by Tim Gilmore, 2/15/2019
1. The Vision Entire
A complete architectural vision would seem to have assembled itself overnight. “You’d come into the office Monday morning,” William Ebert remembered; Morgan had been in on Saturday. The ancient Greek goddess of hearth and architecture, Hestia, must have breathed the whole conception into William Morgan’s imagination in a single dream.
Beneath the dream, however, stood the scaffolding of dedication and hard work. Bunny had researched similar projects. She and Bill had Xeroxed drawings and stories about designs and structural systems that spoke to the current undertaking. He’d leave the articles on a desk and think about them for a couple weeks.
Then at 8:30 that Monday morning, said Ebert, an architect who worked with Morgan for years, he “would have it all worked out with sketches for site plans, floor plans, exterior elevations, sections, building systems.” Ebert told Morgan biographer Richard Shieldhouse, “He’d have everything figured out.” You’d see nothing of the design and then the whole thing. “It wasn’t just the germ of an idea. It was fully developed how everything fit together and everything worked.”
In 1970, Morgan moved his architectural practice from 1611 Ocean Boulevard at Atlantic Beach, a modest apartment building where he and Bernice, “Bunny,” also lived, to the Universal Marion Building downtown, best known for the revolving restaurant called The Embers at the top of the 1963 modernist tower.
Two years later, Morgan purchased and renovated the former brick stable and headquarters for McMurray Livery, Sale & Transfer Company, built in 1906, at 220 East Forsyth Street. McMurray’s business had centered on a showroom for horse-drawn carriages. The building had housed a blacksmith’s shop and stabled horses in the center of the city. Seven decades later, as Shieldhouse describes Morgan’s renovation, “The principal workspace was uncluttered, open and orderly, with 10 built-in desks occupying two rows. Morgan occupied a desk in the rear.” It also hid a small interior parking garage, leaving more space on the city’s streets for people, not cars.
William Morgan, who studied ancient “earth architecture” the world over, drafted the designs of houses here, on roughly the spot where Isaiah David Hart, the founder of Jacksonville, built a double log cabin in 1821. In the decades that followed, the brutal swampscape into which Hart and a handful of early town residents moved would be filled in, raised, and paved over. After a hotel called the Philip Frazer House burnt down at the southeast corner of Forsyth and Newnan in 1850 and both United States and Confederate soldiers burnt the city in the Civil War, Thomas McMurray built his first livery and stable here in 1869.
A decade after McMurray’s death, his company built its final livery. Morgan renovated and repurposed that building just over a century after McMurray built his first stable. Then Morgan drafted residential designs where the founder of the city built his own first home.
2. What Architects Cannot Bring into Being
In his beautiful 2018 bildungsroman and architectural biography, William Morgan, Evolution of an Architect, Richard Shieldhouse humanizes the internationally known Jax-based architect more than the prior two books about Morgan and his work.
Shieldhouse writes of Morgan’s childhood difficulties, how his father, a physician, having lost jobs in the Great Depression and come to desperation, took a position at the state prison some 50 miles west of Jacksonville at Raiford. “The family lived on the site of the jail complex,” Shieldhouse writes, “in what [William’s brother] Thomas described as a three-room shack elevated on cinder blocks, with a tin roof.” When men died in the electric chair, the house lights dimmed.
Shieldhouse writes of how Morgan, while still a student, boldly introduced himself to architect Paul Rudolph in 1955, then made himself integral to Rudolph’s office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Morgan, with whom Shieldhouse became good friends before the architect’s death in 2016, shared his thoughts about the power of hurricanes to reshape beaches, where Morgan placed some of his greatest house designs, saying, “There is a value that we as architects cannot bring into being. Nature has this power to reshape the shoreline with a sweep of the arm.” He hoped his oceanfront designs, rather than hiding from that devastating fact, might be part of it and celebrate nature.
Morgan’s renovation and adaptation of the McMurray Livery, so deeply embedded in the swamp of Jacksonville’s history, might seem at odds with his post-International and avant-garde ancient-earth art. Indeed, Shieldhouse says, “I always viewed the East Forsyth Street office as a one-off kind of deviation from the modern stuff, but it’s still important. How many people in this town had the vision to take an old livery stable and convert it into usable office space with a subtly built-in garage?”
