1. Teenage Wasteland / The Love of His Father’s Lines
The Independent Life Building and I are the same age. Now the Wells Fargo Building, it’s gone through other names, but it was Independent Life, headquartering the city’s largest life insurance company, first and longest.
When I was a child, my mother felt a strange pride in the building though my father spoke of downtown with fear. The word “downtown” triggered a brief diatribe about crime with at least a modicum of racism. Perhaps inevitably then, I became fascinated with downtown, and years before I knew it, it cut strange deep labyrinthine spaces in my dreams and my unconscious.
Alone and awkward, boxy and clumsy in icy glass, the Independent Life Building rose inexplicably over the underworld nightmare of white suburbanites. So much bigger than everything around it, the skyscraper seemed to have been transplanted from another world. Some other civilization had misplaced it along their way.
In my teens in the late 1980s, I’d drive through the dense warrens of old black neighborhoods the city would soon wipe off the face of the earth. Clearly, here, unrecorded histories corkscrewed down into unrecorded histories, world without end. As old brick and hardwood buildings felt down through the streets, “hit[ting] a world at every plunge,” that tall lonesome building stood always overhead.
When the Independent Life Building and I were both teenagers, I recognized my insecurities in it. Whatever belonged in this place that had grown me, it wasn’t me. An immigrant in the place of my birth, I was alien, tall, clumsy, lost.
The photographer Doug Eng titles his image of the building’s lower windows reflecting the clouds reflected in its higher windows “Double Reflection.” His father, Wah Yo Eng, was an architect with KBJ his whole career and Doug grew up seeing his father’s signature rising from the center of his city.
In 1974, the American Institute of Architects’ Jacksonville chapter awarded Kemp Bunch Jackson the Outstanding Achievement in Design award and by 2008, KBJ had designed 17 of the city’s 30 tallest buildings. As a child, Doug watched his father draw construction plans for Independent Life. He came to love “its simple distinctive lines.” Today Doug’s photography appears in the Southlight Gallery at the base of the building. He shoots the rhythms in the lines of trees, of broomsedge standing at the edge of forests, of his father’s architectural schemes.
2. The Watergate Girder
In a televised address on August 15, 1973, a year before he resigned from the White House in shame, President Richard Nixon denied his role in the Watergate coverup. He told the nation he would not give taped recordings of his conversations to the special prosecutor. The following July, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to give up the tapes. His presidency was over.
As the skeleton of the Independent Life Building rose, story by story, construction workers painted “We Support President Nixon” on a girder overlooking the city.
Two days after the president’s address, his younger daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, visited the construction site. She and her husband David, President Eisenhower’s grandson, had lived nearby in Atlantic Beach while David was stationed at Mayport Naval Station.
“Hardhat Julie” told the workers, “The past four months have been especially trying ones for my family.” She said she’d given the president a newspaper clipping telling the story of that loyal girder.
“I went into my father’s bedroom just before bedtime,” she said. “The covers were turned down for bed. I put the clipping right smack on top of the pillow where he couldn’t miss it. I know it gave him a big boost, but it also gave me quite a thrill too.” Regarding her father’s and his administration’s crimes, she said, “We should not concentrate on all the negative aspects exclusively.”
3. “Jewel in the Crown” / Severed Heads
The headline above a January 1978 Tampa Tribune story announced “Jacksonville: Consolidation Came to This City 10 Years Ago and Practically the Only Thing That’s Still the Same is the North-Flowing St. Johns River.” It was a good piece of propaganda for city-county Consolidation, but no headline could have convinced my father to head downtown.
The story quoted a “beat cop” who said the Independent Life Building “triggered a lot of other good things” and claimed the “jewel in the crown of the downtown skyline,” the tallest building in Florida, had changed Bay Street “from blight to bright.” Many Floridians “remember that avenue as an infamous thoroughfare, roguish and vice-laden. Running east and west, near the waterfront, it prompted the image of Bay Street walkers (prostitutes); dirty, decaying buildings, and the hangout of the city’s seamiest citizens.”
Those “dirty, decaying buildings,” some of Jacksonville’s most historically significant, were suffering from the city’s having turned its back on itself. “White flight,” the abandonment of the city for the suburbs, wasn’t Jacksonville’s problem exclusively. It’s what America did to itself in the decades after World War II. The Independent Life Building rose, “a city within a city,” from a block that once clustered stone structures like architect J.H.W. Hawkins’s McConihe Building, a shimmering “black diamond” that housed the bookstore and printing company of H. and W.B. Drew Company from 1921 until demolition a half century later.
In older photos, the company’s namesake signage looks out over the river beside the iron blue spiderwebs of the Main Street Bridge. After infill turned the riverfront to Water Street and vast deserts of asphalt, Drew’s cursive letters looked over barren parking lots.
