by Tim Gilmore, 7/6/2019
Those who have the means often lack the vision, while having the vision frequently has little to do with the means. That’s where Janie Coffey comes in.
Four years ago this month, when I first wrote about the old Lawton Pratt Funeral Home at 525 West Beaver Street in LaVilla, Tony Walton dazzled me with stories of his prowess as a “restorative artist,” but he never showed me through the upstairs apartments, the basements, or the casket factory upstairs in the conjoined building.
I’d have to wait four years to wander the old building’s labyrinths. Ahead of the daily summer thunderstorms, I’ve come to meet Tony, Janie and Irvlyn Kennebrew, who grew up in what’s now the Hillman Pratt & Walton Funeral Home. Tony’s moving the business, Irvlyn’s selling the building, and Janie’s finding the right buyer.
Janie specializes in historic and architecturally significant real estate for Compass Realty. Besides the countless awards and plaudits—former number one selling agent at Sotheby’s First Coast, top Florida 250 for Real Trends and The Wall Street Journal, top 100 “Most Influential People in Real Estate” according to Inman News—Janie sees the persistent irreplaceable beauty in places whole cities have been foolish enough to neglect.
Standing beside the handsome brick hearth in the front offices, surrounded by framed old photographs, Irvlyn, whose name is a portmanteau of her father’s middle name Irving and her mother’s name Evelyn, remembers childhood. Born in 1949, she lived upstairs from 1951 to 1970. Sometime after Lawton Pratt’s death in 1943, Irvlyn’s father Oscar turned the funeral home into Hillman Pratt, and her mother took over when her father died in 1978.
“It was just normal life,” she says. “It was what I knew. Dead bodies didn’t bother me. I’d be a kid watching cartoons upstairs on Saturday morning, and if my parents were out dealing with a family and our ambulance men had to take a call, they’d say, ‘Hey, you need to come downstairs to answer the phone when it rings.’”
Funeral homes ran ambulance services until the 1950s, when legislation required those responding to medical emergencies to have the relevant training. The family ambulance was a bright red Cadillac with fishtails. When funeral homes lost their ambulances to a new and separate industry, it stung them financially.
Anyone ready to make a joke about conflicts of interest in funeral homes running ambulance services should also know that Lawton Pratt operated a life insurance office in the building while workers built caskets upstairs in the back.
Beside the fireplace is a framed photo of the Cincinnati School of Embalming class of 1910, with 10 new graduates in white smocks, some wearing neckties and some bow ties, standing proudly behind a cadaver on a gurney. A much larger crowd assembles in a photo of the National Negro Funeral Directors’ Association in Chicago, August 1943.
Other framed photos show Bessie Coleman beside her barnstormer airplane. The first black woman to own an international pilot’s license, which she earned in Paris because United States law forbid it, Coleman flew high over Paxon Air Field, where Paxon School for Advance Studies offers International Baccalaureate degrees today, ready to amaze the crowds below with daredevil stunts. But the plane’s systems failed and threw Coleman to her death before spinning into a nosedive after her. The year was 1926. It was Lawton Pratt, whose mottled photo hangs in the chapel, who prepared her body for viewing.
We walk through the old chapel with its original stained glass windows and pews. We descend levels behind the chapel. Janie can see this old structure housing the hippest restaurant in the city. If that concept would work in New Orleans or Savannah, it should here too. Jacksonville’s the oldest of Florida’s larger cities and it’s hard to find a stranger town. Besides, everyone who fertilizes their tomatoes with compost should see the poetic beauty in a former funeral home nourishing and feeding the city.
“You know Joseph Blodgett built this place,” Irvlyn says. With no formal training, Joseph Blodgett came to Jacksonville in the 1890s, supposedly with a dollar and a dime, and became the city’s premier builder and designer of black residences. Just as housing was segregated, so was architecture. He built homes in black neighborhoods like College Park, LaVilla and Sugar Hill, the wealthy black district centered on West Eighth Street. Even today, architectural historians have given Blodgett scant recognition.
