by Tim Gilmore, 9/13/2019
It was 1971 when Bess Porter Keely told Sharon Gould how she and her sisters Blanche and Ruth each spoke their wedding vows on the landing of that majestic mahogany staircase curving through the living room to the second floor. Seven decades prior, her father Thomas Porter had “ordered a shipload of Honduran mahogany,” of which the first floor interior was built.
Two of the four houses at Church and Julia Streets were those of senators, two of businessmen. The homes of Senators James Taliaferro and Duncan U. Fletcher stood on the eastern side of the intersection, those of Thomas Porter and William Ware on the western. Anna Fletcher claimed her house was haunted. Her husband defended William Ware in court against the state’s charges Ware ran an “ice trust.” Now only the Porter House remains, though in 1925 First Christian Church moved the house to 510 Julia Street, resituated it, stripped it of the veranda that embraced three sides and built a rear addition.
Writing for The Florida Times-Union in 1971, Gould said the house had “a kind of musty magic,” saying, “It seems to whisper of its past to the ear that will listen.” So Gould listened to Bess Keely, who’d been born in 1887 and was 15 when she moved into architect Henry John Klutho’s “Classic Corinthian” design.
The house was one of Klutho’s first commissions in Jacksonville. The Great Fire of 1901 had drawn the young New York architect south in its wake. He wasted no time. He also won the commission to build the new City Hall. Gould wrote that “Klutho adopted a design idea from the ruins of the Lebanese temple Baalbeck: The motif of the egg and the arrow (life in the midst of death) that is repeated on the columns and throughout the interior.”
Architectural historians never mention Klutho’s “egg and dart” moulding, though plenty of “Colonial Revival” architects used it. Baalbek is an ancient Lebanese city northeast of Beirut, called, in the days of the Roman Empire, Heliopolis, “City of the Sun.” Ruins of several Roman temples populate the city. It’s clear the “egg and arrow,” yonic and phallic, is a pagan symbol of fertility, whether the prim and mannered folks who “courted” here at turn of the 20th century understood it as such.
“There were,” Keely recalled, “certain days for calling on friends in certain parts of Jacksonville and one simply didn’t call in that section on the wrong day.” In starkly segregated Jacksonville, the wealthy white Porters certainly never called more than three blocks due west in LaVilla, with its black and Cuban and Syrian and Chinese population. “Hats and gloves were necessities at those affairs and one kept smiling throughout the tea and cakes.” Bess once asked her mother “how nice [she] had to be to one particularly awful old lady,” and her mother instructed her, “You can never be too nice, dear,” deeply inscribing the particular hypocrisy known as “Southern hospitality.”
When Bess Keely said, “Our parties were a page out of Dickens—charades and costume galas,” she wasn’t thinking of the subversiveness of that writer who’d spent time as a child in the government-run “poorhouse,” who mocked the pollution of Victorian London by writing in Bleak House of Old Krook who spontaneously combusted, whose Oliver Twist first introduced a 19 year old Queen Victoria to the “squalid vice” and starvation rampant in the capital of the empire. “Mother,” Bess said, “wouldn’t allow cards or dancing.”
Bess remembered “beaus” who called on her “in the approved manner,” leaving a calling card one day, telephoning the house another.
All those decades later, Bess could walk through the house in her mind, room by room, sofa by armchair by window. First Christian Church had owned the mansion for nearly half a century. In another decade, the church would relocate to the suburbs and KBJ Architects would make the house where Bess was married its headquarters.
She recalled the front doors opening, “ponderous” pocket doors unfolding to the right, the parlor with its “cool pale blue,” its furnishings in “blue satin tapestry,” the grand piano touched with filtered sunlight from windows nearly as tall as the 12 foot ceilings, and near the fireplace a “sweetheart chair, its name somewhat of a misnomer because it curved to hold two people, sitting in opposite directions with a section of chair between them.”
Bess remembered the “warm wine color” of the living room across the foyer, a velour davenport and tall mahogany bookcases “imparting a leathery masculinity to the room.” She spoke of the long mahogany sideboard and table with a dozen chairs in the dining room. In his 1983 book The Architecture of Henry John Klutho: The Prairie School in Jacksonville, Robert Broward writes, “The attic contained a large billiard room with arched dormer windows punctuating a mansard roof. Three great brick chimneys balanced the composition.” Surely the house’s most striking mise-en-scène remains its entrance. Beneath the two-story portico upheld with six Corinthian columns, a coffered ceiling looks down on a balcony that curves outward into open arms.
It saddened Bess that the church had closed off the third floor, using her bedroom and her sisters’ on the second floor for Sunday School classes. She didn’t mention the house her father had built for her brother Walter, just around the corner at 305 West Church Street, had recently been demolished. Most recently the Kentucky Home for Roomers, the two story house with attic dormers had deteriorated for years.
The strange and persistent Virginia King, author of the 8,448 page book Interesting Facts about Leading People and Families of Duval County: Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings, snapped a Kodak Brownie shot of the house around 1970. An old lady steps across Church Street clutching a black handbag. Frazzled oaks enshroud the porch. Overhead leers a bland highrise. Against the western side of the house, used cars nest on a sales lot. Rooming house windows peer out at the back of a billboard.
In 1981, KBJ Architects moved into the Thomas Porter House. Founded in 1946, KBJ prided itself on having designed 17 of the 30 tallest buildings in the city and thereby “creat[ing] Jacksonville’s modern skyline,” as Jessie-Lynne Kerr said in her January 24, 2008 Florida Times-Union story. In 2017, KBJ sold the Thomas Porter House to a real estate investment group in Missouri and announced it would move to the top floor of the Bank of America Tower. Landrum and Brown, an “aviation planning and development” company from Cincinnati, had purchased KBJ. It cared less for the wellbeing of the city’s historic core than the profit of its offices in Australia, Shanghai and Texas.
Bess Porter Keely died four years after Sharon Gould wrote up her remembrances. Nearly 50 years later, the Porter House stands empty. Not only is that most prestigious intersection a distant shadow of itself, but the house stands solitary on a fully abandoned block. KBJ placed this house on the National Register of Historic Places and called it home for almost four decades.
Thursday morning, I leave microfilm machines behind me and revisit this lonely dispossessed mansion. A young homeless woman in voluminous skirts, her hair in unwashed strands of fading pink and green dye, sits beneath the coffered ceiling, her legs crossed before her. By way of greeting, I ask her if she’s Anna Fletcher, Bess Porter, Virginia King. “Maybe,” she says. She asks me where she can find a cheap omelet. She apologizes, just has this hankering, has a few bucks, so she’s “not begging.” Questioned on omelets, I try not to think of ancient arrows and Roman fertility symbols. I make a quick trip to Akel’s, bring back an egg platter with grits and home fries, bacon and toast. I mention Porter’s daughters’ weddings. She asks me how hot Jacksonville gets in the winter. It starts to rain. I add our interactions to the history of the house.