by Tim Gilmore, 5/26/2023
At the Volstead, in the old brick and limestone Knight Building down on Adams Street, an old man shrouding a tall beer between hunched shoulders once told me he’d lived on every continent but Antarctica. I just listened. I didn’t tell him this was the former homesite of “the man who burned down the town.”
It was illegal to buy or sell alcohol when the Knight Building was new in 1920, and the Volstead, which fashions itself a “speakeasy,” is named in irony for the National Prohibition Act, or, after Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead, the Volstead Act.
On May 12, 1920, a headline in The Florida Times-Union declared urgently, “3 Story Modern Building Will Be Erected at Once at Adams and Laura Streets.” W.A. Knight “of New York and St. Augustine” had just six months earlier bought the site of “the old Cleveland [sic] home,” the newspaper said. It was Edward E. Cleaveland whose business negligence started the Great Fire of 1901, the third largest urban fire in U.S. history.
At the Volstead, beneath its reflective stamped-tin ceiling, I once heard someone say, “It looks like a city down here,” and when someone else responded, “It is a city,” she said, “No, I mean: a real city,” and I once read into a mic here, standing before a wall papered with an old bird’s-eye view of Downtown, from my book about a pyromaniac who said he’d like to burn the whole town down.
It was August 20, 2014, a Wednesday night, and Bridge Eight literary magazine hosted a reading featuring me and Teri Youmans, whose poetry collection Becoming Lyla Dore fictionalized a movie star from the Jacksonville of the silent film era, when more than 30 studios headquartered here.
I read from my “400 page fever dream,” as friend and poet Johnny “Chicago” Masiulewicz called it, Stalking Ottis Toole, my cross-city interrogation of the many paths taken by the great fake serial killer. Though Ottis (falsely) claimed necrophilia and cannibalism in addition to mere murder and was arrested for arson and public nudity and drug offenses, I’d felt, in writing the book, that I’d begun to inhabit him, and public readings felt like dirty confessions.
“On the ground floor,” the 1920 T-U story said, “there will be three attractive stores, just the thing to meet the demand for up-to-date shops. The third floor is designed especially to meet the demands of the medical fraternity, and the entire floor has already been leased to physicians. There will be an operating room and a room especially for X-Ray work.” Indeed, “The elevator will be sufficiently large to accommodate a stretcher which might be used in carrying an injured person to the operating room.”
Inside the Volstead, the walls are papered with old headlines, “U.S. Voted Dry,” and photos of protestors with placards saying, “We Want Bourbon!” What name could be more ironically apt for a bar? States ratified the 18th Amendment in January 1919 and the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th, in December 1933.
At a tiny table off the bar, I once heard a woman say, “I know you’re an alcoholic. I’m going to brick you up in my cellar like Edgar Allan Poe.”
In one of Bridge Eight’s photos of that 2014 reading, I’m corkscrewed down into myself and reading upward, but the frame captures only the closest reader, a young woman, and the narrative becomes the two of us, though we never met, and embarrasses me terribly.
Marsh and Saxelbye, the most prolific Jacksonville architectural firm of the 1920s, designers of grand Jax estates like Epping Forest and the San Jose Hotel, designed this small commercial building, also known as the Peninsular Building and, by 1936, the Greenleaf and Crosby Annex. Great cities are vast collections of small elements and my favorite buildings are often smaller ones.
“The lobby,” said the papers, would feature “tile floors and be trimmed in marble.” Upstairs, in 1922, operated Riverside Hospital Clinic, which soon moved to Riverside as Riverside Hospital, and clinic partner Edward Jelks became president of the Florida Medical Association and co-founded Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Diamond Interlachen Sands Company of 1934 became, in 1950, All Florida Sand Company and then Florida Rock, and now before the Volstead opens at four o’clock, Kazu Sushi Burrito “balances Hawaiian flavors with Japanese techniques” one storefront over.
