by Tim Gilmore, 7/18/2019
1. Love Story
The Plaza Hotel, at the corner of Forsyth and Liberty Streets, is a lonely building. Part of its loneliness is its genre: the Plaza Hotel is a love story. And the man who fell so deeply in love that he resurrected it is not coming back. Nor is the woman whose whole life intertwined with that of the building.
For trial attorney Glenn Allen, it was love at first sight. The strange little “castle,” as he called it, with its two-story veranda that sweeps across the face of the building and curves about the corner tower, seemed to have appeared magically downtown from some other land. It had come across a wrinkle in time, perhaps, or was it hierophany? —a showing of the sacred in the mundane world, like the Burning Bush in the Old Testament?
For Sara, since the old hotel was the only home she’d ever known, its salvation depended on the arrival of some noble warrior. Her body was giving out and the Plaza Hotel was too. Indeed, the building surrounded her like another body, a carapace, a metaphor for her own weary frame. When Glenn bought the Plaza, promising to restore it to its original glory, she knew she could finally let go.
2. Glenn Allen’s Castle
When Glenn first saw it, he later said, “I envisioned it as my castle.” It reminded him of his summer studying at Exeter University in the early 1970s. He was a University of Florida law student at the time, studying in England through the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
Glenn’s widow Sharyn fondly remembers that summer: backpacking through England and Scotland, collecting brass rubbings she made from ancient monuments. The couple had been high school sweethearts in New York. The rubbings still hang in Sharyn’s home.
When Glenn first saw his Jax castle, few passerbsy could detect its magic. The two-story veranda had long ago rotten and been stripped from the face of the building. The corner tower was boarded up. A shabby overhang stood on two flimsy supports before the front door, while a door upstairs opened onto the overhang and nothing else. It looked like a hundred other downtown rooming houses, which most locals, lacking imagination and the requisite humility before the span and scope of ghostly history, thought should be demolished.
The Plaza Hotel began as the Bexley house in the 19th century. In the early 1890s, Augusta Bexley, a former Confederate surgeon, added the turret and veranda. When the Great Fire ravaged the house in 1901, Bexley’s son Robert rebuilt it, but of fireproof concrete, instead of the original brick, and with the turret rising from the east, instead of the west.
Preservation records list the old hotel as built about 1903. Others consider the Great Fire’s destruction incomplete and date the building to the early 1880s. A 1980s newspaper article says 1863, but Bexley could hardly build a house while engaged in the Civil War. Besides, the house appears on no maps that early and the war left the town repeatedly in ashes.
Julie Griffin, writing for The Florida Times-Union in 1985, put it most aptly, saying, “The present house is actually a replica of a house built by Dr. Augusta R. Bexley, sometime during the latter 19th century.”
By the time Glenn Allen saw the building, the City of Jacksonville was decades into demolishing its loveliest and most importance structures. In January 1986, as he moved his law offices into the Plaza, Glenn told the T-U, “I don’t understand why we tear apart historic buildings to construct new ones when we can preserve history for others.” At Exeter, he said, “they didn’t tear down buildings when they needed repair. They just fixed them.”
When he saw the Plaza Hotel, its battered body of rusticated concrete blocks and its boarded-up corner tower, the ways he loved her were too many to count.
3. Sara’s Childhood Home: “NO CHILDREN!”
The Plaza had stayed in the Bexley family for a century. Though Glenn’s bid wasn’t the highest, Dr. Bexley’s granddaughter Sara accepted it because other bidders wanted to tear down her childhood home and lifelong abode and replace it with a parking lot. Sara was dying and she wanted the house brought back to life. She hadn’t been able to take care of the 3,300 square foot building for years, but she still loved it.
When her father, Robert Bexley, managed the family residence as the Plaza Hotel in the 19-aughts, he advertised it as “situated in the aristocratic section” and “designed for refined transient guests”—“NO CHILDREN!” The Plaza stood two blocks from the pier for Clyde New England steamship tours and “one block from the fashionable shopping Bay Street district.” You could see the towers and the lights of Dixieland Park, “the Coney Island of the South,” across the river on the Southbank, where revelers rode ostriches around a dirt track or screamed aboard a 160-foot wooden roller coaster. The Bexleys ran the Plaza until 1913.
Robert and Pearl Bexley raised two daughters in the hotel and their graves in Evergreen Cemetery lie next to that of an unnamed infant the couple lost in 1906. Robert himself had grown up here, rebuilt his childhood home from the ashes. He would die here too. Even that was part of the function of home.
