by Tim Gilmore, 6/18/2012
Bill, 19 years old in 1963, saves Miss America. “I found her leaning out her 10th floor window, choking and gasping for breath,” he tells the newspaperman. “Her chaperone was unconscious on the floor.”
William Fielden is staying in the room across the hall with his father Arthur, whom the Associated Press calls “a Miami public relations man connected with Miss [Donna] Axum’s Gator Bowl appearance.”
The Fieldens wake, choking on smoke, and when they open the door to their room, noxious clouds billow in. Though the hall is so full of smoke they can’t see, they run to Ms. Axum’s door and start pounding. No answer. Now the men are choking so they can barely breathe and run back to their own room, closing the door to keep out as much smoke as they can.
Bill wraps a wet towel around his face and breaks through the door into Miss America’s room. She’s a brave girl, he tells reporters. “Her eyes were smarting but she didn’t cry or panic.” Another 20 minutes and firefighters help the group out the window and down to an ambulance.
“Young Fielden, a slim, handsome six-footer,” the AP says, “was recently discharged from the Navy.” A Miami Dade Junior College student, he lives with his parents now. Across the country, his photo appears next to that of “Miss America, Donna Axum, of El Dorado, Ark.”
But step away now into the Carling Grill, prominent feature of the new Carling Hotel, 1926, a lovely lobby restaurant “cooled during the summer months, with refrigerated washed air.” The temperature, the hotel assures guests, is always 72 degrees, perfect for dining and dancing. 350 rooms.
The three lower stories are faced with limestone, the middle floors red brick, upper stories outlined with terracotta, an elegant balustrade along the top. Say the newspapers, “The building is also of completely fire proof construction.”
Newspapers dub 1926 “the year of the skyscraper” in Jacksonville, a mark of the city’s blistering progress that seven buildings at least 10 stories tall rise at once. The city feels good. The skyline stands tall. Almost a century later, six of those buildings still stand: the Park Lane in Riverside, and downtown: the Greenleaf and Crosby Building, the Carling / Roosevelt Hotel Building, the Atlantic Bank Annex, the Lynch Building (now apartments known as 11E) and the Barnett National Bank Building. Only the George Washington Hotel is gone.
“All roads lead to the Carling Hotel,” say the ads in ’28. “There are, in every room, circulating ice water, wall fan and bed light.” On both sides of the lobby, the ballroom, which seats 500 guests, the large dining room, and a large grill on the ground floor. “A well appointed lounge room with library in connection especially appealing to ladies and children.”
“This is a beautiful lounge where we sit evenings after dinner,” the note home on the back of the post card says. Varieties of chairs, plush, leather, tufted spread out amidst sofas and potted palms and tropical plants. The mood’s mellow with wall sconces. “The hotel only built 12 yr. & then change name to Roosevelt. Will change stationary later this name is good while I am here.” [sic]
When the Robert Meyer Hotel chain buys the Carling and asks the public to propose names, the overwhelming response, on the eve of the 32nd president’s reelection, is the Roosevelt.
“HOTEL ROOSEVELT Another Robert Meyer Hotel Jacksonville, Florida. This spacious lounge, extending across the entire front of the hotel building, is immediately joining the main lobby. This gives an idea of the spacious lines along which the Roosevelt was built, and which lends so much of its atmosphere of gracious hospitality. Charlie Griner, Manager.”
Big bands trumpet Chattanooga Choo Choo and Pennsylvania 6-5000 and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Band leader in bow tie, hair slicked back, leads the crowd clapping. The orchestra plays Star Dust and the dance floor fills. Men back from the war, men earning promotions, moving families to new neighborhoods, new pride, take their wives out dancing on Saturday nights, grow jealous at other men’s eyes.
The Patio Grill offers a smoked tongue sandwich for a quarter, griddle cakes with ham or sausage for 35 cents, a rum “omelette” for 85 cents. “Appetizers and Relishes” include beluga caviar, chopped chicken livers and sauerkraut juice. Entrees, there’s the choice of Italian specialties, roasts and cold plates. A “whole lobster with mayonnaise” costs 90 cents. For $1.25, you can order filet mignon, a broiled western T-bone steak or broiled squab. The fried speckled trout is only 65 cents, the fresh frog legs sauté Parisienne, 85 cents. Finish dinner with 97 percent decaffeinated Kellogg’s Kaffe Hag, 15 cents.
“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” The whiskey cobbler costs 35 cents, a quarter for a dry martini, 60 cents mint juleps. You can buy a fifth of Cutty Sark for $5.00, a bottle of Sandeman’s port for $3.25. A corkage charge applies, 25 cents per person, 50 cents for a bowl of ice (no corkage charge on wines.)
In the 1940s, the Roosevelt is one of Jacksonville’s “big five” hotels, its crimson Empire Room “the most lavish dining spot in the Southeast.” The chairs are candy striped. The carpet is bright red. The cloth napkins are bright red. The walls and ceiling are bright red. By the early ’60s, the Roosevelt is one of two luxury hotels left downtown.
