LaVilla: Whetstonian

by Tim Gilmore, 10/03/2012

Whetstonian 1

At two in the morning, Walter Whetstone sits in a cushioned iron chair on the roof of his brick two-story building at the corner of North Jefferson and West Union Streets in Northern LaVilla, listening to Otis Redding on the radio. Beside his chair is a potted palm tree. Above his head is the moon. Down on the streets, a solitary car or two glides by every once in a while.

The song lyrics correspond to Whetstone’s enjoyment of his late-night downtown solitude. “Sitting on the dock of the bay, / Watching the tide roll away, / I’m just sitting on the dock of the bay, / Wasting time.”

Wasting time. That makes him laugh. He’s hardly wasted a minute of his life. “Sitting in the morning sun, / I’ll be sitting when the evening comes.” Yeah, and here he is. “Look like nothing’s gonna change, / Everything still remains the same.” He closes his eyes, and rubs the tired lids with his wrinkled fingers. Everything has changed. Nothing remains the same. To think about how much change he’s seen in this one neighborhood in his one lifetime makes him feel so much older than his three quarters of a century.

He walks over to the steel railing at the brick parapet, and he looks out from the rooftop over West Union Street. He thinks about the more than 30 years he delivered telegrams for Western Union. Another correspondence. Live long enough, he thinks, and everything corresponds. Nothing stranger or more true. The whole world is a dense spider web. He watches an old Cadillac soar across Union Street. “Sitting on the dock of the bay, / Wasting time.”

Whetstone owns the whole side of North Jefferson between West State Street and West Union, and his side of West State Street almost down to Broad Street. On a Sunday afternoon, he stands on the massive granite floors he placed in the 1965 insurance building at the corner of State and Jefferson. Beside him are tropical plants growing up lattices against the windows, wooden sculptures of African deities, two old blackface Sambo statues, a pair of Corinthian columns, and a wall full of framed awards for selling life insurance. “Yes sir,” he says, “There’s a lot of black history around here.” Then he laughs low and rubs his eyes and says, “Including me.”

He says his daddy drove an ice truck and used to pick up all kinds of things people had thrown out in the trash. He picked up the habit from his daddy. The collection here is his life’s work.

He calls his almost half a city block the Whetstonian. He says if Smithson can have his Smithsonian, then he can have his Whetstonian. The name is painted on various facades of the buildings, and signet W’s appear randomly across the whole compound. One State Street door is framed by two columns painted like barber’s poles. The door is recessed in walls fitted with large jagged portions of granite and marble. The upper middle of the door centers the Whetstonian W.

He bought this place 20 years ago, when the City of Jacksonville decimated the neighborhood of LaVilla, once one of the most thriving urban districts in Florida. Blind Blake and Jelly Roll Morton played here. So did just about any jazz or blues musician you can think of from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Before that, LaVilla had become its own mostly black town right after the Civil War. Before that, LaVilla had become the new name for a plantation when it changed hands in 1850. Before that, this area had been a land grant from Spain in 1801. Before that, there are no records. LaVilla had been mostly black ever since it was a plantation.

In the early 1990s, the city bought most of this former town through eminent domain and tore most of it down. “They would have got this place too,” Whetstone says. “They had already cut the sewage lines to the building. But I got it at the last minute. I had to pay to have the sewage lines reconnected.”

He says this while standing in the open area between the former life insurance building and the main building. Even this central area, now fenced in with brick and iron and mirror, didn’t go untouched. Between the two buildings once stood three shotgun houses. But Whetstone built the fence to make private the now empty yard between the buildings, and he topped the fence with old Carousel horses and strange, tall spirals, and mirrors and a loquat tree and a tropical pine strung with Christmas lights.

Though he’s traveled the world and won awards for selling millions of dollars of life insurance, his home his whole life has always been within two or three miles of the current Whetstonian. He remembers the bars and the restaurants and theatres that lined West Ashley Street. He remembers playing pool in crowded buildings that no longer exist. He met his wife 53 years ago at the Jefferson Street Swimming Pool just north of LaVilla.

