Lions of Drew and McConihe

by Tim Gilmore, 11/22/2019

(See also: “Drew Building, H. & W.B.”)

You should meet them, the lions. First drive past them. Even if for no other reason, you should park your car and walk up Bay Street and introduce yourself. Recognize that their features are frozen and imagine their movement in the moment in which they’re suspended.

They looked out on Bay Street, facing north, four stories high, for 70 years. Irony brought them down: the life insurance company cut short their reign.

1971, courtesy Florida Times-Union

Luther McConihe, mayor in 1876 and ’77, then again in ’78 and ’79, with the short mayoralty of W. Stokes Boyd in between, hired architect J.H.W Hawkins to design McConihe’s namesake building just after the Great Fire of 1901. Nobody knows where Mayor McConihe lies buried; the McConihe Building became the H. and W.B. Drew Building in 1921.

McConihe Building, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

The Drew family had run their retail business from 45-47-49 West Bay, then expanded into Hawkins’s five story black diamond at the corner of Bay and Main. The lions watched over the center of the city in the name of H. and W.B. Drew for half a century.

circa late 1930s, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

The river touched the backs of the buildings. Downtown hadn’t yet extended over the river with Water Street paved on top. The back half of the Drew Block was a separate building altogether. With waterfront face, bearing banks of windows, laced on one side with iron fire escapes, topped on both sides with chimneys and signage under arch, like a massive cartouche, pronouncing, “The H. and W.B.” in bold lettering, then “Drew Co.” in cursive underneath, the back of the block looked over the river. Always it showed boldly in views of the city skyline.

1971, courtesy Florida Times-Union

In older photos, wharves extend from the back of the building over the river. In later photos, the back of the building fronts Water Street. Most of the extension of downtown over the river was paved for parking lots. Drivers descending on the Northbank from the Main Street Bridge faced the back of the Drew Block, announcing itself as printers, lithographers and offices suppliers.

circa 1968, courtesy Florida Times-Union

Back on the Bay Street side, the two lions faced Forsyth, and further faced Adams, Monroe and Duval Streets, further still Springfield, Evergreen Cemetery and Panama Park. They wore as crowns the monogram “M,” keeping Mayor McConihe alive, though his city lost his grave in time and the earth.

It was life insurance cut short the lives of these “kings of the jungle” in the middle of the city. Specifically, I must accuse the Independent Life Insurance Company. Their new building would split the definition of “skyscraper” in two.

In 1896, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, dubbed “the father of the skyscraper,” defined such a building as “tall, every inch of it tall.” A “skyscraper” had to reach high, not just in its totality, but in every smallest portion. Its shortest fraction might signify more than its total height. Accentuating its verticality appropriately, a 10 story building might be a skyscraper greater than one 10 times its height.

top of the Florida Life Building, image courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

In 1973, however, with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York climbing to 110 stories each, younger Americans could only think of skyscrapers as buildings that reached the apex of a city’s skyline. Skyscrapers, they presumed, must needs be the world’s tallest structures.

Independent Life Building under construction, 1973

Independent Life demolished the McConihe / Drew Buildings in 1971, though the two story Drew retail store building at 45 West Bay remains. When it was finished in 1974, the insurance company’s new skyscraper became the tallest building in Florida at 37 stories.

Only the lions survived. And the McConihe “M.” Independent Life President Jacob Bryant III salvaged the great beasts, brought them down, with their monogram crowns, to Bay Street. The two lions grew together, back to back, eight feet tall on the ground, standing as they’d once done four stories high.

How does a city forever lose a mayor? No one knows where lie Luther McConihe’s mortal remains. But his “M” stands on these lion’s heads like a cenotaph, a monument to an elsewhere burial, literally an “empty tomb” from the Greek kenos taphos. Surely, every grave is a cenotaph, since no one can be found in their “eternal resting place.” We die and our elements intersperse into and thus become the whole world and all the earth.

Since people are animals who define themselves by symbols, let’s make the occasional pilgrimage. Stand beneath the glass giant that for years so awkwardly dwarfed the city and lay garlands and roses, plant bouquets and candles, light incense and veil our faces and recite elegies to those whom we’ve loved who are gone.

Look into these lions’ mouths now and listen to what, for 70 years, they’d have spoken, repeat their wild blessings into this city’s past-perfect futures and all its infinitives. Id Est. To do. To live. To be. To breathe. To name the next verb. To write the next story. To listen. To go. Here goes. To go. To go.