by Tim Gilmore, 10/26/2022
1. Flutters and Echoes
I hear the echoes of children’s voices, the arrhythmic clapping, the squeals of delight from the old puppet theater, smell the dust and the must from the stacks of newspapers and rows of microfilm and -fiche in the basement, and discern the words of survivors of the 1990 GMAC Mass Shooting channeled through my 2021 student actors in the soaring central reading room with its two-story wall of windows looking out on Adams Street.
When the Haydon Burns Library closed in the fall of 2005, my daughters, who were six and three years old, cried. A decade later, this Mid-Century Modern architectural jewel reopened as the Jessie Ball duPont Center, which currently houses 28 nonprofit organizations.
I meet Brooke Robbins before the small-scale wood-brick working models of artist Ann Williams’s blue and green and orange and goldenrod glass-brick mosaic walls. These models, now hung in first floor public space, are gorgeous works of art in and of themselves. For 40 years they hung in the library’s third floor administrative offices and the public never saw them.
Resident architect and caretaker of the now-historic once-shockingly-modern building, Brooke oversaw the renovation. She’s still young, passionate, energetic, though overseeing renovation of architect Taylor Hardwick’s magnum opus would be a lifetime achievement for someone much older. Indeed, Brooke left her 13 year position with the prestigious KBJ Architects when the old library reopened as The Jessie, then started her solo practice from here.
My younger daughter remembers coming to this library, but it’s more of a feeling than anything specific. Her sister, three years older, describes her memories impressionistically. They feel to her like a dream she once had. She recalls swirling shapes of oranges and yellows, those of Williams’s mosaic, large indoor circles with cycads growing, and the moving images and sounds of forgotten movies shown in the puppet theater. Her eyes go dreamy. Talking about the Old Main Library still sends a flutter of warmth across her chest.
2. The Feverish Trend
In 1964, Virginia King, the strangest writer ever to call Jacksonville home, posed for the camera against Taylor Hardwick’s new library, still under construction. The author of Interesting Facts About Leading People and Families of Duval County: Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings, which ballooned from around 100 pages in its first printing to 8,448 pages in its final unpublished form, stood surprisingly self-aware, thin as her skeleton, umbrella for walking stick, purse tucked fiercely under her arm.
The December 27th Florida Times-Union story headlined “Headache Ball’s Crunch Also Shakes Historian” accompanied a photograph of Virginia on the steps of the old public library across the street, the neoclassical building designed by Henry John Klutho.
Dena Snodgrass, longtime president of the Jacksonville Historical Society, despised Virginia King, making copious notes of all Virginia’s errors in each new edition of her book, frequently jotting expressions like “Horrors!”
Newspaper editors used the photo of Virginia standing on Klutho’s old library steps, rather than the image of her looking Veni-Vidi-Vici before Taylor Hardwick’s library, but the story noted, “Her hobby is tinged with deprecation of the feverish trend to build the bold and new.”
Virginia said she like the old library and the old courthouse, succinctly explaining, “The old buildings were built better and they look better.” She wasn’t alone in thinking so, but eventually the new buildings become the old buildings.
3. “My Forms and Colors”
The basement smelled of time measured in the accrual of dust. For a young man who loved old things, it seemed like archives should always be down in the basement, that they could never be moved, that they’d been down here since before the beginning. In those metal cabinets clanked a million drawers of microfilm rolls. When I worked on stories that required digging into the minutiae of the past, spinning through those rolls on those awkward machines promised the accidental finding of the world’s smallest, least looked for, but most important secrets.
If the Haydon Burns Library had always been here, paradoxically it was yesterday’s idea of the future. Its colors – the blue and green and goldenrod — and shapes – the fins and cantilevers and angles — distinctly marked its origins as the middle of the 1960s.
The color of Taylor Hardwick’s Ford Thunderbird was dubbed “Hardwick gold.” While the essential desire of Modernist design, following Frank Lloyd Wright’s impetus, might be, in architect Ted Pappas’s words, “to break open the box,” Ted says Taylor liked “not only to destroy the box, but simultaneously” and paradoxically “to decorate the box.”
The building curves, folds, warps, rhythmic and vivid, simple but bold. Stairs and building supports and windows and benches and tiles stand at angles unafraid. They step forward simple and joyful, but the interplay of their different simplicities could be complicated. The complications harmonized.
Harmonizing the conflicts of historical forces was harder. In his 2014 book Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design, architect Michael Dunlap quotes Taylor, “During the 18 months’ construction period, I visited the site at least twice a week to supervise the execution of my design. Each time I arrived at the site, I glanced at the building on the corner diagonally across from the construction. It was the H.J. Klutho 1902 public library building, now attorneys’ offices. The building had the look of strength and durability, and after more than 60 years, its timeless, classic design was still viable in the city environment.”
