Jacksonville Free Public Library

by Tim Gilmore, 5/26/2018

1. Whose Heads These Are I Think I Know

Shakespeare’s grim visage looks out over the doings of downtown—the crimes and loves, the faith healings and betrayals, the intrigues of principalities, the farces fought between the rulers of the darkness of this world—as it has for 114 years. He’s joined by Plato and Aristotle and Herodotus, the Father of History, peering through the stone acanthus leaves from the top of their two-story columns.

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

Whose head would I stake high on the pillars of wisdom and knowledge? James Joyce’s? Toni Morrison’s? Carson McCullers’s? Would I bequeath my own head to the city? Would the city accept the gift?

If I can find Mr. Utley, librarian here at the old Jacksonville Free Public Library from 1905 to 1911, thin, jug-ear’d, wearing his monocle, with mustache paralleling bowtie, I’ll ask him. Somewhere in this Original Library, I hope, he’s still here, pop-eyed at his desk, at the crossroads of parallel lines.

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

2. “A Warren’s Nest of Books”

I’ve yet to find Mr. Utley, but Charles Pillans III shakes my hand in the lobby, walks me to a conference room, and tells me what the library was like in the 1960s, before the Bedell Law Firm bought and restored it. He’s a short man, file folders tucked in his armpits, gracious and kind.

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

“Over the decades,” he says, “they’d filled every available niche in this building with books, even moved the circulation desk to block one of the two staircases at the entrance. It was a warren’s nest of books.”

Pillans has been with the Bedell Law Firm, which restored the building when the library moved diagonally across the intersection of Adams and Ocean, for 50 years. He’s been here a third of the time the firm’s existed, and it’s the oldest law firm in Florida.

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

His wife, Judy Pillans, was children’s librarian here in the early 1960s. By that time, the library had become such a labyrinth of books that people could hide beneath and behind stacks of volumes without being found.

Charles says, “The place was so crowded, jammed up, chopped up, such a warren’s nest that when it was cold in the winter, homeless people would hide in the stacks overnight.”

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

He tells me how Bedell, Dittmar, DeVault, Pillans & Coxe P.A. traces its roots to Union Army Colonel Horatio Bisbee in 1865. Bisbee soon partnered with George Bedell, and when George’s son Chester joined in 1927, the firm became Bedell & Bedell.

The firm retains the Bedell name, but no Bedell, and though it handles high-profile cases around Florida, it works only from this old library building in the center of Jacksonville. Four of its attorneys have been president of the Florida Bar Association.

3. Touching Hermes

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

George Burwell Utley brought the library back from the fire, resurrected it. Jacksonville had formed its first public library in 1878, but by 1901, when the Great Fire decimated the city, infighting in the city’s library association and general lack of public interest left the library anemic.

But Utley didn’t call the library forth from the dead on his own. Funding came from steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who helped finance nearly 3,000 public libraries between 1901 and 1919.

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

Jacksonville still wasn’t terribly interested in having its own library. The city hadn’t quite caught up with Benjamin Franklin’s idea for the first public lending library nearly 200 years before. When City Council called a special election to accept Carnegie’s offer of $50,000 (equivalent to nearly $1.3 million today), the measure barely passed, 640 to 627. As more than 28,000 residents called Jacksonville home, most voters simply didn’t bother.

Henry John Klutho, who’d come to Jacksonville from New York after the Great Fire, quoting Erasmus, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” designed the neoclassical steel-frame limestone building.

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

If I can’t find George Utley, maybe assistant librarian Elizabeth Long can tell me if I should bequeath my head. In his 1925 Jacksonville history, T. Frederick Davis credits Utley and Long for getting 6,600 books on the shelves and subscribing to 50 periodicals. I see Lizzy Long standing in broad long white dresses—

1) by the columns, 1904, a year before the library opens,

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

2) behind the circulation desk in 1904,

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

3) alone in a lonely reading room with very few books and a helmeted bust of Athena / Minerva, Greek and Roman goddess of wisdom and warfare, 1904.

