Phoenix / East Jacksonville: School Number 8

by Tim Gilmore, 2/27/2016

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When Victoria was in the fourth grade, she decided she’d had enough of her teacher and preferred her best friend’s in the classroom next door. At lunchtime, she walked into the principal’s office and asked to change classes.

Since J. Allen Axson was a Montessori school, the principal took Victoria’s request seriously, and after consulting with her parents, allowed the nine year old to change classes.

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We’re sitting at a tall table in threeLayers Café at Walnut and East 6th Streets in Springfield. She’s one of the smartest students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

When Victoria attended J. Allen Axson, the school faced Franklin Street between East 16th and 17th, Public School Number 8 in a system that presently includes 197 schools. In 1910, the School Board had called it Graded Springfield School, later East Springfield School, and then East Jacksonville School.

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But in the early 2000s, Axson moved to Sutton Park Court, to a wealthy and largely white suburb, surrounded by real estate and banking offices and golf clubs that add a pretentious “e” to the end of the word “park” in their names. “Windsor Park” would never suffice.

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It’s quite possible that the oldest sections of School Number 8 were designed by Richard Lewis Brown, Jacksonville’s first black architect, but since Brown most likely received no credit for several buildings he designed, there’s no way to prove it.

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Though born in slavery in 1854, Brown became a kind of Renaissance man. He worked as a farmer, carpenter, and minister, and served two terms in the Florida House of Representatives in the early 1880s.

After the Great Fire of 1901, the Duval County School Board hired R.L. Brown as its chief builder and repairman, and in the next decade, he constructed several new schools for which no architect was recorded. It’s surprising a black man got the job in the Jim Crow South, not so surprising he wouldn’t have received credit for his design.

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Centennial Hall after a contemporary renovation removed its original cupola

But in 1916, the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Florida credited him as builder when he worked with the Seattle architectural firm Howells and Stokes at Edward Waters College, the oldest historically black college in Florida, on Kings Road west of downtown. Brown worked closely with the architects on Centennial Hall, the campus centerpiece, named for the hundredth anniversary of the A.M.E. Church, the world’s oldest historically black Protestant denomination.

In 1922, Brown was enlisted to design the Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church at 841 Franklin Street in Fairfield. It’s a brilliantly eclectic building, the only existing structure that Brown not only designed, but for which his architecture was credited.

Joel McEachin, Jacksonville’s chief historic preservation planner, believes that during Brown’s years as “builder” for the School Board, he designed several schools for which no architect was listed, including Fairfield School (Number 9), built in 1910, Lackawanna School (Number 10), built in 1911, and the first two sections of School Number 8, built in 1909 and 1910.

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Brown’s entry in African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945 fits him into the tradition of “gentleman architect,” one who “took on the roles of both designer and constructor,” without specialized formal training.

“The gentleman architect,” like the “gentleman farmer,” concerned himself with how his primary role blent with civic, educational, and religious progression in the larger community.

Today’s Richard L. Brown Elementary School at 1535 Milnor Street on the Eastside stands on the former site of Brown’s Alley, a large family compound on which Brown built houses and smaller buildings in likeness of the South Carolina plantation where he was born.

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Victoria attended Axson Montessori when it was housed in School Number 8, when the Duval County Magnet Program sought to repurpose old and under-performing schools in blighted neighborhoods for specializations that parents across the whole county might select for their children.

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If you wanted your child to begin first grade in a foreign language immersion program or pre-engineering, or ninth grade in filmmaking, you submitted an application to the magnet program lottery.

East Springfield, as this loss of empty urban blocks is sometimes called, isn’t much like Victorian / Edwardian Springfield to the south and east at all. You’ll find no grand Queen Anne-style mansions here with corner turrets, but lines of century-old long-abandoned warehouses. The Jacksonville Historic Preservation

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from Mayor Herb Peyton’s 2004 “Phoenix Avenue Neighborhood Action Plan”

Commission refers to this neighborhood now as East Jacksonville, though a 2004 City of Jacksonville “neighborhood action plan” called it Phoenix, after nearby Phoenix Avenue. If this neighborhood knows its name, the people who walk it don’t. It keeps its name secret, its identity in deep-down flux.

