Pappas Building Ruins and the Ship of Theseus

by Tim Gilmore, 4/28/2021

cont’d from Brooklyn: Pappas Building / H.C. Care Co. Building

1. The Stones

You can’t see the stones from the road. I park at the Doty Building, where Ted Pappas first opened his solo offices in his Uncle John’s building in 1968, then walk a block north on Washington Street. I pass one of the closed ramps to the Isaiah D. Hart Bridge, each ramp scheduled for demolition, and walk east on Monroe Street.

This portion of Downtown still retains ghost shadows of its original neighborhood feel. Perhaps a hundred of those thousands of original tall handsome houses with spacious porches, like the prototype Ted designed for Northwest Jacksonville HabiJax after listening to community concerns and dreams, still stand. Attorneys and bail bondsmen operate offices in the few old buildings not boarded-up rooming houses. Lots of empty lots hold the absence of lovely homes demolished. A present absence. A what-should-have-been had Jacksonville, as every other North American city, not ruined so much of itself.

In just such a block, I pass a gaggle of homeless men and women who’ve parked their shopping carts in a space central to their assemblage. Across the street, a broken-down 1970s van bears a Georgia license plate and flat tires. The jail’s a block over. So’s the Sulzbacher Homeless Center. The police headquarters’ two blocks. Clearly homelessness, failure at basic survival and citizenship, is still linked directly to criminality, just as vagrancy laws, not so long ago in this country, illegalized people police perceived to be in the wrong place.

I walk deep into a vacant lot. The lot runs deeper than you’d think from the street. From a broken chain-link gate at the back of the lot, I enter what I think of as the final resting place for the Pappas Building: its ruins, its boneyard, but also its Ship of Theseus.

2. Not Just a Memory

Even after watching the destruction of his heart- and headquarters, Ted Pappas hadn’t given up. Four days after David Bauerlein’s article, The Florida Times-Union’s Sandy Strickland wrote, “About four weeks ago, Jacksonville architect Ted Pappas moved out of a historic building on Riverside Avenue that was to be demolished to make way for the road’s widening.”

courtesy Mark and Ted Pappas

She continued, “He made sure, however, that the building’s striking façade, made of 150 pound stones, wouldn’t become just a memory.” He’d fought the demolition for a decade and acknowledged the likelihood of its loss years ago, but a month prior to his HQ’s destruction, he removed its great stone blocks, planning to reinstate them elsewhere. He’d received an estimate that it would cost a million dollars, which he could not afford, to move what certainly seemed suddenly his most important building, his architectural self-portrait, “so instead he got a special permit to save what he could of the exterior.”

from The Florida Times-Union, April 10, 2002

The Florida Department of Transportation called the procedure abnormal, said “typically” a “contractor” would “dispose” of a structure that stood in the way of eminent domain “in the most expedient way possible, usually in an approved landfill,” but spokesmen said this building was “different” and “special” and “significant.”

First National Bank Building, Independent Life Building across the street, image courtesy Mark and Ted Pappas

Strickland referred to “the architect,” citing his work at “Epping Forest Yacht Club” and “the Beaches Library” and “First Guaranty Bank,” as having “hoped to remove the framework and decorative pediment,” which he “couldn’t without structurally impacting the building,” which he noted, ironically, “I’m not authorized to do.”

image courtesy Mark and Ted Pappas

Where Ted moved the stones, what he planned to do, and how those plans fell through with the continued sinking of his broken heart, I, for the longest time, don’t know. It’s as big a mystery as what architect Taylor Hardwick did with the onion domes he salvaged from the destruction of the original St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church downtown.

from The Jacksonville Journal, February 11, 1980

3. The Vision

In the early 2000s, Preston Haskell was, depending on who you speak with, the third or fourth most powerful person in Jacksonville. Though Jacksonville Transit Authority engineers originally drew up plans to expand Riverside toward the river side, Haskell convinced the City to alter its plans inland, what Ted still calls “our side of the street.”

from The Florida Times-Union, April 6, 2002

Haskell justified this change, and city officials ultimately agreed, by saying the plan protected the old YMCA Building and historic Brooklyn Fire Station #5 from demolition. Since the widening of Riverside Avenue demolished the Pappas Building and other historic structures on the inland side, both the original YMCA Building and the fire station have been demolished and engineers have asked the JTA and the Florida D.O.T. to consider spending money to narrow this section of Riverside Avenue to make it more friendly for new urban neighborhood construction.

When I ask Ted what he did with the stones following the demolition, he says, “That was a quick emotional decision. To reuse those stones would require special planning and design and a special-use building. That opportunity never happened.”

“The stones,” he tells me, “are on an empty lot on Monroe Street near Washington. I have since sold the lot to Alex Sifakis, local developer. It cost me $13,000 to move the stones in the year 2000. I couldn’t see spending that much and more again. Perhaps Alex will find a good use. Maybe a mausoleum.”

I find the stones at the back of a lot off Monroe. A broken gate leads to a lot behind a lot. Here lie the stones, four and five and six deep, in three long rows, and in dismantled piles, grown over by woodbine and greenbriar. Standing here is a strangely emotional experience. I could wait one thousand years for the earth to usurp and welcome us over.

What might I now say? I suppose I argue for the value of an architectural design even against whether it’s been built, been respected since built, or even still stands, at least in part because I’m a writer. I don’t have to build anything physical. I chronicle ideas as they happen in the world in the best edifices of words I can erect. An architect may be, as Ted often says, a “creative interpreter,” but Ted Pappas is also a man with his own ideas and vision. The designs themselves exist yet, and will still, and must.

Consider the Ship of Theseus and Grandfather’s Axe. These are the names of two versions of the same thought experiment. If you replace one part of the ship, it’s still the same ship, right? What if you keep replacing parts of the ship until, over time, you’ve replaced every single original piece? Does the original ship no longer exist? Or is it still the same ship?

With Grandfather’s Axe, if you replace the handle, it’s still the same axe, right? What if later you replace the head of the axe too? Is it the same axe as when you replaced the handle, but not the same axe you started with? Or is Grandfather’s Axe always Grandfather’s Axe?

courtesy Mark and Ted Pappas

I’ve seen Ted Pappas walk into so many buildings remodeled since he originally designed them. The buildings are not his, but the designs are. The people who use his buildings after he’s designed them alter them. It stings the designer to witness these alterations, because the building is the representation of his design in the world. No one, however, can remodel his original vision. In the Beginning was the Word. That’s the design behind. Always a rose is a rose is a rose. Then again, a thing in the world exists in the world. That’s the only place you’ll find it.

Ted Pappas, December 1980, photo by Gary Parker, courtesy Florida Times-Union