Independent Life President Jacob Bryan III salvaged the noble stone lion heads and McConihe monograms from high up on the great building Bryan’s new headquarters replaced. He planted the heads at the foot of the new building. They reminded the occasional Bay Street driver of the severed heads of the vanquished placed on stakes alongside bridges in the Middle Ages.
4. “Ain’t Too Shabby”
On Wednesday night, August 15, 1979, 40,000 football fans filled the Gator Bowl. There were free hot dogs and free Cokes. There would have been free beer too, Mayor Jake Godbold said, but “the Baptists got hold of it.”
The Miami Herald reported that “big-busted city employees” wearing high heels and tight “Colt Fever” t-shirts greeted Bob Irsay as he stepped down from his private jet. The old man leered at them and croaked, “That ain’t too shabby.”
A police escort guided a bus full of reporters, four Cadillacs and a rented Rolls Royce to the tallest building in the city. There, the owner of the National Football League’s Baltimore Colts was greeted by Miss Jacksonville, “two barely clad suntan oil models,” and teenage girls handing out “Jacksonville Colts” and “I’ve got Colt Fever” t-shirts.
At the top of the Independent Life Building, in “Jacksonville’s most exclusive club,” Irsay “had lunch with three dozen of Jacksonville’s most important people.” Irsay didn’t move the Colts from Baltimore for another five years. By the time he chose Indianapolis, the Jacksonville Bulls were one of 18 teams of the United States Football League. The USFL lasted three seasons.
In 1987, the Associated Press reported that Jacksonville gave Bud Adams “the red-carpet treatment,” feted the owner of the NFL’s Houston Oilers with “lunch in the exclusive River Club atop the city’s tallest building,” and greeted him with “a large banner reading, ‘Jacksonville Oilers.’” The Oilers became the Tennessee Titans a decade later, by which time the Jacksonville Jaguars had become the NFL’s 30th football team.
5. Scattered Thunderstorms
The Independent Life Building showed up on 1980s postcards with blazing sunsets, or cast behind Friendship Fountain in hues of pink flamingo. In its first decade, more than any other structure, it symbolized the city.
While civic leaders praised the Independent Life Building’s glassy newness, others panned its design as “third-rate-city architecture.” In a full page 1982 story headlined, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” The Miami Herald’s architectural critic Beth Dunlop called it a “square and hulking office tower” and a “slant-bottomed monster.”
More postcards appeared, showing the building at night beneath a rain of patriotic fireworks. Meteorologists said lightning struck the tower more than 100 times a year. Office workers told each other the higher the window, the thicker the glass.
In 1985, the River Club, formed in 1954 as the Jacksonville Businessmen’s Club, having operated at the top of the Independent Life Building since 1976, began to admit women.
A young writer and “lucid dreamer” named Bill King started working for Independent Life in the mailroom in 1986, sorting mail at a long table, then moved on to assistant underwriter for fire insurance. His manager let “Bill Ectric” use an office IBM Selectric typewriter, after hours and on lunch breaks, to type his essays as he worked toward his bachelor’s degree. Bill moved to the Microfilm Department. Sonya worked in Microfilm. They were married in 1990.
Businesses bought businesses. American General Life Insurance Company bought Independent Life and moved its operations to Nashville. The Independent Life Building became the AccuStaff Building became the Modis Building. In 1999, an undercover cop arrested the chairman and chief executive officer of Modis for picking her up on Phillips Highway and soliciting prostitution.
In 2002, school officials gave the top readers from West Riverside Elementary a limousine ride to the Modis Building, where they rode an elevator to the River Club and “dined on lobster and chicken fingers.”
The Modis Building became the Wells Fargo Building and The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville’s main newspaper, sold its half-century address, its own building at 1 Riverside Avenue, and moved its offices to Wells Fargo where they wrap around the atrium.
“It’s kind of a cool building, ain’t it?” a security guard named Martin says. “It looks like a rocketship. Like a rocket that’s too heavy to leave the ground. The aerodynamics ain’t right, but that’s alright. We keep it down here on earth. Won’t let it get away.”
6. Flashback of Ancestral Memory
Really it’s not so hard to believe. If three million shipwrecks lie along the depths of the world’s seas, why should not a locomotive lie beneath what was once Florida’s tallest building? The urban legend circulated for years, but John C. Christian was there. Through the years, he’s shared his story with The Jaxson Magazine, Jacksonville Magazine and in Facebook groups.
C.J. Holmes was his nextdoor neighbor. John was just out of high school. Holmes was superintendent for Raymond International, the company excavating the site and pouring the foundation. John had to join the union. Few people knew Holmes was also his uncle.
Contractors demolished the old city block along Bay Street where the waterfront once stood. “We drove sheet pilings around the perimeter of the block and then excavated all the earth down to 30 feet or more,” John says. Enormous diesel pumps held the water table down and steam-powered pile drivers hammered “steel I-beams and hollow pipe casings all the way down to bedrock.”