In her 1998-99 yearbook, Victoria shares a group portrait against the title “Suzuki Violin School, Part One.” The yearbook cover shows a rocket leaving the earth with concave Roman Numerals in the upper left hand corner.

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elementary yearbook photos, courtesy Victoria Choulat

In a later elementary class portrait, students stare off in all possible directions. Some kids smile. Some look confused. One little girl pushes her hair behind her ear. Only one child seems aware her picture is being taken, and that’s Victoria.

When we meet in threeLayers, I think about how Public School Number 8 was built in three layers. After the original two constructions, “architect unknown,” likely the designs of R.L. Brown, Roy Benjamin gets the credit for the 1926

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edition. Of course he does. Benjamin’s one of the city’s best-known early-20th-century [white] architects. He designed the Florida Theatre in 1926. He designed the San Marco Theatre in 1938. His was a name that resonated. Brown’s name was unknown, and when connected to dark skin, dismissed.

I’ve never been sure of what I said to Victoria, or what she needed me to say, but I’ve always admired the intelligence burning in the delicate structures of her face.

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Against that American flag in that fourth-grade yearbook picture, Tory’s a little girl. She crosses her bony arms across her chest, arcs her face to the side. Her collarbones protrude, and her cheekbones, and her angry pretty eyes.

“I took violin lessons in a room next to the inner brick courtyard,” she says. “For some reason, I can only remember it as cold and wet.”

So I go. Between abandoned brick walls, I trespass the halls. I try to hear the laughter of a century of children, but I too will remember this place cold and damp with the sun going down.

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Public School Number 8 fills a city block against railroad tracks. The trains cut the school at its north, then cut across its east. Its stalwart brick walls set its entrance in stone arches and porticos.

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These streets surrounding the school stand emptier than unpaved roads far outside of town. Never, none, and the less, these pavements dank and depressed in the sinking sad earth have known so much human living, life caught at so many historical turnings, you might as well vote them into important political representations for how they understand all of us.

Phoenix, this no-longer-neighborhood, grew from several urban developments long ago. Phoenix Avenue runs central, once called Fisher Avenue and Foreman Avenue.

The Dyal-Upchurch Company, named for Benjamin Dyal and Frank Upchurch, which focused on lumber and land investment across North Florida, and whose building designed by architect Henry John Klutho was the first highrise constructed in downtown Jacksonville after the Great Fire of 1901, developed the neighborhood first called Dyal-Upchurch, to the east of Phoenix Avenue in a platting called Corwin’s Addition.

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Public School Number 8 stands north of Dyal-Upchurch in the 1902 Hartridge’s Addition to East Springfield. Another early name for the school was Northeast Springfield School.

Before Fisher or Foreman was Phoenix, as early as 1901, just after the Great Fire, streetcars cruised from downtown up the Phoenix Park line, and as dense residential and industrial development burgeoned between East 8th and East 20th, the street-name-change to Phoenix meant the denizens of the densely-packed East Springfield began to call the whole thickly-bristling machine of a district Phoenix.

Phoenix represented a resurgence northeast of downtown organically named for the firebird risen from ashes.

But the bird’s fiery descent snuffed out in the evergreens. The city built the school, never thinking to name its architect. A streetcar brought out the center of town. Then Jacksonville killed off its original schools.

Some unwitting photographer snapped your class picture, Victoria, on an anniversary almost a century.

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Your arms crossed your childhood chest. Your facial structure mirrored your arms. Your eyes sought hardening of us, asked us how to harden you.

I don’t know, I don’t know. I’ve collapsed across ruins all my life. I’ve never figured out self-protection.

Now the Phoenix, the great mythological bird, lifts from its brick foundations in the quicksand to clear the caged walkways above the railroads by Martin Luther King, Jr. Expressway, then curtails its course, cuts its lifeline, and sinks blazing but cold, red-bricked and rainy, in the central courtyard of Victoria’s violin lessons.

I’m calling out to strangers. Is there anyone we can believe in? We’re waiting for the resurrection. I miss what faith feels like, though missing it’s no reason to fake it.

cont’d Fairfield: Mount Olive A.M.E. Church