Fall of ’62, two Miami police detectives join Jacksonville’s James Wingate and Donald Coleman to bring Emmett Spencer to town from Raiford State Prison for questioning in the disappearance of Beverly June Cochran, a teenage housewife abducted from her new suburban home on the Northside. Spencer leads detectives all over town, eventually connects the murder to Clarence McCormick, son of a wealthy businessman who’s pals with the sheriff. In a hard rain, the five men headquarter at the Roosevelt, not infrequently a kind of shadow base of police operations.
The thing most startling is the hand, outstretched, extending straight out of the window, almost skeletal, all of the fingers equally visible like spokes in a radius of the smoke that pours from the hotel room.
Pouring from the window are a man and a woman. The smoke pours through their hands and their faces. Their faces are ghosts within the smoke. Impossible to determine features. The faces are death masks.
Something is wrong with the image. Its stillness, its silence. Those attributes are wrong. As still and as silent as though the fire never happened. But these people are burning, and that hand extends in a panic. Someone’s tied sheets together and tossed them down from a nearby window in a desperate attempt to flee the inferno.
It’s December 29, 1963 and 22 people will die; 100 will be injured, 20 of them firefighters. The hotel’s at capacity, packed for the Gator Bowl, full of college football fans. Yesterday, the North Carolina Tar Heels blew out the Air Force Falcons, 35 to zip.
The fire starts in the ballroom at 7:30 in the morning. Nobody ever figures out how. People hang out of windows on bed linens they’ve knotted end to end. Adams Street fills with emergency vehicles. Eight helicopters circle the Roosevelt, flying people to safety.
“I put my pants over my face,” says James Flynt of Graham, North Carolina, “and we started down the hall toward where I knew the fire escape was. The smoke was thick and we were feeling our way along the wall.” Flynt’s one of 11 people standing together in one corner of the roof. “There was a woman and two children and two airline stewardesses,” he says. The first helicopter hovers over the side at exactly nine o’clock and the group helps put the woman with two children aboard.
“A few minutes after smoke filled our room,” says Spencer Llorens of Macon, Georgia, staying with his wife on the 10th floor, “we raised a window and looking up saw flames coming from a window above us.” As soon as they see the flames, a woman bursts through the blaze, leaping from the 11th floor to her death down on Adams Street.
C.S. Barco first lowers his youngest daughter out the fifth floor window. He’s tied together sheets from the room’s three beds, ties one around seven year old Tayman, who’s screaming, hysterical, lowers her down. He lowers 12 year old Carolyn, 11 year old Smitty, then his wife. “Finally I tied the sheets to the bed and lowered myself,” he says.
Fire Captain Robert C. Sorensen kicks open doors, sees bodies, life extinguished, lying on the floor, on beds, against a window. Another firefighter tries to resuscitate a young woman in powder blue pajamas. She looks like she’s sleeping. She’s dead. A physician, off duty, comes into the room where firefighters are trying to revive a man lying on the floor. Before they can acknowledge him, already he’s performing a pocket knife tracheotomy, cuts a slit in the man’s throat, pulls on his windpipe, finally says, defeated, “He’s dead.”
But Burns backers, they’re not thinking of the fire, the 500 of them who gather to watch returns come in at the Roosevelt Hotel on Tuesday night, May 24, 1966. They’re excited. They’re ready to celebrate. By a two to one margin, Governor Haydon Burns wins Duval County, where he’d been a popular Jacksonville mayor, promising the city would stay segregated forever. The vote counting continues. The mood dampens in the Roosevelt. The 35th governor of Florida won’t get another term. He thanks his supporters, says he’s “satisfied with the results.”
The Roosevelt’s days are numbered. Downtown Jacksonville, 1970s, is in full gothic decline. The rattling old building becomes a retirement home in ’71, Jacksonville Regency House, offering a “Christian home-like atmosphere.” Sun-deck and swimming pool available. “Entire facility air-conditioned.” Miss Emma May Curry, 84 years old, spends her last days here, no longer teaches piano. She dies on the 12th of February, 1977.
For 16 years, the building stands empty, 1987 to 2003. The old hotel’s guts ice over in the Florida snowstorm of ’89. Rats and ghosts. “Rags and Old Iron.” A good place to get high when you’re down and out. Echoes of echoes of echoes of. It rains through the upper floors.
Then they bring back the original name. The condos call themselves The Carling. “The Carling is a distinctive home that blends the enduring grandeur of a time gone by with today’s finest amenities to create a unique experience in carefree metropolitan living.”
On Wednesday, April 7, 2010, Peter Soave plays the bandoneon just inside The Carling, 31 West Adams Street, ahead of his Friday night performance with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. The bandoneon is a small accordion with buttons instead of a keyboard, primarily used in tango music.
Standing on the terrazzo floor in the mezzanine, 2012, against strong columns beneath the chandeliered and coffered ceiling, between the marble staircase and august Palladian windows, ground zero of that deadly fire, friends drink donated Captain Morgan spiced rum to raise money for the homeless, ignoring ironies, a charity gala, good times for a good cause, so many echoes against these high ceilings. Echoes in patterns. So many echoes.
“If you wish to sleep late without disturbance place this card under the clip on outside of your door.” / “Please Go ’Way And Let Me Sleep! For I Surely Sleep Well in the Roosevelt.”