Roosevelt Hotel, The Carling, Downtown

by Tim Gilmore, 6/18/2012

Friends stand by one of the old columns, talking, a beer in hand or a rum and coke. The fundraiser for the charity helping homeless women and children fills the spacious mezzanine.

circa late 1920s, courtesy State Archives of Florida,

The Carling reopens in the first decade of the 21st century with 100 apartments, a grand lobby and mezzanine, once again a living building. It has been the 300-room Carling Hotel from 1926 to 1936, when the Robert Meyer hotel chain buys it on the eve of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reelection and renames it the Roosevelt Hotel. The public is asked to join a renaming contest, and an overwhelming number vote to name it after FDR.

The Roosevelt closes the year after the fire.

The three lower stories are faced with limestone, the middle stories with red brick, the upper stories outlined with terracotta, an elegant balustrade along the top. 1926 newspaper articles say, “The building is also of completely fire proof construction.”

The thing that most startles 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.

photo courtesy The Florida Times-Union

Most of the right hand side of the image is solid brick. Most of the left hand side is thick smoke.

Pouring from the window are the tops of two people, a man and a woman. It’s as though the smoke pours from their hands and their faces. Their faces are ghosts within the smoke. You can’t determine features. The faces are death masks.

photo courtesy The Florida Times-Union

Something is badly wrong with the image. It is still. It shouldn’t be. The image is as still and the faces are as indeterminate as though the fire never happened. But these people are burning, and that hand extends in a panic right out of the past. The image is still, but still there is panic in that hand.

Standing on the terrazzo floor in the mezzanine against the strong columns beneath the chandeliered and elegantly coffered ceiling, between the marble staircase and august Palladian windows, in the precise location of the deadliest fire in the city’s history, they drink donated Captain Morgan spiced rum to raise money for the homeless, speaking of ironies of charity without sacrifice.

“HOTEL ROOSEVELT   Another Robert Meyer Hotel Jacksonville, Florida               The Lounge. 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

1964, year after the fire, the Roosevelt closes. 1971, it reopens as a retirement home, the Jacksonville Regency House, empty again in 1987. Empty for 16 years. 2003, it reopens as the Carling, one of the premier apartment buildings downtown.

In the 1940s, it’s considered one of Jacksonville’s “big five” hotels, its crimson Empire Room “the most lavish dining spot in the Southeast.” In 1963, it’s one of two luxury hotels left downtown. In 2003, its developers’ website says, “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.”

Fire Captain Robert C. Sorensen remembers kicking doors open and seeing the dead lying on the floor or on beds or against the window. He remembers a firefighter trying to resuscitate a beautiful young woman. She wears powder blue pajamas. She looks like she’s sleeping. She’s already dead. He remembers a doctor coming into a room where several firefighters are trying to revive a man lying on the floor. The doctor is so fast. He’s already performing a pocket knife tracheotomy, cutting a slit in the man’s throat, pulling on his windpipe, then saying, “He’s dead.”

December 29, 1963, 22 people dead, 100 people injured, including 20 firefighters.

The fire starts in the ballroom at 7:30 in the morning. When emergency workers arrive, people are hanging out of the windows on bed linens they’ve tied together. Soon, the streets are filled with emergency vehicles and eight helicopters are flying people out of the building. Miss America suffers burns on her throat and her nose.

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.

photo by Robert Fischer, courtesy State Archives of Florida,