Annie Lytle Public School Number Four, Gilmore Street

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

The small blue hatchback stopped at a small blue ranch-style house off Ricker Road, and a lanky teenaged boy with long shaggy hair stepped through his front door and approached the car with the three teenaged girls inside.

They went to the movies and watched Oliver Stone’s The Doors. They sat in the front row. The girl with the long blond hair and the peasant skirts, the hippie girl, screamed when the camera panned over the side of a ledge in the desert, and it seemed to fly openly and freely across the landscape.

They watched Val Kilmer pretend to be Jim Morrison with Ray Manzarek telling him, “The planet’s screaming for change, Morrison,” and saying they had to “make the myths,” and later on Morrison stonily asking, “Is everybody in? Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin.”

The boy and the three girls were impressionable, and even if that’s a very foolish thing to be, a very dangerous thing to be, it can also have been a lovely thing to be, if no one gets hurt too badly.

Lytle yearbook

The short, pretty girl with the shoulder-length hair knew where she was going, and if the girl in the peasant skirt and the Ouija Board girl knew, the shaggy lanky boy owned nothing but the impressions of the streets going by. The streets were dark and cool with old second-floor balconies and crumbling urban construction and the moon injecting a cool white glow through all of these things.

The blue hatchback rolled slowly off the road onto tall grass and fractured concrete and broken glass. A tall, dilapidated building rose up in front of them as though out of the ground. It rose up as though out of ancient history, or myth, some forgotten empire maybe. To the tall boy, it might as well have been as old as the Egyptian pyramids or the Timucuan burial mounds. In the small blue car, the four teenagers, impressionable, looked up at the old building in silence. The girl in the peasant skirt slowly tucked her long hair behind her ears. Her eyes were open wide. The car filled with an awe, a naïve but very real sense of something sublime.

In the dark courtyard reached out what he could only think of at the time as porches surrounded with tall columns. There were massive stone steps. There were huge boarded-up rectangular windows. There was a board pried loose out back and a way inside.

The plan for the night was to go see The Doors and then, about 10 o’clock, head over to School Number Four. None of them had ever been there, though the girl driving seemed to know where she was going. They had only heard.

The Annie Lytle School was built in 1917, the fourth public school in the city. It replaced a wood-frame schoolhouse built here in 1891. The school was later renamed after an early principal, but the original name was the simple name blocked underneath the massive pedimented portico held up by enormous Doric columns in the front of the school, the simple name kids across the city called it, “Public School Number Four.”

It was, after all, the making of a poet, this night, and Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Shelley never experienced a more Romantic night, in all the true senses of that word.

It was the night four impressionistic kids watched a movie version of Jim Morrison asking how many of you know you’re really alive, and saying, “BULLSHIT!” and saying something about plastic soldiers in a dirt war, and demanding how many of you know you’re alive, how many of you know you’re really alive.

It was the night they walked into their first dilapidated building, which was also one of the grandest buildings they had ever been inside. It was the first time the lanky boy ever thought he was in love.

So maybe we can forgive him for walking into his concrete block house when his friends dropped him off at midnight, sitting down at his Brother word processor, and writing one of his first poems, a naïve thing something to do with black rain and black flowers.

Then 17, 18, or 19 years later, he would throw all these old teenage poems into a garbage can, from which they would disappear into a landfill.

Maybe even that was a Romantic act, since its very small tragedy inevitably encouraged remembrance of those poems as less embarrassing than they actually were. Still, what did he write that night? Black rain, black flowers. Something about which to be sentimental. Something he’ll never now know.

None of them had been there before. They had only heard how someone had hung himself over the enormous stage in the belly of the building, how he was still here, how kids from several schools around town had seen the body hanging high above the stage, swinging back and forth way up over the trashed concrete floor.

They looked for the hanging body, and though they didn’t see it, they saw the graffiti, the typical graffiti about who loves whom, and the spraypainted message that “Stony is Dead!” Never thinking there were probably long-haired 20 year-olds who had failed several school grades all around the city who were nicknamed “Stony,” they said, “Oh shit!” and “Oh my god!” when they saw what they believed to be a death threat against their own particular Stony.

Originally the grand school building, with its wide, wide steps and its two-story columns, its enormous pediment, and its lovely open, open windows, in some way open even when closed, open to such light, overlooked Riverside Park.

In the 1950s, the bastards built Interstate-95. They cut the highway through, right between the grand steps and the 150 year-old live oaks whose branches swept down to the ground before rising triumphantly back up toward the sky. They sliced this expressway between School Number Four and Riverside Park like the butchers they were. By 1960, the school was closed.

He looked for the hanging body, but he saw the girl in the peasant skirt with her long, long hair tucked behind her ears.

