LaVilla: Progress Furniture Company

by Tim Gilmore, 2/12/2021

Sunlight pours through the rain at the top of the stairs. The ceiling contains more space between than structure. Laths cross laths, rotten, blackened, and an old light bulb dangles between rays of sunlight in the downpour like a lost modifier. Through a doorless doorway, I see another door open to a drop to the ground floor with no ceiling or roof above it. This space, though in the center of the building, is as much outside it as the street out front. There’s just no building left in the middle of the building. And the rain keeps coming down, threatening to bring down the rest of the old furniture store with me inside it.

Imagine the transactions made here at Progress Furniture Company 80 years ago, the South Georgia and Eastern European accents, men’s hats—fedoras and homburgs, the hand gestures, the cigarettes. Imagine the family struggles and employment prospects and new romances in the rented rooms upstairs in 1925 and 1975.

What’s left of the Progress Furniture Company Building at 318 Broad Street in LaVilla is a collapsing metaphor of what’s left of the old downtown neighborhood, once home to thousands, and an emblem of how a city turns its back on itself. Downstairs, on the other side of iron bars, the letters on the window, facing the plywood on the outside, spell “Progress” backward in the dank dark. Four decades ago, I would have seen those letters from the sidewalk, appealing crisply to potential customers.

The building, in and of itself, ranks far lower in architectural and historic value than thousands of other buildings in the urban core, but offers a glimpse into the whole disappeared world of LaVilla and is one of the last Old LaVilla buildings that might have been saved. It stands bookended by 324 Broad, also once occupied by Progress Furniture, and 326, last home to United Optical Outlet, which closed permanently a year or so ago. It didn’t have to be this way. The City of Jacksonville called for bids on the building in 2017 and rejected three bids ranging from $3,000 to $10,000, with one bidder offering to spend more than $350,000 to revitalize the space, and turned down several proposals to convert the building into offices or artists’ studios since acquiring it in 1994.

Soon 318 will be an empty hole between the other two buildings. Ferns and lianas and saplings grow up from inside. As Massachusetts architect Chris Riddle once said, the “best way to destroy a barn” is to cut a hole in the roof and step back. The outside spaces inside the building fascinate me. On the first floor, three iron stanchions hold up the splinters that are left of the floor above it, the three crosses of Golgotha trapped in a lost building in a lost city. Behind them, the ground floor and the brick wall behind it open up to the sky. On the second floor, glassless windows set in brick bays open to a space against the brick wall of 324 next door.

These holes, outside-in, offer random samplings of the city’s secret spaces and tunnel into its history. An ad in the 1938-’39 Jacksonville Jewish Center Yearbook bids “Season’s Greetings” from Bernie Moskovitz of Progress Furniture Company, “Buy or Sell…We Treat You Well.” The Moskovitz family were Jewish immigrants from Romania who came to Jacksonville shortly after the Great Fire of 1901. Isador and Olga’s sons Leo and Bernie learned the furniture trade from their father, who worked for Liberty Furniture Company nearby and, astonishingly, was one of two Romanian Jewish immigrants in Jacksonville named Isador Moskovitz.

Manuel’s Tap Room, from the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, 1942

Meanwhile, Kenneth “Buzzy” Klausner and his father Herman also worked in LaVilla. Herman purchased the famous Manuel’s Tap Room sometime around 1960. Manuel Rivera was the Puerto Rican businessman whod run the Tap Room, a shell of which remains, on LaVilla’s most hopping street, West Ashley, with its theaters, restaurants, and music venues where local musicians played and where the nation’s most famous black entertainers circuited through Florida. Buzzy ran Terminal Liquors inside the Greyhound Bus Station amidst the restaurants and other liquor stores between the Jacksonville Train Terminal and the Terminal Hotel on Bay Street.

Herman Klausner in the office at Terminal Liquors, 1950, image courtesy Debi Klausner

While the Klausners and Moskovitzes worked in LaVilla and lived in white neighborhoods elsewhere, Buzzy met the Moskovitzes’ daughter Paula and married her in May 1961. The Moskovitzes also ran L Bee (for Leo and Bernie) Furniture on Beach Boulevard, across from Goony Golf and its famous dinosaur. When Herman died in 1980, Buzzy went to work for his wife’s family at Progress and then L Bee.

Government records, historical documents and even personal memories can only ever give us the scantest understanding of the events of others’ lives. Now multiply this slightest sketch of the life of one building by all the lost structures and lives of LaVilla and the disappearances become exponential. In fact, the Progress Furniture Building stands a block south of the Black Masonic Temple, built in 1912, the grandest historical structure built in segregated Jacksonville and once one of the most powerful concentrations of black business enterprise in Florida.

