by Tim Gilmore, 6/28/2014
The young man at the check-in desk is asking about the rules. He’s glad that each room has a lock on the door, and he likes the fact that he gets his own key. The housekeeper says bad things used to happen at The Palms, but management has gotten serious about security. Some tenants have stayed for months and even years, she says.
When he asks if he can have visitors, she says, “You can have visitors until 11 o’clock.”
He lowers his brows, tilts his head just slightly, and after a lengthy pause, says, “You mean 11 o’clock…at night?”
When she says she does, he pauses again. Then he shows her his palms in explanation and says, “Okay, man thing. You know, I might like to have a woman to my room.”
A typed list of rules hangs on the wall with a warning that tenants will be charged $15 per broken rule. He can pay $10 up front for a visitor or he can pay the $15 fine. He says he’ll have to think about it.
Some of the rules include:
“No illegal drugs in the hotel.”
“No one under the age of 21 years of age allowed in the building, the palms hotel is for adults only.”
“No vulgar language or racial remarks in common areas.”
“Proper clothing must be worn at all times in any common area. Shirts are required! NO underwear! in common areas.”
Though most of the people sitting on the porch or watching TV in the kitchen probably are, in fact, wearing underwear (whatever the rule is supposed to mean), the management’s list of rules, security lock system, and array of security cameras throughout the building do seem to have mitigated the violent crime and theft that have plagued this boarding house for decades.
Variously called The Palms View Inn, The Palms Rooming House, and The Palms Hotel, the building was constructed in 1904 as the Ensminger Apartments. Its three stories of 37 rooms have seen their full share of the vicissitudes of human existence.
The Ensminger featured six apartment suites, each with a front porch and latticed back porch. There were marble steps and wainscoting along the halls and stairs. Apartments were furnished with steam heat, both gas and electric light fixtures, and speaking tubes—long air pipes used to contact servants across long distances.
The signs on the front and side of The Palms claim it was established in 1950, skipping its first four and half decades, while a 1930s’ shot by prolific Jacksonville photographer Jack Spottswood identifies the building as the Carlis Hotel.
The shape and proportions, the numbers and distancing and height of windows, and the degrees of corbeling below the roofline remain the same, but the exterior brick walls of The Palms are now covered in whitewashed stucco and instead of three stories of porches over Market Street, only the ground level porch remains, heavily fortified in plastered arches.
In the fall of 1999, scaffolding surrounded the three-story building while workers replaced old wood and added new stucco. About two years before, The Palms had installed central heat and air-conditioning.
Hurley Winkler and I look at the Xeroxed and binder-clipped history of the building the housekeeper shows us. The “history” claims the building was once the Armory, though the Armory was located just south on the same block. It also claims The Palms was constructed after the Great Fire of 1901, yet survived the 1901 fire.
Portions of walls of the original Duval County Courthouse, built in the 1840s, decimated by fire in the Civil War, rebuilt in the 1880s, did survive the Great Fire and were rebuilt into the Duval County Armory in 1903, serving various government functions from 1916, when a newer Armory was built to the north, until 2003, when its latest reconstruction as the Lanier Building, named for Confederate poet Sidney Lanier, was demolished to make room for a parking lot.
But the Palms was never the Armory. It shared the block, just to the north. Other transformations ensue.
Hurley and I become brother and sister. Our cousin Morris is coming to town. He never stays with family. He loves urban landscapes. He has small needs, just enough to set up base and move out into the city. He doesn’t want to be near the ocean, because the ocean, inexplicably, makes him angry. He’ll be in town sometime in August, we’re not sure when.
The housekeeper is kind. She’s fascinated by the building. She likes thinking of how much humanity The Palms has hosted. She can’t book rooms in advance, but smalls are usually available. She gives us the key to Room 207 to see how Morris might like it.
Small it is. The halls on each floor descend carpeted declines toward back exit doors. Room 207 comes behind curves and walls that crevasse inward and waits all alone by the back exit. The room’s big enough for the bed and the closet. There’s a television. The window is boarded shut but covered with a spotted poster of floral design. A string hangs from a bare bulb above the bed.
In 2002, tenants heard “struggling and gagging” coming from an unidentified room and one man said he heard “someone being slammed against the wall and then loud choking sounds.” The man said he went back to bed after hearing the confrontation and was surprised when management and the police pronounced a homicide the next morning.
Though burglaries and assaults occurred across the decades at The Palms, the building is best known for the 1983 arson that killed seven tenants.
In late March, Larry James Bana was evicted from his room at The Palms after a disagreement over his rent. Bana moved out, but he was angry. The Palms had done him wrong and he couldn’t let a wrong go unrighted.
So just after midnight on March 24, 1983, Bana set The Palms on fire. It wasn’t the first time the hotel had burned, but six people died that night and a seventh four days later. The Palms had provided no fire extinguishers and no smoke detectors.
During the 1999 renovations, Jim Gray, Night Manager at The Palms, first heard about the 1983 fire and decided to move from the third to the ground floor.
He liked living on the third floor but said he had “looked out the window and thought, ‘Boy, that’s a long jump!’”
Hurley and I are fairly sure our eccentric cousin Morris will be happy with a small room at the back of The Palms. Morris is good at experiencing whatever the world can give and coming out alright. He loves urban landscapes at their grittiest. He likes old places that have imbibed much life and survived. He soaks something up from them. The Palms has smoke detectors now. And The Palms inhabits the corner of Adams and Market Streets, two blocks, thankfully, from Ocean Street. Morris hates the ocean. Even the word makes him angry.