He would come back here with other friends. They came with their own cans of spraypaint. The tall boy with the tattoos and the nose ring spraypainted Volkswagen Bugs on the walls of a long abandoned classroom. The two tiny blond girls painted flames all around one old classroom and signed off that this room was the Hell Room. Six months later, the local TV news aired a special about Satanism in Jacksonville. The news crew had gone into School Number Four. Their cameras panned slowly and dramatically across the flames on the walls of the old boarded-up classroom that was now the Hell Room. These images, local TV news reporters assured their audience, were signs that Devil Worship was rife in Jacksonville, and if their audience wasn’t quick enough to see the dangers, such graffiti carried implications of the possibilities of the sacrifice of animals and possibly even human beings.

The kids didn’t know what to do with themselves. Excitement overcame them. So did pride that something their hands had made had made the evening news. So did frustration that they didn’t get credit. So did hilarity at the melodrama of the Devil Worship story.

Close to midnight, they called the local news station and left messages. They said things like, “Satan likes cheesecake,” and, in a creepy small child’s voice for which one of them had a questionable talent, “I like Satan.” Then they immediately hung up the phone and laughed so hard they fell down on the floor.

Fourteen years later, a tacky book called Weird Florida would refer to School Number Four as “Devil’s School” and say, “The most realistic claim about the school building, which has sat abandoned for many years, is that it was used for devil worship. Attesting to this claim is the satanic graffiti that was once scrawled on the walls.”

Though he came back to School Number Four with other friends, that first night was the First Night. He finished First Night by writing poems alone in his room about black rain and black flowers.

The great windows of the face of the building were boarded up like eyes that now could only look inward.

He looked for the hanging body, but he saw the girl in the peasant skirt with her long, long hair tucked behind her ears.

Even the stairs inside the building were colossal. Later, he could not tell by looking back just when the girl in the long peasant skirt had begun to hold onto his arm with both of her sweet and innocent hands.

What he remembered about the grand stairs sweeping up stories within the body of the school was mostly the fact that the girl in the peasant skirt held tightly onto his arm. He didn’t think whether if any other boy had been present, she might have held onto his arm too. He didn’t think of any other boy. He didn’t think of any other girl.

Something in him had already thought for years it was ready to love a girl for the rest of his life. Something in him had already waited for a girl in a peasant skirt to hold tightly to his arm on the grand stairs of an abandoned building. Something in him already understood that the ceremony was about to begin. Something in him had already needed a night that would end with his writing naïve poems about black rain.

For a long time afterward, he thought he loved her. Can any of us say for sure that he didn’t?

In the year 2000, the Annie Lytle School was to be redeveloped into condominiums. In the next decade, rumors surfaced the City Council would vote to demolish Public School Number Four. These rumors came after the council had voted to designate the building a Jacksonville historic landmark. By 2010, Interstate-95 had been reconstructed in front of the school. Whereas before it had merely amputated the school building from Riverside Park, now the highway rose high into the air from its crossing of the St. Johns River to its curve toward Interstate-10 West, and the curve elbowed Annie Lytle in her face. The Gilmore Street Bridge, which the highway had decades ago replaced, never treated her this way. The highway curved up and toward those old lovely windows and that pediment that once announced that educating the city’s small children was a grand affair, a great undertaking, a neoclassical endeavor. The highway cut off the face of the building at its eyes and then rose up over the crown of its head before disappearing westward without ever having acknowledged what had happened here. By then, School Number Four had been closed for 50 years.

On Wednesday, October 26, 2005, the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission voted against a developer called City Development Company LLC, ironically headquartered in St. Augustine, the small town just outside Jacksonville that bills itself as the nation’s oldest city. City Development had proposed demolishing the Annie Lytle School in order to build a 140-unit retirement center. The preservation commission voted not to allow the demolition, though the developer threatened to appeal the decision to the Jacksonville City Council.

The developer gave up the project after learning the newly planned I-95 off-ramp would slice right across the face of the building.

Just three decades after schools could be built as though elementary education were epic, such a grand building could be killed by placement of an interstate. Then Annie Lytle waited. 50 years. Contrary to legend, no mad janitor or principal ever went on a murderous rampage here, butchering children.

The only suicide truly attached to the building was that of the architect himself. In 1929, 12 years after the school was built, Rutledge Holmes shot himself in the heart in his office in South Carolina. He left a note saying his heart was heavy, and that he would like to be “buried under some pretty trees in the country in an unmarked grave.”

The kids looked for the body hanging from its noose high above the stage, but instead the lanky teenage boy had seen only the girl in the peasant skirt. Something naïve about black rain and black flowers. On the grand stairs of an abandoned building, he didn’t think of any other boy and he didn’t think of any other girl. Great windows like boarded-up eyes now can only look inward.