After the Great Fire of 1901, Blodgett built more than 250 houses in Jacksonville, including the Sugar Hill house for Abraham Lincoln Lewis, founder of Afro-American Life Insurance Company, and his own Sugar Hill residence, “Blodgett Villa” on West Eighth Street, where Booker T. Washington visited. Blodgett build the Sugar Hill residence for Lawton Pratt at 582 West Eighth Street as well. Blodgett, A.L. Lewis and L.L. Pratt, some of the city’s leading black business leaders, helped found the Booker-T.esque Negro Business League.
Surely the Lawton Pratt Funeral Home is Blodgett’s most important remaining structure. In the early 1990s, Mayor Ed Austin’s “River City Renaissance” demolished almost the entirety of LaVilla, leaving a couple dozen buildings standing lonely in the desolated district. Sugar Hill disappeared decades before when what’s now the hospital complex University of Florida Health was built.
Because the building is actually two, the back recesses are separated by old fire doors, the kind made of steel, clad in tin skin and hung on inclined rollers. Though the funeral home never endured a fire, it’s withstood hurricanes, 10,000 ghost stories, and, judging by the wings collected around corners and stairposts upstairs, countless subterranean insectile onslaughts. Certainly the systematic demolition of historic black Jacksonville counts as apocalyptic.
Irvlyn’s decided to stay back. She sits down on a satin sofa in the office, having no desire to wander into the hottest parts of the building or squeeze through narrow access points into the depths and the heights. We look briefly in at Tony’s “prep room,” fortunately seeing but empty gurneys, then head into the unheated eastern half of the complex.
We see the clean white hearse parked before the old black one covered in tarps, wires and tools, with ladders leaned against its side. If only that red fishtailed Cadillac were here. A young oak not quite the building’s height grows out through the bricks to the sunlight.
We take the stone steps into the basement before the wooden steps to the casket factory. Beneath Beaver Street, in a recess in the wall, dozens of dust-coated formaldehyde bottles lay stacked on their sides. Beneath the dust, the golden brown glass bottles dating to the 1940s say, “The Champion Company / Springfield Ohio / Leaside Ontario” and “Complies with all state laws.”
Janie scurries through tight apertures, as excited to see the building’s unconscious as she is to see the face it presents to the world. She’s not afraid of sweat and dirt. After all, she began her career in construction management in Washington, D.C. Tony points us into the boiler room and we stand and stare at the great old industrial metal beast beneath the building.
Back in the garage, World War I headstones stand propped against the agèd brick. They’ve stood here for half a century at least. Someone with the wonderful name Sanders Luster, who died in 1951, was a private with the 519 Engineers. “Probably no way to find out where they are now,” Tony laments. He thinks they might be out in the long-unattended and brutalized black cemeteries on Moncrief Road.
Tony says he’s paid to refurbish parts of the building, renovating the offices and the bedrooms, but he’s lost business because of its overall disrepair. He’s even had families bring their “loved ones” to him for “restorative” and cosmetic work, because he has a reputation for being good at it, only to move the bodies to another funeral home prior to viewings.
We climb the wooden stairs beside weighty iron wheels and pulleys and a ladder track that once operated the freight elevator between the casket factory and the garage floor. It was hot in the basement; it’s much hotter up here.
From the landing, a small room, ad hoc decades ago, scabbed with plywood and covered with corrugated tin, exits to the east. Where I’m now standing looks strangest from outside, where the corrugated roof slopes down to a bay window partially hidden by the roofline of the garage. Old buildings learn and grow in the strangest ways and the young oak that reaches through the brick wall of the garage to the heights of this bay and tin add-on makes a lyrical and optimistic point.
In the casket factory, both the furthest recess and the peak of the property, I can only think that at one time almost all of LaVilla grew the way this funeral home did. The district was dense, a vibrant labyrinth in which every mystery of human existence found its place.
The wooden lids of old coffins sit silent in the heat, while an old sign, “AMULANCE SERVICE,” which once hung out over Beaver Street, leans against a back brick wall. A thermostat nailed to a column tells us it’s well over 100 degrees up here. It advertises Afro-American Life Insurance Co. at 101-105 East Union Street.