“See, in the 1990s, the city decided they got this black community, must have been a thousand houses and business buildings here, as the entrance from Interstate 95 into downtown, they decided this was not a good introduction to the city. It had been here a long, long time, but they decided it had to go.”

Walking through the rooms of the large two-story brick commercial building at the corner of Union and Jefferson, you feel all the life that’s been lived here since 1927 thick upon the walls. “Now just imagine,” Whetstone says, “all this multiplied by everything that disappeared in LaVilla at that one time. Because this building is still here. Almost everything else is gone.”

Though his longtime residence is just north of downtown in Springfield, he stays in the apartments on the second floor in the main building of the Whetstonian. He likes the way it feels to listen to the radio on the roof at night. He has family come over and they barbecue ribs. There’s an enormous barbecue pit in the ground floor behind the first bar and next to a wide furnace, the pit and furnace running deep into the walls.

To walk through the main building is like walking through all the layers of its history at one time.  When Whetstone bought the building in the early 1990s, it had been divided into three separate businesses. He took out the walls between them and opened the building up.

One section of the building had been a bar, one a restaurant, and one a pool hall. Two of the three sections have bars built in. The ceiling is copper bent into many angles. It’s dark in here. And cluttered. This was the kind of place where for decades people drank inside and wandered out into the street and in those last few decades laughed at the cops who rarely dared to come by and ask if anybody had seen somebody. “All hours of the day or night,” Whetstone says, looking around at the ceiling and the walls, “People drank all kinds of stuff in here and they smoked all kinds of stuff in here too.” If, in the 1970s, that meant pot, in the 1980s, it also meant crack. “All kinds of things happened in this building, some of them don’t nobody even want to know about.” On this particular Sunday, Whetstone and his wife, married for half a century, stand in these rooms and hug their grandchildren, who are about to drive back to Alabama.

The building is cluttered, full of what Whetstone’s been collecting all his life. Old glass bottles. Old typewriters. Sambo statuettes. Jacksonville and LaVilla signs and flyers. Beer and liquor signs. You can find remnants here of every year of the building’s life.

In the central bar area, everything is dark and lovely brown. The bar is brown, the walls, and the ceiling is copper. Paintings of jazz bands and blackface statuettes and cigarette signs and glass bottles and ceramic whiskey jars and old lamps. From the ceiling above the bar hang trumpets and trombones and saxophones and flugelhorns. Century-old piano innards adorn the brick walls.

In addition to the barbecue pit and the furnace are two ornate wooden fireplaces. Long tables. Concrete pillars. Hats. Clocks. Neon beer signs. Dark brick and frosted glass cubes and green paint and copper.

On outside balconies hang mannequin arms. In windows hang wagon wheels. Against the brick walls, welcome signs accompany succulents in pots and chairs. Mr. Whetstone sits just inside the fence he built. He doesn’t know you, but he says, “Come on in.”  Walter Whetstone, almost 80 years old, who grew up and lived much of his life in poor, segregated neighborhoods, says, when he sees a stranger, “Come on inside, take a look around.” He tells stories. He laughs at the jokes he tells. Then he excuses himself to go outside, to hold hands with his family in a circle and pray for their safe travel back to Alabama.

On the Whetstonian’s State Street side a pillar stands covered in folk art depicting Harriet Tubman. Atop it are two black heads turned toward each other, but seemingly simultaneously staring into the distance. Toward some tomorrow? Toward some universal time, some mythological Edenic time?

Nearby are two tin plates on poles, punched through with quotes from American architects. Clearly, both quotes apply to the Whetstonian. One tin plate quotes Mies van der Rohe: “The structure is the whole, from top to bottom, to the last detail—with the same ideas.” The other tin plate quotes Frank Lloyd Wright: “…every curve and line has to have real meaning; it can not be arbitrary.”

The Whetstonian contains mannequin parts and unicorns and framed photographs of black American insurance company personnel and marble columns and beer signs and deer heads, but each of these items is imbued with meaning. Each piece of the structure is the whole structure. The first idea lives in every last detail.