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

Or is that you, Lizzy Long, at the stairwell, with an arm around an armless Hermes, a palm playfully and rather lover-ly open against his chest?

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

Later in Utley’s career, long after leaving Jacksonville, he wrote and spoke of great repositories of knowledge and wisdom, Fifty Years of the American Library Association in 1926, a definitive historical discussion on the Vatican Library in Rome before the Italy-American Society in Chicago in 1937. In 1999, the American Library Association named him one of the “100 Most Important Leaders” of American libraries “in the 20th Century.”

But what ever became of Lizzy Long?

4. Into the “Colored Reading Room”

I’m leaning against the very column where stood Virginia King, subject of my 2015 book The Mad Atlas of Virginia King, when Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Rocco Morabito snapped a shot of her in 1964. She hadn’t yet written her strange and gloriously unreadable book, Interesting Facts about Leading People and Families of Duval County: Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings, which would balloon from around 100 pages in 1968 to 8,448 handwritten pages by 1984.

Virginia King, before the Haydon Burns Library under construction, photo by Rocco Morabito, 1965.

Morabito also photographed Virginia King, rail-thin and hawk-beaked, standing before the Carnegie library’s replacement, then under construction, the midcentury-modern library designed by Taylor Hardwick and named for segregationist Mayor Haydon Burns. The difference between these two library buildings makes the perfect metaphor for Virginia King’s lifework—documenting the destruction of the beautiful and historic city by the hand of “Progress.” Ironically, in Morabito’s portrait of Virginia King on the steps of the original library, she looks straight at us, the slightest smile lighting her eyes and mouth.

Virginia King, on the steps of the original Jacksonville Free Public Library, photo by Rocco Morabito, 1965.

I know now the head of Rocco Morabito’s Virginia King should be raised to center a Corinthian capital at the top of the same fluted column where she stood half a century ago.

But I’m still looking for Lizzy Long. I hope to meet her on the second floor. I read the sign at the first landing, pointing upward to the “Colored Reading Room,” and I know where I must go.

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

“For white Jacksonville, the Carnegie library worked well,” writes Jim Crooks in “Changing Face of Jacksonville, Florida, 1900-1910,” published in The Florida Historical Quarterly, April 1984. “The number of users and circulation of books increased steadily throughout the first decade.” By 1906, 15 percent of white Jacksonville used the library and volumes available to white members grew to 20,000 by 1910.

Black library subscribers, however, climbed a “colored” staircase to a small room, served by a separate attendant, where black “borrowers had access to only 609 books.” Though “the proportion of literate black adults increased from 78.8 per cent to 85.3 per cent” the first decade of the 20th century, few black library subscribers cared to ascend a separate staircase to inferior offerings. The lettering over the front door still says, “Open to All,” but it never specified what happened inside.

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

Climbing these marble stairs, I’m wary of “the devil of the stairs who wears / The deceitful face of hope and of despair,” as T.S. Eliot described l’esprit d’escalier in “Ash Wednesday.” And I’m thinking of those words W.E.B. Dubois wrote in 1903, while this library was under construction: “The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.”

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

And I see thousands of children, nearly all of them white, blurred across decades, reading books at handsome wooden tables beneath the sunshine from octagonally starred windows. They read Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. These children know not even of their innocence. They love bunnies and kittens. They love delphiniums and snapdragons, their mothers’ voices, the velvet of the family dog’s ears, Jesus and the Lamb of God.

courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

Now I’m standing beneath the tall vaulted ceiling with the pinks and golden greens and blues of the Tiffany skylight in the copper roof. Charles Pillans tells me the skylight was a surprise. It had long been covered by a drop ceiling. Likewise the lightwell in the center of the second floor had been boarded over and stacked with books.

Standing here in the “Colored Reading Room,” looking up to color-stained sunlight, I decide I’ll do it. I’ll bequeath to the city my head. The poet Lynn Skapyak Harlin often says, “Writing is a bloodsport.” It’s the ritual sacrifice of the ancient Mayan ballgame in which the captain of the winning team was decapitated.

In the meantime, I still long to find Elizabeth Long. I wonder if she’d caress me the way she touched the armless Hermes.