Taylor Hardwick wondered if his “library design would age as well,” and said, “I felt deep admiration for Klutho’s building, and I wondered if he had felt as much pride and pleasure for his design as I felt in my own. Would my forms and colors endure?”
He wanted to make the library “a place of serenity and delight.” Ann Holloway Williams designed the mural that encloses the elevator wall in the adjacent lobby and the mural along the Ocean Street side of the building. She called her garden of blue and green glazed bricks “Momentum and Direction,” a meditation on “man’s unending quest for knowledge on an ever-changing course.”
When a building sits empty it comes truest. The revolving door, entrance on the Ocean Street side, looked over at The London Bridge, the pseudo-English pub located in the 1926 United Cigar Store Building where Warren H. Folks headquartered his white supremacist Conservative Church of Christ from 1977 to 1985.
The shining green mosaic walls had lost tiles. The stage beneath the scalloped awning featured but the performances of ghosts in the old puppet theater. My daughters remember that stage as the locus of strange adults, half animal, telling tales of dark and light earthen archetypes, “Storytime.”
I remember a London Bridge bartender comparing Cranberries lyrics to W.B. Yeats lines and describing electronic music in abandoned administrative corners of the Old Haydon Burns. She told me how she’d vomited into her purse at a party there.
Brooke Robbins describes upstairs jam session rooms discovered when the duPont Fund bought the building, leather couches and chairs arranged around deejay stations, a lonely pool table, windows broken across interiors, glass shattered even onto the central rooftop.
Speculators talked up apartments here with a bowling alley, or maybe a chocolate museum, and bumper stickers said, “Save the Old Main Library.”
When The Jessie opened in 2015, its pioneer tenants gave up individually operated square footage from their previous headquarters in exchange for shared spaces and amenities, including conference rooms of multiple sizes, breakrooms, copy centers, a lecture hall (the former puppet theater) and the two-story open central commons.
Presently moving her offices to a small space in the basement of the three-story 129,000 square foot building, Brooke speaks of The Jessie not just with architectural awe, but with the conviction of someone who sees a new (though old) way of being in the world. For the Jessie is not just a building, but a campus, a community.
The nonprofits it currently headquarters include Catholic Charities, the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Speech and Hearing Center, the Literacy Alliance of Northeast Florida, Special Olympics Florida, the United Way and Wildlife Conservation Global.
It’s the city at the center of the city, an architectural gem, one of the best examples of successful historic restoration in Florida, a center for nonprofit work, a nexus for the arts and a place that makes discussion and democracy happen.
If Jacksonville cared to see how Jacksonville could work, it might take a hard look at The Jessie.
5. Street Corner Cosmopolis
The poet William Blake saw “a World in a grain of sand” and “a Heaven in a Wild Flower,” so I read world history in every street corner. I think of the demolition of another architectural masterpiece on this site, Klutho’s City Hall, think of my random moments of research immersed here in basement archives, and think about The Stone Tape, a 1972 British Broadcasting Corporation TV special based on the absurdly unscientific ideas of anthropologist T.C. Lethbridge that stone could “record” the “spiritual projections” of people in moments of their greatest need and somehow “play back” that humanity to those who come later. It’s silly, but I like it metaphorically, so I run the tape back and forth across time in this building.
Henry John Klutho’s Jacksonville City Hall, with its Beaux-Arts dome, had stood here on high ground in this town barely above sea level before the City demolished it and replaced it with Hardwick’s new library diagonally across the street from Klutho’s original main library. Historic currents shifted across the center of town, zig-zagged up and down streets.
When Jacksonville’s new main library opened in 1965, Haydon Burns, after whom it was named, had just become the 35th governor of Florida. In a state with a long sad lineage of racist governors, Burns had risen to power as Jacksonville’s hardline segregationist mayor, reelected four times. Burns had promised Jacksonville would never allow its black and white residents to share schools, restaurants, libraries or public parks.
When the former Haydon Burns Library became the Jessie Ball duPont Center in 2015, it headquartered the massive humanitarian fund created by its namesake 45 years earlier. duPont’s own politics had shifted leftward, supporting Roosevelt’s New Deal and focusing her wealth increasingly on charities, since her husband, industrialist Alfred duPont, had died in 1935. Her leftward bent, however, though she donated resources to black-led Jacksonville institutions like the Clara White Mission and Edward Waters College, stopped at desegregation, as made clear in a 1951 letter she wrote a school she’d learned had begun to admit black students: “As long as the Virginia Theological Seminary is open to Negroes, I have made my last contribution to it.”