The back of a public bench parked in a back corner advertises Independent Furniture, with stores at 1128 Florida Avenue on the Eastside and 910 Kings Road in LaVilla, an address bulldozed by Interstate 95 decades back. The lid for an infant’s casket sits atop a bench nearby.
Sadly it seems appropriate to find these advertisements for long-ago black business from segregated JimCrowVille sitting for their own unremitting wake in the heat of an abandoned casket factory. Every city is as many cities as its stories, of course, but in a different way, every city is two cities: the one its residents make by living their lives, and the one, first letter capitalized, which makes executive decisions, refuses to fix, or even install, sewage in parts of town the residents it cares less about call home, and demolishes so many of its most interesting, important, and beautiful structures.
Continue the metaphor. Think of how the poet William Carlos Williams’s great epic poem Paterson envisaged his New Jersey hometown as one living being. See the city as an individual, a person. Now you see this person, this Jacksonville, looking down in disgust at parts of its own body, cutting off some fingers, extracting the bones from a leg, pulling organs from its abdomen, carelessly nicking its own heart, mindlessly hemorrhaging its soul. It’s a wonder it’s survived. Parts will grow back, but never like they were before, and where some organs once functioned vitally will always be dead zones. The suicidal city will learn from its grisly criminal mistakes, but a thousand years from now, it will so long ago have been too late.
Janie understands the evolution of cities. Yes, she sells real estate, but she also helps preserve historic properties. She talks general contracting and tax credits and benefits. In graduate school, she studied Ernest Dichter, the psychologist who remade marketing in the 1940s, and learned not just to sell a property itself, but its context and possibility, a vision.
With her long red hair and her kind smile, she’s not the “ashen lady” Jim Morrison asked to “Save our city” in the 1970 Doors song “Roadhouse Blues,” but she has the energy and the acumen to help a city like Jacksonville survive itself.
Tony stands in the doorway to the casket factory, telling us about the dream he had when his mother died. “How well do you know the Bible?” he asks. I tell him I know it pretty well, though I’m sure he knows it better. “Okay,” he says, “you know where it talks about Abraham and the great gulf?”
He’s talking about the sixteenth chapter of Luke, which describes a rich man “clothed in purple and fine linen” who “fared sumptuously every day” and a poor man named Lazarus, a “beggar […] desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.” When both men die, the rich man looks up from Hell and sees the beggar in “Abraham’s bosom” in Heaven.
Father Abraham tells the rich man, “Remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.”
Abraham tells the rich man of a “great gulf” that gapes “between us and you,” and Tony says, “When my mama died in 1993, I saw the great gulf.” He dreamt that he and his mother were traveling together and they crossed “this beautiful crystal creek. But my mama said, ‘You’re not supposed to cross yet. Go back.’” So Tony went back. And the waters between them grew wider and wider until he and his mother stood separated by the great gulf and he understood.
Downstairs, Irvlyn says she loved growing up in the funeral home, but what she loved most about it was the neighborhood. “There were so many houses here, houses on either side of our building,” she says.
She steps outside and points to Broad Street. “The Waldorf Café was right there on the corner, and all along Broad Street right here were beauty parlors. If I wanted to go see a movie, I walked a block over to Ashley Street. Ashley Street was still jumping.”
She points to her left to Clay Street. “And where those palms are growing now, that’s where Weems lived and had his studio. Like us, so many families worked downstairs and lived upstairs.” E.L. Weems photographed everybody and everything in the segregated black community.
She nods and looks around slowly, attentive both to what’s here now and what’s gone. The community was an extension of the family, she says. “That’s what I miss most. It was a good place to grow up.”
In the photo of Oscar Hillman, his old Ford gleams, but the man’s face is hidden in shadow beneath his porkpie hat. The question is who can now bring light. Another Bible verse Tony likes, from the book of Proverbs, says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” But the vision needs the means. So who will stand now in the shadows of this august building, rekindle its spirit, and bring it new life?