This neighborhood, which began as a plantation, became a Civil War battleground, became a dense black community after Emancipation, its own city with its own mayor and aldermen, then one of most culturally vibrant and racially diverse communities in Florida, fell on hard times during desegregation and white flight, was cut apart when Interstate 95 cut through it, was decimated by desperation and crime in the ’70s and ’80s, and was finally almost completely demolished, 50 square blocks with pockets of old houses, missions, synagogues and commercial buildings remaining, by Mayor Ed Austin’s “River City Renaissance” plan for “urban renewal” in the early 1990s.

It was eight years ago that I wandered through 318, southward adjacent, with faded signage on its side announcing, “Progress Furniture” and “Home of Credit Power.” These three Broad Street commercial buildings stand two blocks south of the historic Richmond Hotel, where black athletes and entertainers stayed during segregation, and where DeLoach Furniture had operated for years. Nearby furniture stores, mid 20th century, included Liberty, where Isador Moskovitz first worked, E.C. Newsome, Mather, Davis, Ford, Pierce-Wall and Jacksonville Furniture Company. DeLoach was the last store in business. In 2013, a year before it closed, Terry DeLoach walked with me through 318, the old Progress storefront that DeLoach used as a warehouse. Old barber chairs huddled on the first floor.

On the second floor, strangest sensation, we stepped through a door from the furniture warehouse onto a front porch. Ornamental scrollsawn porch brackets and ceiling slats stood against the interior brick of the commercial building. Terry’s explanation was that the commercial building had somehow been built around an older two story Carpenter Gothic house, one of the thousands that once lined LaVilla’s streets. Inside the furniture building, the second floor of the older house remained intact. I’ve since heard a similar, but slightly different explanation, that “the house” or “the residence” inside the commercial structure was built for “workers of whatever business was first there” and that Progress Furniture, located at 324, built its addition “on top of” the workers’ residence at 318.

However it happened that an old house ended up cheek-by-jowl inside an old commercial building, visiting this block again sends me back to old city directories. In 1917, the middle building housed Mendelson Printing Company with Clark Realty Company at 322 ½. By 1923, L. Bobroff, a dry goods merchant and self-proclaimed inventor who’d sell munitions to the federal government during World War II, operated from 322-24, and at 322 ½ were Clark Realty, a dentist, a physician and a tailor. At 325 was Florida Salvage Co., auto parts, and at 326 was Horace Clark, grocer.

Fanny Harvey ran the furnished rooms above the storefronts at 319 in 1917. Upstairs were always rooms for rent. Through these modest two story structures, the rigid and stark segregation of the Jim Crow Era often made strange demarcations. Broad Street stood close to the segregation line between LaVilla and Downtown proper and by the 1920s, black boarders frequently lived upstairs while white businesses occupied the storefronts. The Richmond Hotel, for example, housed black visitors upstairs from DeLoach Furniture, run by a white family for white customers.

photo courtesy Noli Novak

Photographs taken by artist Noli Novak in 2007, showing 324 upstairs, capture the last vestiges of close to a century of living in these rented rooms. The plaster is eaten away from the lathing between windows, but the place has yet to begin disintegrating on itself. In one room, an opaquely grimed perfume bottle sits atop an old TV set with board paneled sides. Elsewhere, over the transom window above a door, a horseshoe hangs in a U to bring in good luck.

Standing in the rain, 14 years later, at the top of the stars in 318, I give thanks to Old LaVilla for all the ways it’s let me in over the years just as it disappears. New apartment buildings are rising throughout LaVilla and adjacent Brooklyn, three decades after Mayor Austin’s “renaissance” flattened this historic neighborhood and left block after block of surface parking and grass lots. In Brooklyn, developers bought out the last residents of that old black neighborhood, demolished century-old houses and put up fences with banners promising “Urban Living” coming soon, as though the people who lived here for the previous century and a half never really existed, as though their lives weren’t real.

In back of Broad Street, ferns and forbs grow between bricks, while palmettos and woodbines cover doorways and windows. A feral cat sleeps in a metal garbage can turned sideways. The Progress Furniture Company Buildings are the randomest of samplings of disappeared LaVilla, a slice of life from a vast and dense vanished community. But the earth was here before the world we’ve made and always reclaims it. In the powder of broken bricks above a lamppost, a dirty purple bloom bursts from the jagged green spikes of Cirsium Horridulum, or Horrid Thistle, its roots thriving in the ghost compost of the history of LaVilla.