Morgan’s architectural portfolio also pointed out the irony, but noted “his desire to preserve something of the past and his respect for the building itself.” He loved the 16-inch brick walls, the ceiling heights, the arched windows. Beneath the high ceiling beams, he built “a non-bearing structure—a raised platform for studio and drafting facilities,” the portfolio reads. “Installed below it are the reception and secretarial areas as well as a conference room.” Whether Morgan realized he drew up homes and headquarters where the founder of the city constructed his first residence I don’t know, but dearly hope.
3. Ironies Accrue
A 1904 publication called Jacksonville, The Gateway of Florida shows McMurray Livery’s first structure after the Great Fire of 1901. The photo solves something of a mystery, but leaves other questions unanswered.
Miscellaneous notes in Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission files on whether the current building was constructed in 1902 or 1906/7 seem to debate one another. An August 25, 1902 Florida Times-Union and Citizen story says the McMurray Transfer Company, which purchased the former livery company from McMurray’s (nearly not) heirs, Thomas McMurray having died intestate in 1896, had engaged architect Rutledge Holmes to build a new livery and company headquarters “on the southeast corner of Newnan and Forsyth Streets.”
Holmes had moved to Jacksonville from Charleston, South Carolina after the Great Fire of 1901, seeing the destruction of the city as an opportunity for new birth and enterprising architecture. He’s noted for prominent designs like the 1903 Duval County Armory and the 1902 Duval County Courthouse across Forsyth from McMurray’s livery. The newer Yates Municipal Building at 231 East Forsyth wears the face of that older courthouse today. Merchants sold slaves right here before the Civil War. Holmes’s ambitious flurry of activity in those early post-fire years doubtless means he left designs upon the city that never were fully recognized and acknowledged.
Rutledge Holmes’s most beloved design in the 21st century is that of Public School no. 4, the Annie Lytle School. Decades of standing abandoned, scored with urban legends spread across Florida and the South, have made the school one of the best known buildings in the city. Returning to his South Carolina office, in 1929, Holmes shot himself in the heart, leaving instructions to bury him “under some pretty trees in the country in an unmarked grave.”
A 1977 Jacksonville magazine story, referring to the T-U & Citizen newspaper piece, says Morgan’s architectural headquarters, the old livery, was built in 1902. On January 22, 1985, however, Wayne Wood, researching the city’s architectural history for the Jacksonville Historical Landmarks Commission, wrote Bernice “Bunny” Morgan, “It seems conclusive that this building was constructed in 1907, not 1902, as originally thought.”
But an October 19, 1903 Florida Times-Union “City News Briefs” column says, “At the McMurray Transfer Company’s stables, corner Newnan and Forsyth Streets, there have been erected several large sheds in the rear of the building to be used to exercise the stock. This is a great improvement, and one that will enable the stock to receive daily exercise.” In 1903, something-McMurray had been built here since the decimation of ’01, and it wasn’t the design of ’06.
So is the 1906/7 building not the design of notable Jax architect Rutledge Holmes? If the Times-Union and Citizen wrote of the Holmes design in 1902, how could the McMurray Livery Building at what seems the same site, or right next door, not be the ’02 structure?
The 1904 Gateway of Florida publication definitely shows a McMurray Livery Building that’s definitely not the McMurray Livery Building from just two years later. The 1904 livery stands at the corner of Newnan and Forsyth, two addresses west of the 1906/7 building, similar in design but larger.
The older building stretches wide, its heavy brick walls punctuated with arched windows identical in style to those of the extant structure. Multiple street level entrances and an upper-story balcony open out in wide archways. Similarly the newer building bears a trinity of archways at street level and a wide arch above the central entrance.
Rutledge Holmes designed the first post-Great Fire McMurray Livery in 1902, but the 1906 building’s architect is considered unknown. Why would a company build a grand new structure, designed by a prominent architect, but four years later, design and move into a different structure, next door, on the same city block?
The answer may lie in the fact that McMurray left no will. He died intestate in 1896. The Great Fire of 1901 destroyed the McMurray Livery, with losses estimated at $50,000. McMurray’s brother Patrick, a former state senator, appealed to curate the McMurray property on behalf of Thomas’s widow and children. In 1906, the McMurray Transfer Company constructed its new Forsyth Street livery and headquarters, just east of the corner with Newnan, a smaller building than that built four years prior, and transferred deeds the very next year to Joseph Corrigan, who, in 1907, reconstructed McMurray as the Jacksonville Transfer Company.
