LaVilla: Terminal Hotel

by Tim Gilmore, 1/18/2019

cont’d from Bay Street: Writers’ End, Downtown (Hamilton Jay at Bettelini’s, Sam Russ at the Melrose)

After Frederick Bettelini opened his pool hall just after the Civil War, then Bettelini’s Hotel at 16 East Bay Street, then moved his hotel / boarding house and saloon to 128 East Bay, then after Hamilton Jay, unofficial “poet laureate” of Florida, wrapped himself in his sheets at Bettelini’s, killed himself by drinking cyanide,

from Webb’s Jacksonville City Directory, 1886

after the writer Sam Russ drank himself to death in a boarding house called Hotel Melrose at the corner of Cedar (now Pearl) and Bay Streets, after Bettelini’s moved west down Bay, the other side of the Great Fire of 1901, into segregated black and Cuban and Syrian and Chinese LaVilla, first to 1229 West Bay Street, across from the city’s central railroad terminal, after Bettelini’s became the Terminal Hotel, after it moved again to 1033 West Bay, it suffered another suicide.

from The Florida Times-Union, July 24, 1912

Newspapers used the word “suicide” as a verb in those days, so The Tampa Tribune headlined the North Florida news brief, “Hotel Man Suicides.” T.J. Underhill, “proprietor of the Terman [sic],” the Tribune said, “sent a bullet crashing through his brain in his room at the hotel early tonight.”

The Ocala Evening Star, meanwhile, spelled the hotel’s name right and attributed Underhill’s suicide to rheumatism and bad “business affairs.” Ocala headlined the story, “Ill Health and Ill Fortune Too Much for Underhill.”

from The Ocala Evening Star, July 25, 1912

Underhill’s hometown newspaper further explained, “Had Been Driven from Business by Affliction–for Some Months a Hotel Manager.” Thomas J. Underhill, the T-U said, “came to Florida a number of years ago, and engaged for some time in the pineapple business.” For just more than half a year, pineapples having left him behind, he’d worked as manager for the Terminal Hotel.

He’d left a note saying, “I don’t think there is any cure for my rheumatism, so I bid you all goodbye. Send word to my son’s good wife. Doctor, I tried to see you but failed,” and “If I wasn’t lame, I would try and get out. This act won’t be of any benefit to yours concerned.”

Jacksonville Terminal, early 20th century, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

At nine o’clock that night, July 23, 1912, so The T-U reported, Underhill “seated himself on the side of his bed and placed a pistol to his temple.”

Bettelini’s had moved several times, suffered scandals and a poet’s suicide, changed its name to the Terminal Hotel and suffered a second. The Terminal Hotel sounds like a place where you check in, but never check out. Sam Russ wrote of a place called “Uncertain Hotel,” and both he and Hamilton Jay would’ve worked wonders with Bettelini’s new name.

At some point the Terminal Hotel became “For Railroad Men Only,” and there’s the story, seldom’r told as years advance, of the prostitute who fled the hotel, wrapped otherwise naked in a sheet, hid herself in a railroad executive’s office rail car, only to be discovered when the train entered some further state, said-exec swearing he’d not known she was with him. That’s one version.

Terminal Hotel, circa 1962, courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

Every city, beside its central railroad terminal, had a place called Hotel Terminal or the Terminal Hotel. Atlanta’s Terminal Hotel caught fire at three a.m. one May night in 1938 and 35 people died. As late as 1960, LaVilla, western Downtown Jacksonville, once its own thriving town, having sunk beneath the ravages of “white flight” and suburbanization—Try now to count the people coming and going by tens of 1000s.—Try to know them each individually and deeply.—surrounded the old Jacksonville Terminal with the Terminal Watch Company at 1000(a) West Bay, Terminal Commissary at 1111 West Bay, Terminal Restaurant at 1017-19 West Bay, enough liquor stores to drown the Devil, and, five decades after Underhill’s death, still, the Terminal Hotel, at 1033.

I remember when City Hall demolished LaVilla in the early 1990s. Everything in the world had happened in LaVilla’s long short history. I was a young white man and it frightened me. And it mesmerized me. It was everything I didn’t know. It was all my ignorance and what lay the other side of it.

Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center, under construction, January 2019

I’ve walked from East Bay Street, across from Bay Street Bar & Grill, where Bettelini’s stood when Hamilton Jay drank cyanide, to the corner of West Bay and Johnson Streets, across from the old Jacksonville Terminal, now the Prime Osborn Convention Center, and the $57 million Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center, still under construction. I stood where Thomas J. Underhill shot himself in the head. I stood where the City of Jacksonville cut its own heart out and bled to death. Cheaply constructed pseudo-loft apartments rise from city blocks around me. I hope they fill their rooms with smart, eager, intelligent, artistic, socially responsible young people who realize it’s incumbent upon them to try (even inevitably to fail) to know all that happened where they close their eyes to sleep at night. Only such a oneness can rekindle life. When you imbibe the completion of all that’s happened in the landscape around you, you can, I believe, undo the city’s suicide.

Terminal Hotel, circa 1962, courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society