Waters beneath the Merrick House, Downtown

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

Maybe the fact that more than 13 percent of the surface of the city is water saves this city from itself.

The Jacksonville Police Department administration building was constructed on the site of a haunted house downtown.

Image from Paul Spreiregen’s book, The Architecture of William Morgan, 1987

The architect William Morgan won the 1971 design contest. The idea was a building that echoed the earth, and doing so, must emphasize horizontality. Several block-like masses were arranged in terraces. One inner atrium connected with another via skylit passage nestled in the mounds of the complex. The building, an architectural critic wrote, due to its civic function and its security needs, had to be open and closed all at once. It had to be a fortress of earth formation, yet opened in courtyard and inter-terrace-conjunction and atrium. The massive structure contained a two-acre rooftop garden.

Morgan’s architecture was a nexus between the post-Corbusian postmodern and the “mound architecture” of pre-Columbian indigenous (pre-)American tribes from Florida to the Mississippi River and the ancient city of Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville, Illinois.

The Jacksonville Police Department is headquartered in a building designed after modernism and before history.

It’s also headquartered on the site of an old house haunted by the more than 13 percent of the surface of the city that is water. It’s on the site of one of the city’s first houses. Jacksonville wasted no time becoming haunted. One of its first homes was a haunted house.

Washington Street now comes only south to East Forsyth. Where the city jail and police department obstruct its way, it once came down to Bay Street. The Merrick House stood at the northwest corner of Bay and Washington. Inside the house, residents and neighbors often heard strange noises, muffled roars like ancient women and men trapped and burning up inside their own bodies.

One of the earliest extant maps of the city dates to the early 1850s, spanning from the westward marsh that was Laura Street one block to the marsh that was Pine Street and would become Main Street to Ocean to Newnan to Market to Liberty to Washington Street. From the St. Johns River, the city moved northward to Bay to Forsyth to Adams to Monroe to Duval Street. That was the whole city.

Near the bottom right-hand corner of the map, a small square indicates the haunted house. In the early 1850s, an anonymous stranger passing through from the North suggests perhaps the muffled speaking and crying and distant clamor comes from the future instead of the past.

In the early 1850s, a less than credulous wanderer tells the Merricks that the whole awful future of a city is screaming beneath their house.

No image of the Merrick House exists. No one knows who the stranger might have been. A couple of early city residents attributed the strange noises in the house to subterranean waters. They went so far as to call it “an underground river,” assuming that it somehow connected to the St. Johns, directly or indirectly, unable to suggest where it flowed or from whence. They said the river didn’t seem to like being buried alive.

Either an underground river sounded beneath the Merrick House or the screaming of the whole sublime gestalt and terrifying future of a city.