Embers Restaurant, Universal Marion Building, JEA Tower

by Tim Gilmore, 6/29/2014

It’s too bad, says the tall man who won’t tell us his name, that you can no longer go into the floor underneath. The view from the top floor is beautiful, but on the 18th floor, you could see the great gears that once rotated the top of the building.

Embers

It’s also too bad, says his shorter friend who won’t tell us his name either, that the company no longer lets employees bring their families up to the top to watch fireworks on the Fourth of the July and New Year’s Eve.

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Hurley and I took the elevator from the ground floor to the open dining area on the first floor, not knowing how or if we could get to the top, but our two anonymous new friends walked us to the world’s nicest security guard, who told us she was from Montana and there was nothing as beautiful as driving through the mountains in Glacier National Park along Going-to-the-Sun Road, but, she said, the view from the top of this building was also pretty spectacular. She said we’d love it.

The tower that now houses the Jacksonville Electric Authority at 21 West Church Street was built as the Universal Marion Building in 1963 and designed by New York modernist architectural firm Ketchum and Sharp. Universal Marion owned newspapers in Jacksonville and Miami and co-financed Mel Brooks’s The Producers in 1968.

But the building was best known for its revolving restaurant called The Embers, Jacksonville’s answer to the ultra-fenestrated revolving rooftop restaurant trend that began with began with Honolulu’s La Ronde, designed by Seattle architect John Graham in 1961, but centered on the revolving restaurant at the top of his most famous building, Seattle’s Space Needle, built for the World’s Fair in 1962.

Hurley Embers 3

photo by Hurley Winkler

Revolving rooftop restaurants appeared in Atlanta, Toronto, New York, Chicago, and Disney World. In 1966, a year after The Embers opened, Florida Times-Union journalist Sandy Gould compared The Embers to a “sleek glassed-in spaceship, slowly spinning.”

If the idea of a spinning restaurant makes you feel dizzy, maybe “spinning” implies a speed The Embers never reached. It couldn’t be worse than having a few drinks at the famous 1949 Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans.

And if imitation is, as the aphorism claims, the sincerest form of flattery, then the scores of revolving restaurants built in the next several decades helped further establish the iconism of the Space Needle, especially when its sleek elegant streamlined design compared to boxy buildings like the Universal Marion.

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Hurley and I skirt the outside of an informal dinner held at the top of the building, looking out circumambulating windows at the tallest blue buildings reflecting the sky above the earthen colors of the century-old towers beneath them, the shorter tower the JEA abandoned for this building in the 1980s, and the bridges that radiate downtown across the St. Johns River.

The top floor hasn’t rotated in more than 40 years. The Embers was a place to “see and be seen” and let its diners see the panorama of the entire city each hour-and-a-half rotation. They ate veal cutlets, beef roulade, lobster tail, and rainbow trout.

Graphic designer Stephanie Robertson Feria remembers her parents taking her to The Embers for her sixteenth birthday. In her 2013 book Lost Restaurants of Jacksonville, Dorothy Fletcher quotes Feria, “My dad ordered alcoholic drinks for the adults and a Shirley Temple for me.” When her supposed Shirley Temple knocked her back in her seat, her dad told her, “Enjoy!” and the waitress winked.

Hurley Embers 4

photo by Hurley Winkler

Hurley spots the “Danger Fall Hazard” sign” that seems to levitate outside the windows and above the surrounding streets. It also seems to indicate that falling people will keep their decapitated heads close to their falling bodies and find their fingers lengthening out of proportion to their hands. The sign makes Hurley want to climb the nearby metal ladder on the other side of the glass.

The tall man who won’t tell us his name, but helped get us up here, worked in the building before the JEA purchased it. He remembers it as the Charter Oil Company Building.

In fact, the Charter Company was Fortune 500’s 61st biggest corporation right before it filed for bankruptcy in early 1984. Charter made its money on oil when oil prices skyrocketed in the 1970s, and its subsidiaries ranged from banking to convenience stores to magazine publications like Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Hurley Embers 1

Photo by Hurley Winkler

Our anonymous tall new friend remembers urban legends that echoed through the building when Charter owned it.

Urban legends circulated that the 17th floor, where Charter had its executive offices beneath the great gear house, contained a panic room where gold was hidden in the walls in lieu of more liquid assets.

After all, Charter founder Raymond Knight Mason used the whole former Embers Restaurant as his office. He looked out on the city from every angle. When Charter declared bankruptcy, The New York Times referred to Mason as “a swashbuckling Florida legend” with “a penchant for deal-making” who “hobnobbed” with the likes of Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and former President Gerald Ford at his estate, Epping Forest, the former San Jose Boulevard home of multimillionaire Alfred DuPont and his philanthropist wife Jesse Ball DuPont. Mason and his wife began spending three months of each year at the 16th-century 40-bedroom Ballynahinch Castle in Ireland, formerly owned by Jacksonville businessman Edward Ball, Jesse Ball DuPont’s brother, who’d sold Mason Epping Forest.

Our anonymous shorter new friend jokes that he’s been with JEA for a while and he’s checked all the walls for hidden gold. Besides, we shouldn’t say publically that gold could be hidden in the upper-story walls of the tower.

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Hurley grabbed a sweet tea for the sweet security guard who let us past her and up. When Hurley hands it to her, the security guard calls her an angel. Everyone calls Hurley an angel. The security guard had asked for our I.D.s and my driver’s license photo makes me look like an ax murderer.

But people can be friendly when you least expect it. Our tall new friend was four days away from retirement. His shorter friend said no one had ever walked in off the street and asked to go see The Embers before. They never told us their names. They said we shouldn’t say there had once been rumors of gold up in panic-room walls.

So I won’t.