorgeous George, Murdock missing just one Tuesday night fight, due to a hurricane, in one 16 year stretch.

The Arena, Main and Beaver Streets, image courtesy The Florida Times-Union

The wallpaper that year was a velvety brown with large paisleys and curlicues. A bartender and data entry clerk named Mae “Peaches” Drayton met a female co-worker and an off-duty police officer named Alby Grissom at a room Grissom rented at the Heart of Jacksonville. They got drunk and watched The Jeffersons on TV. The women left, Grissom shouting at Drayton, the women telling him they’d be back later. Instead the women downed drinks at the motel lounge and found a few dance partners through the night. Sometime before dawn, someone killed Mae Drayton at her Eastside home. They beat her, pistol-whipped her, shot her dog, shot her in the neck. No one ever solved the murder.

It didn’t help solve crimes committed at the motel when Jacksonville police set up their business office for fundraising t-shirts here in 1979. The previous year’s t-shirts, with the slogan “Sleep Safe Tonight, Sleep With a Cop,” hadn’t sold well, but this year’s made national headlines: “Jacksonville Cops Hit Jackpot with Pro-Execution T-Shirts.” Nobody opined on whether Peaches Drayton would have “slept safe” if an off-duty cop hadn’t thought she owed him sex that night.

from The Miami News, July 19, 1979

The shirts sold for $1.50 and Jacksonville police received orders from around the country. The New York Police Department ordered 100. One of the shirts, referring to the recent electric chair execution of John Spenkelink and the number of prisoners still on Florida’s Death Row, said, “1 Down, 133 to Go!” Another, referring to cop killer James David Raulerson, said, “Raulerson, You’re Next!” Raymond Long, who owned the police equipment store Long’s Cop Shop, was selling 150 shirts a week.

from The Miami News, July 19, 1979

The Heart skipped and spluttered and shambled through the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, when Jacksonville became Cracksonville, sickly desperate violences bubbling up through the water table, the foundations, the sheet rock. It was already a low-rent residential hotel when it became the Park View Inn. The city sped past on State Street and only noticed the Heart in those moments it made news.

In 1996, an electrical shortage ignited a fire in a vacant room. None of the 300 guests was evacuated. In January 1997, a three year old girl woke 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 with second and third degree burns over half his body. He’d deliberately set himself on fire. It was the third fire in the building that year. Right before Christmas, the Park View’s 100 residents were given one day to leave the building permanently. A 22 year old woman with two little girls said she had no money and no place to go.

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 electricity just before Christmas 2000 and the Heart of Jacksonville went dark for good.

April 2007, police arrested a 48 year-old man for throwing pieces of aluminum off the balcony. At first he refused to leave and yelled, “I’m just homeless.” When he tried to scale 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 that close, but the Gasworks did pollute the ground deep down. When the Heart of Jacksonville was built on the site of the former Gasworks, a block east of where the grave marker that had been the tallest building in the city once stood, it took root in bedrock of deep contamination.

Developers propose new possibilities for this sprawling concrete carcass, this dead carapace, haunted and polluted, but no one is willing to pay the cleanup costs. With the hotel now demolished, only its parking deck remains. There’s no front desk clerk, no front desk, no rack of motel postcards to purchase and mail home with an eight-cent Eisenhower stamp. Still visitors come and stay, accommodations minimal, and wrap themselves in old blankets on stray mattresses on bare concrete beneath the open sky in the heart of Jacksonville.