In the insurance company building at the State Street side, Whetstone built a beauty parlor and a barber shop for family members who didn’t feel sufficient to taking them over. Now each sits empty along a lonely corridor, each with large couches on granite floors and fireplaces and waiting chairs.

Once, decades ago, Whetstone was invited to a conference in a swanky hotel, where he would be presented an award for most policies or dollars sold, and where he would speak briefly. When he got to the hotel, an insurance executive he had never met approached him and asked him to take his suitcases and get them up to his room. The man hadn’t recognized him as a possibly successful colleague. The white man had seen the black man and assumed he was his servant. Whetstone smiled and sent the man’s luggage on. But that evening, Whetstone was presented his award. When he came to the lectern and began to speak, he saw the man who’d treated him as a servant seated in the first or second row. When the man saw Whetstone, he looked down, and he couldn’t raise his face the whole time.

Among the human-faced suns implanted in factory cogs hanging on the wall and the Distinguished Service Awards displayed among eagles and angels, Walter Whetstone stands, gracious, tired, complaining about how his wife made him walk 13 miles this morning into Riverside and back, just for the exercise.

Walter Whetstone is as smart a man as you will ever find. He laughs at the notion that he is an artist, but the Whetstonian clearly trumps the Smithsonian, not as a museum, but as a life-become-art. He fits perfectly into the tradition of “outsider artist,” those artists who received no formal artistic education or training, but despite (or because of) this deficit, achieved some pure spiritual and creative expression worthy of preservation across lifetimes.

If Howard Finster was a bit of a showman, playing the banjo on late night TV, that came only as accident, since Finster first created more that 46,000 pieces of art and his own psychological and artistic landscape he called Paradise Garden, just outside of Athens, Georgia.

Simon Rodia was an Italian immigrant who built towers in his back yard in Los Angeles for 33 years. He wandered the neighborhood of and around Watts, bringing back pieces of railroad and scrap rebar, bed springs, glass bottles, seashells, and ceramic tile. The neighbors’ children frequently vandalized the towers, and xenophobic neighbors assumed Rodia created the towers to communicate with Japanese forces during World War Two.

Whetstone stands in a doorway and calls his black mongrel named Black from Jefferson Street where drivers honk horns on this football Sunday, and he says, “Oh, that dog’ll be alright. He knows what to do.”

He’s had no connection, he says, with the Jacksonville Historical Society, or with the Ritz Theatre and Museum, founded in 1999 as the central voice of LaVilla’s past and present, its budget recently cut in municipal austerity measures. He waves his hand at the mention. “I’ve been self-sustaining,” he says. “But I got all these assets. Now the decline in income’s caught up with me.” He says if the Ritz lost funding from the city, he’s lost funding from himself.

He plans to go back to work, in his mid-70s, to sell life insurance again. He’s worked hard all his life. “Now the party’s over,” he says, “but I’m still alive.” Then he looks pensive and sad. He says, “But nothing lasts.” He’s watched LaVilla blossom and decline, bought most of a city block of it, sat up late at night on top of it, but now he feels he’s going the way of LaVilla.

If the City of Jacksonville paid a million dollars a block to destroy 30 square blocks of LaVilla, the least this Siva could do is preserve everything Walter Whetstone has created here. The structure is the whole from the last detail.

The Whetstonian is a masterpiece of outsider art. Elephants and ceiling fans hang from its balconies. Lions and welcome signs grow from its sidewalks. Ghosts from every year of these buildings’ history clutter its walls. I’m sorry to be only a poor pilgrim who has walked across and through the Whetstonian. Though the artist does not seek it, the Whetstonian has the right of every preservation the world can offer him.

Walter Whetstone is a short man who seems capable of anything and everything. He’s a thousand times bigger than his physical size. He creates whole world histories in years, and replicates entire worlds at the corners of Jefferson and Union and State.

He says, “I’ve seen so much change that I know everything passes away.” The Whetstonian is the Smithsonian of Jacksonville’s plot to murder LaVilla, but also a treasury of LaVilla’s long, full living.