Half a century ago, crime novelist Mickey Spillane visited the Haydon Burns Library when it banned his newest book. The cover of his 1972 novel The Erection Set featured his wife, Sherri Spillane, from the side, posing nude, one leg in the air.
Warren H. Folks, head of the Conservative Citizens Council and later of Jacksonville’s Conservative Church of Christ — who ran repeatedly for office on pledges of returning prayer to public schools, vouchers for private schools, castration of homosexuals and “Equal Rights for White Folks!” — demanded an “emergency meeting” of the City Council and Spillane disappeared from the shelves.
But Mickey Spillane loved the Culture Wars of politicians. “I get a kick,” he said, “out of these idiotic maneuvers with political overtones.” He always ended up selling more books. He showed up. He won. The books were reinstated.
In the early 2000s, I volunteered for Learn to Read, Inc. I met my student at the Haydon Burns Library twice a week. She was 27 years old and didn’t know the alphabet. She had three kids. She had a husband who was 20 years older and treated her like a daughter. He said he would do anything to support her. He was going to turn her life around. He left her two months later. She missed meetings for two weeks. Then she came back and said her brother had AIDS and her five year old son had a broken arm. She started to cry. She had forgotten what she’d learned of the alphabet. The difference between the levels of our opportunities in life, though I’d grown up working class, astonished me.
In 2021, Barbara Colaciello, playwright and drama coach who once worked for Andy Warhol, directed a readers’ theater version of my play Repossessions, using the actual words of survivors and relatives of victims of the 1990 GMAC Mass shooting in Jacksonville, one of the worst shootings nationally when mass ownership of assault weapons was still new.
The event kicked off the JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival, a Sweet Sixteen party jamming upstairs.
This year, The Jessie hosts JaxbyJax IX, with a screenwriting seminar on the second floor featuring poet Ebony Payne-English, whose visage looks out from a jeweled mosaic on Forsyth Street, the student writers of Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in the rooftop garden, novelist Julie Delegal reading from Seen, based on a true story of a young black man falsely accused of murder, and Cuban American poet Andres Rojas, ever both transcendent and hyper-local, who’s translated César Vallejo’s poetry about Paris and Peru, and set his own poems in the center of Jacksonville and Havana.
6. In Love with the Light
Dark mucilaginous waters, thick with muck and broken glass, had flooded the basement, but Sherry Magill, a practical Romantic, saw how the light flooded the vast abandoned interiors and she fell in love. It was December 2012, cool and misty. The building stunk, new ecosystems of filth and decrepitude evolving amongst themselves, and only Sherry could see the splendor. Colleagues who toured the abandoned library with her said she was crazy.
In the fall of 2013, Sherry Magill and Taylor Hardwick walked through the echoing empty exoskeleton of his besotted masterpiece. It’s hard for an old architect to walk through an old building, an original execution of genius mishandled for years. It was even harder to walk through this one, his best work, abandoned, no future certain.
Sherry was president of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, established by its namesake philanthropist 42 years earlier with most of her $42 million estate. “My academic work in American Studies taught me,” Sherry says, “together with my experience as a grant maker, that nonprofits are the lifeblood of healthy democratic communities.”
She saw how nonprofits struggled financially in a culture that determined all value by the market. The former Literature and Cultural Studies professor knew Taylor Hardwick’s building would be expensive to resuscitate, but would pay off for nonprofits and the community at large exponentially.
The philanthropist and the architect had never met. Taylor was weary. He was sick. He had worried so long that Jacksonville would tear down his greatest work. There was much precedent. The City’s record was bad. The two stood looking toward the river and Friendship Fountain on the opposite riverbank.
It broke Taylor Hardwick’s heart when the City butchered his design for the fountain and park, reducing it by half, eliminating the white lily pads of concrete umbrellas that covered circular benches on concentric white circles across a checkerboard ground, and removing the Dockmaster’s Building with its observation deck topped with a “Space Age” wheel roof. The City had taken space meant for public use and sold it for private development.
Sherry said something like “We will take good care of your building, though I fear you may not like everything we do.” Taylor responded with assurance, “You’ve saved my baby. Now I can rest.”
Taylor Hardwick would never see the completed renovation. He died on September 27, 2014. He was 89 years old. Sherry had only that one conversation with him, but it couldn’t have been more meaningful. Someone snapped a photograph of Taylor against the bright yellows of Ann Williams’s mosaic that day. His wide, bright smile matches the colors behind him. It’s the look of a man who’s just received a new lease on life through the salvation of his own best moment. It’s one of this city’s best moments too.