4. Miss Havisham’s Lair
Sharyn remembers walking through the building with Glenn, but she doesn’t remember Sara. “It was in a deplorable state,” she says. “I wondered how a person could be living there.” Glenn told the Times-Union, rather mysteriously, that he negotiated with Sara “for about two months, behind closed doors, without ever seeing her face to face.” Exactly what Glenn meant, or how negotiations took place, Sharyn says she doesn’t know.
Rooms and rooms were filled with furniture that hadn’t been moved for decades. The dirt and grime of long years had settled over everything. Chairs and shelves stood draped in cobwebs like Miss Havisham’s wedding table. Sharyn noticed a dead mouse on the floor.
As restoration commenced, Glenn cleaned up some of the antique furnishings Sara left behind and sold others at a vast yard sale hundreds of treasure seekers swarmed. He kept an original Lionel train set, a pair of Planter’s Mr. and Mrs. Peanut salt and pepper shakers, and a gold pocket watch.
5. Quiet Bower
“Her heart is like a fragrant flower,” said Sara’s senior quote in her 1926 Duval High School yearbook, “Blushing in some quiet bower.” After Robert died in 1928, Pearl continued to call the hotel home. By 1930, Eva had married and she and her husband, a photographer named William Connery, had moved in. A decade later, both daughters had been married and divorced and lived in the old hotel with their mother. Sara Ellis was 30 years old and Eva Connery was 28. Pearl died at home in 1952.
The next 30 years grow murky. The picture blurs; the sound muffles. Figures move up and down the stairs, but who they are is hard to tell. By degrees, dust collects. Old loves fade. The building shifts, settles, aches and groans. It comes to have always been there, though it hadn’t, and for whom? Ten thousand wakings in mornings, afternoons and witching hours blur, fade and fall away forgotten.
Sara and Eva still lived in the hotel in 1960. They’d never lived anywhere else. The sisters ran their childhood home as a rooming house. City directories list different strangers different years, an Elvis Moore and John Reeves in 1970. Countless traveling salesmen, itinerant preachers, downtown longshoremen and moonstruck star-crossed lovers forgot they ever stayed here a day or a month those years.
When Glenn fell head over heels for his “castle” in the early 1980s, Sara still lived here. Eva died in 1980. Newspapers named a new husband for Sara, Gene Icard, or Ichard, but city directories never list him and Sara seems not to have changed her last name, an unusual choice for such a traditional woman at the time.
Sharyn Allen doesn’t remember Sara being married and can’t imagine how one person lived in the ramshackle old house, never mind a couple. She’s also nonplussed by Glenn’s having told journalists he’d never met Sara “face to face,” though he negotiated with her for two months, “behind closed doors.”
Sara suffered from ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and knew she was dying. ALS is cruel. Sara’s own nervous system attacked her, slowly boarding her up. Her body shut down, as had the house. They declined together. In 1985, the Icards moved out and Glenn began restoration. Sara left her childhood home by ambulance. She died a month later. Her husband didn’t exactly disappear because no one had seen him in the first place.
Workers reshingled the tower, rebuilt the verandas, removed and replaced all exterior rusticated blocks, refinished the floors, and shined up the four fireplaces, oak with Italian marble inlay, and the two oak staircases, one of which leads to the roof. Workers rebuilt the foundation and found a wooden yo-yo, either Sara’s or Eva’s, beneath the house. Which little girl had misplaced it and when, how long she’d looked for it, if ever she did, and how it ended up underneath, nobody can say. In the year 2000, Glenn purchased an old street clock in Chicago and the Allens staked it before the building.
Glenn died younger than both Bexley girls. He was only 57 when leukemia took him in 2006. For a year the Allens fought it with everything they had, even moving to Seattle for a bone marrow transplant. He’d married the love of his life, waged fierce courtroom battles, and saved a castle, Sara Bexley’s lifelong home, restoring one body so Sara could let the other body go.
Now, once again, the old hotel waits. It’s known every angle, every corner, every corridor of human living. In the building’s depths, a silence echoes like the Fermi Paradox. Is anybody out there? Who will next come knocking? When commences the next chapter for the castle, the old hotel? What words begin the next story? The lovely old house stands strong and experienced, loving and wise. It’s ready. It’s time to get started.