Another night, a friend had a gimlet here and then three more and the Young Republicans met here, their ties nicked to the side just so, their expensive haircuts just rightly mussed. Another night, the Young Democrats met here, their ties nicked to the side just so, their expensive haircuts just rightly mussed.
In the late 1880s, the home of furniture merchant Edward E. Cleaveland stood here. In 1901, the Great Fire, which began at the Cleaveland Fibre Factory, destroyed the Cleaveland house — and most of the rest of Jacksonville too. In their book The Great Fire of 1901, published at the fire’s centennial, Wayne Wood and Bill Foley call Cleaveland “the man who burned down the town.” Cleaveland rebuilt just off “The Row,” the grandest line of houses in the city, at 124 Lomax Street, by the water in Riverside. Somehow the town had forgiven him.
The Cleaveland Fibre Factory stood like a giant wooden tinderbox, bounded by Beaver, Union and Davis Streets in the mostly black neighborhood of LaVilla. The building was made of pitch pine and stuffed with palmetto leaves, palm fibers, horsehair, feathers and several tons of Spanish moss spread on a 200-square-foot “drying platform” raised 12 feet from street level to fan air up through the fibers. So the tinderbox was also a bellows.
The factory extracted fiber from Spanish moss to fill mattresses and upholstery. The day after the fire, Cleaveland told a reporter that one of the workers had seen smoke wafting up from the moss, but “this having happened before, no importance was attached to it more than ordinarily.” Then “little blazes glowed in the mass of fiber,” and as workers bucketed water on the flames, “the first breath of the coming wind swept over the yard, the fragments caught fire and the fire ran with the speed of [gun]powder flashes.”
Though Jacksonville never seemed to hold the Cleavelands accountable, a story three days later in The Chicago Daily Tribune did, though it had the facts wrong. Its subheader announced, “Several People Made Insane by Excitement — One Man Drops Dead.” That man, the Chicago paper falsely reported, was William Waldo Cleaveland, Edward’s son and business manager: “W.W. Cleveland [sic] on whose premises the fire originated […] dropped dead from excitement during the progress of the flames.”
Now, in May 1920, the Times-Union reported that “Mr. Knight,” in building his new physicians’ offices on Adams Street, also owned “the Cle[a]veland home adjoining,” and “so designed that in future years the corner stores may be torn down, and the building extended over the entire corner.” The expansion never happened, the Greenleaf and Crosby Building rose on the corner, and the Knight Building drew from the newer building a new name: the Greenleaf and Crosby Annex.
In 2009, Charlie Patton, longtime Times-Union reporter and 1996 Jeopardy! champion, lived upstairs for a week. Developer Mike Langton had converted the old offices upstairs into the Knight Lofts, 12 separate units. “I found things surprisingly quiet,” Charlie wrote. He went to a nearby rooftop party, but it started raining. He said “the streets” felt “creepy after dark, even though statistics show Downtown is one of the city’s safer neighborhoods.” He said he was too old “for the club scene.” The Volstead opened on New Year’s Eve, 2013.
I’m still ashamed. I’ve been accused of face-blindness and always feel odd socially. “Doktor,” my friend e-mailed me after the reading. “It’s me, Hannah Peters Lovecraft, your old friend H.P. I spoke to you at Volstead. I was wondering why you acted so strangely when I came up to you after your reading to say hello and goodbye. So many people – Jiminy Cricket! – haven’t recognized me lately. What’s wrong with my face? I reactivated my account, but I didn’t come back with a bang. You invited me, but didn’t recognize me.”
And all around the Volstead, down from the noösphere, whirl strange streams of thought and patterns of history, even as tunnels underneath, rumored and otherwise, pull chosen wanderers into telluric currents circling the central taproot of the whole city, this oldest big town in Florida.
So if you head down to the Volstead, think of that original operating room upstairs and hear in your head the first lines of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” –
“Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.”