In 1902, Rutledge Holmes designed a new beginning for the McMurrays, but four years later, the family considered it their best option to leave the livery trade behind. For whatever reason, they built a new headquarters, then deeded it instantly to the Jacksonville Transfer Company. Holmes must also have designed the present building, adapted his original design, or lent it to an unknown architect. The only other possibility, that some architect, forever unknown, ripped off Holmes’s design just four years after origination, strains credulity.
Then again, ironies accrue. For more than a century, the newest building would go by the name of McMurray Livery, though McMurray family interests absolved themselves of it instantly. Thomas McMurray’s lasting legacy in his city is a structure built a decade after his death. William Morgan, the city’s best known contemporary architect, made his architectural headquarters in a building either designed by, or bastardized from, a leading Jax architect not known for his own distinctive style a century before.
4. A Yankee Soldier at the Carnival of Frozen Florida
The 1904 business profile calls McMurray Livery, Sale & Transfer “the largest concern of its kind in the South.” Briefly it tells the story of Irishman Thomas McMurray, a former Union soldier who remained in town after the United States’ fourth occupation of Jacksonville, the southernmost Civil War battleground city in the Confederate States of America.
Since so many of its residents were either slaves or Northeastern whites who’d moved south in search of a more hospitable climate, Jacksonville had always shouldered broad support for the Union. Even the 1863 burning of the city by the white 8th Maine Volunteer Infantry upon the exit of two black Union regiments, precursors of the United States Colored Troops, who’d held Jacksonville against the Confederacy, hadn’t turned the city Confederate.
So McMurray stayed, as did so many black Union soldiers, and helped move the city toward Reconstruction, prior to the South’s reinvention of the Confederate purpose (from defense of the agronomic system of slavery to defense against Northern tyranny—a rhetorical move as passive-aggressive as “Southern hospitality”). McMurray served as U.S. Marshall in Jacksonville from 1864 to 1875. His brother Patrick served as a “most beneficent and liberal” Florida senator in the 1880s.
When Jacksonville froze on December 1, 1877, ending the latest Yellow Fever epidemic, the city’s Daily Sun and Press newspaper said, “No happier smiles ever illumined the faces around a Christmas table than shone Friday morning upon the countenance of everybody in town.”
The Sun and Press continued, “Bay Street was astir bright and early, the boys pulled down the store shutters with a brisk vim.” The winter hotels, recently dreary and quiet as guests quarantined themselves in their rooms, now “ran up their gay flags and pennants.” The Windsor Hotel’s thermometer showed 28 degrees. “The great glass windows of the fashionable shops fairly glistened this morning like mirrors.” Meanwhile, “Cocktails, that insidious appetizer, were in eager demand from the very break of day, and some of our citizens, conscientious ones, who regard a liquor shop to be worse than a yellow fever epidemic, were observed slyly emerging from Togni’s and Fahrenbach’s—at the two extremes of Bay Street—out of the way of the busy center,” so as not to be seen.
The freeze brought a wintry carnivalesque atmosphere to town. In this land of unbearable primordial summers, the rare winter freeze swept across town as savior. “Pipesmokers may now fill up with a general relish, and Tom McMurray may drive his double best the whole length of Bay Street on a dead run and he shan’t be molested with a fine.”
Ads for Jacksonville Sale & Livery Stable, at Nos. 28 and 30 Newnan, then between Bay and Forsyth Streets, Thomas McMurray, Proprietor, showed a cartoon depiction of a fashionable carriage called a barouche, pulled by two horses, one black, one white, its coachman in top hat, high on his box seat, women passengers sitting in back, facing each other, holding parasols.
On August 16, 1882, The [New Orleans] Times-Democrat reported, “Thomas McMurray, of Jacksonville, received a shipment of 23 mustang ponies and two mustang mules from San Antonio, Texas.”
Hallowing the fall of the Confederate States of America, McMurray celebrated Independence Day, year after year, with a powerful display of his livery’s horses in Fourth of July jubilations throughout the state. In preparation for the Fourth of July in Tampa, 1895, the Tribune noted the arrival of “seven fine flyers from McMurray’s stables, Jacksonville.” They joined 13 other Florida horses for a grand exposition of speed and power around a “track which is in most excellent condition.” In 1891, McMurray had been made vice president of the Ninth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers’ Reunion.
When the present McMurray Livery was built, a decade after McMurray’s death, and McMurray Livery, Sale & Transfer Company became Jacksonville Transfer, the building also provided a home to Tutt Plumbing, in 1912 to the Arnold Printing Company (whose signage still shows as uncovered palimpsest from high on the back of the building), using the upstairs loft and a former blacksmith space at street level, in 1917 to the Court House Garage, and in 1930, to a service and gas station attached to the garage.