Then the previous century and a half began offering up its buried treasures. After all, they were digging into the former waterfront where ships and docks and rail lines had long ploughed frantically through and across the marsh. Says John, “One of my duties as head gopher was securing the site every afternoon and locking the main gate. After everyone left, I always poked around the rubble looking for artifacts. I had done this for many years over in Arlington collecting Timucuan pottery and arrowheads.”
To dig into the earth is to walk back in time. John saw it first, “the unusual black debris line running about 15 feet below the surface. The black vein, so to speak, was a combination of charred wood, molten glass and metal.” Astonishingly, the urban earth had perfectly preserved the smell of tragedy. The workers had dug into the line of debris from the Great Fire of 1901. “It smelled of smoke as if it had been covered over the day before.” The earth yielded old glass bottles, ceramic jugs, a porcelain doll. And a locomotive.
All work stood still. Workers jumped down to the buried beast and pulled out iron plates and the main bell and Raymond officials phoned the higher-ups at Independent Life. As Christian told The Jaxson magazine in January 2017, “Everyone was afraid if the press got a hold of this, the entire project would come to a halt. It was decided there wasn’t enough time or money to recover it.” Some Independent Life executives came down to the job site, John says, “and we gave them a few artifacts.”
As for how a locomotive buried itself in the waterfront, John imagines the city burning and melting down around it on May 3, 1901. The Great Fire of 1901 was the third largest urban fire in American history, behind the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the 1906 San Francisco Fire. John sees the docks burning and the waterfront crashing into the river with its rail cars.
“The timbers collapsed, the docks were consumed and the locomotive slipped into the mud hissing and steaming as the water rushed over it.”
Seven decades later came “the largest cement pour in the history of Florida. The foundation pour went on for more than a day and a night. I’ve always wanted to know what those executives did with the artifacts we gave them.” Perhaps,” John laments, “we could have gotten some identification markers and pinpointed the actual engine.”
While the most dramatic discovery was that of the locomotive, another find from the Great Fire line is John’s favorite. “The afternoon sun illuminated her purple shoe and rosy cheeks,” he recalls. “I carefully picked her up and washed her off. Her arms were attached by very thin copper wire that basically dissolved when I placed her in the bucket.”
He imagines “the haste, confusion and panic,” in which “a little girl dropped her doll while trying to get into one of the rescue boats.” He gave the porcelain doll to his girlfriend Carol. They named her Phoebe. When they were married, Carol made Phoebe a dress from a piece of her own wedding gown.
It was five years ago that Lyubomira Lazarova moved to Jacksonville from Bulgaria. She grew up in Veliko Tarnovo, a gorgeous small dense town nestled in green hills on the river Yantra, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire for 200 years, beginning in 1185. In Bulgaria, Lyubomira was a speech and language therapist for people with disabilities.
In Jacksonville, she couldn’t have been more excited to start waiting tables and hostessing at the River Club. Here she was, starting over in a new country with her husband and son, looking out from high above the city as the full glass panorama opened up to her from all directions. Beneath her, glinting majestically in the sun, all the waterways that birthed the city cut circuits through the streets and the houses and the people and their lives.
The 34th and 35th floors of the building introduced Lyubomira to her new life. The spaces of the River Club taught her the city. The dining rooms and banquet rooms bore the names of the St. Johns River, old-money neighborhoods Ortega and Avondale, the fishing village Mayport.
She already spoke Bulgarian, Russian and English, and she worked hard gaining fluency in her third language. “One time, during my first few weeks of working,” Lyubomira says, “I was a server at a small private dinner. A guest ordered a specific glass of wine, but I couldn’t understand exactly which one he wanted.”
She wanted to get it right, but was afraid to keep asking him to repeat himself. “So I smiled and went back to my manager to see if he could help me. He told me it’s okay to experience language barriers and to go back and kindly ask the customer to repeat his order. I felt so embarrassed, but I did it. Now, I appreciate him asking me to correct my mistake instead of going and fixing it himself.” Six months later, Lyubomira was “Employee of the Quarter.”
In that windowed space above this Southern city with its history of racial violence and strife, Lyobomira became friends with workers who’d come to Jacksonville from Spain, Jamaica, the Philippines, Haiti and Puerto Rico. They made this city home by sharing their own traditions, languages and food.
They saw each other outside of work, celebrated each other’s birthdays, and organized lunches where everyone brought a dish from their home country. Five years later, most of them are still close. “We became a family,” she says.
The incidents in the life of a skyscraper thread themselves together like a dream narrative, a Prufrockian love song. This building, for much of its life, has stood alone, a lightning rod staked in the heart of this city. Just about everyone who’s ever passed it has projected themselves onto its windows. They’ve been ashamed of it. They’ve been proud of it. They’ve despised it and fallen in love with it. It has symbolized for loners their lack of belonging, but it has also made, for immigrants from across the world, a new home.