Bunny Morgan recalls first seeing the McMurray Livery and wondering how anyone could possibly restore it. Arnold Printing had last occupied the space upstairs, long ago leaving it abandoned. Into the rotting upper floors, “the printing machines had been sinking for years,” she says. “There were large holes in the roof. The Court House Garage had one attendant paid to park as many cars inside as he could.”
Just within the front entrance, the floor of the former blacksmith’s shop, all these years later, was still just dirt. Excavating the central front doorway, the Morgans found long-buried horseshoes.
A photograph taken around 1970, shortly before Morgan’s purchase, shows the building in disrepair, its first floor bricks painted white, the Coca-Cola logo either side of large block letters indicating, “Court House Garage Storage ∙ Day ∙ Wk. ∙ Mo.” The crest of then-new Jacksonville City Hall, which the City imploded in billowing towers of dust and ash two weeks before this writing, rises into view, from behind, above.
Bunny points out a newly planted oak tree, front left of the garage entry, 1973, which a city gas line leak soon killed. In a September 23, 1977 Florida Times-Union story, which an editor gave the unimaginative headline, “A Nice Change,” Cynthia Parks writes of Bill and Bunny turning the alley that ran beside the building down to City Hall into a side garden. “The vines have yet to cover the 16-inch brick walls and the low-growing juniper is still very low,” Parks writes, “but it sure beats snakewort and wine bottles.”
Parks describes what Morgan had done inside the old livery: “He removed the second floor over the former blacksmith shop and dramatically opened a foyer to the ceiling. His draftsmen are suspended in a loft at an extra level created when the roof was raised.”
5. The Softbox Light of Tiffany’s Studio and My Brother, the Tree
The building would have burnt down, firefighters said, if she’d not been there.
In 2012, portrait photographer and abstract artist Tiffany Manning maintained studios in Morgan’s former two-story loft space opened up from the blacksmith shop. The front window floated split between two floors. She’d pulled up and discarded a former tenant’s ugly blue grease-stained carpet and replaced it with plywood she painted white. Sunshine angled down, skylight to white floor, Tiffany says, to create “a giant softbox. Everything within that space was perfectly lit.”
Photography, in every lucidity, means “writing with light,” and Tiffany’s studio formed part of her camera. Upstairs, she shot clients against backdrops of interior red brick or whitewash. “The light,” she says, “transformed the space.”
Light constituted an essential architectural component, the most glorious building material from which the old stable yet accidentally took shape.
Tiffany loved climbing through the wooden hatch to the roof, spending time atop the building with friends who came by after work for cocktails. When the Jacksonville Jazz Festival filled the streets in late May, the roof above Tiffany’s studio afforded her and her friends private seats, mojitos and cosmos in hand.
She shot Matt Colaciello coming up through the hatch into sunshine. She captured artist and cultural leader Robert Arleigh White and musician Charlotte Mabrey, face to face in light that’s pure joy of friendship, silly and sweet and alive.
When one day the roofers descended and left for their lunch break, having spent the morning re-tarring leaks, Tiffany smelled something burning and watched smoke drift from the hatch down into her office. She called the fire department.
“Where the workers had torched the tar,” Tiffany says, “they’d left this smoldering inside the old wood in the hatch.”
The firefighters said her being there had saved the place. The resultant blaze would surely have destroyed her portraiture and equipment and made her studio the final chapter in the McMurray Livery story. When the firefighters had finished, she captured the four of them against her white wall.
The Philip Frazer House hotel burned at the corner in 1850. The U.S. and Confederate war machines burnt the city repeatedly a decade later. The third largest urban fire in United States history destroyed the McMurray stables in 1901. In 2012, an artist smelled smoke and called the fire department. In place of final conflagration, Tiffany Manning contained and channeled that radiance into her own light-writing.
Out front on Forsyth, I meet the oak the Morgans planted to replace the tree the city killed with gas leaks. I look up through its canopy to the light in an upper window. Just two years older than I, this oak’s much taller. At sixteen years old, I stopped growing at six-foot-four.
I ask this oak what it makes of all these patterns and repetitions of death and life in history. A wind picks up, a gust blows a plastic grocery bag into my brother’s branches. Golden clouds of pollen scour the street.
It’s long past time to burrow into my humility, to go home and write my footnote to the living story of this place. It’s my widow’s mite. I was here.