by Tim Gilmore, 3/29/2019
1. Building a House out of Prehistoric Florida
“It’s impossible for me to live anywhere else now,” says Virginia “Ginger” Harris, her short hair spiked, her eyes wide, her voice booming the more Southern of Jacksonville’s native accents. “I’ve lived here for more than 20 years and I’ll never leave this house.”
It’s no wonder she’ll never move. The Beerbower House at 1776 Challen Avenue is one of the quirkiest houses in the city, and the quarries from which its coquina were mined are protected now and preserved; you couldn’t build such a house today. Besides, the house will ever be imbued with the story of its strange genesis.
For months and months, 1908, Casper Beerbower set out in the evening, rowing a small boat from the town of South Jacksonville, now downtown’s Southbank, down to the southern edge of Riverside at Edgewood Avenue. He and Ida ferried coquina to the woods where the neighborhood ended. They built blocks in wooden handmade forms on land that soon became their yard.
Ginger believes she found the platform where the Beerbowers mixed their concrete. Twenty years ago, expanding the kitchen into former bathroom space, she plied up the bathroom floor. Before the taller of two towers was added beside it, this space would have been a corner of the house. She thinks the massive concrete slab she found beside a concavity in the earth was the Beerbowers’ center of construction.
In 1909, St. Johns Avenue was a shell road, Challen Avenue, where the Beerbowers built their strange and wondrous house, bore no name, and everything behind this California Mission Revival style house was woods and former plantation land. Few Mission style houses exist in Jacksonville, and the revival declined in California while the Beerbowers built their home 2,000 miles away in the Florida swamp.
The road out front would soon be named for James Randall Challen, who’d joined a compact of other post-Civil War Northerners, in the 1880s, to develop this southeastern portion of the Jaudon family’s Magnolia Plantation. Nearby Talbot Avenue takes its name from Challen’s friend and business partner John Talbot. They’d call this new neighborhood at the end of Riverside and the edge of the woods “Edgewood,” but even 30 years later, during World War I, only a few houses along Avenues Talbot, then Edgewood, then Challen had been built. Behind Challen rose centuries-old oaks, some of which still stand, and scattered farmhouses and sharecropper and old slave shacks.
Ginger stretches out old mortgage deeds she inherited with the house, as well as 1938 blueprint surveys for Barnett National Bank. She unrolls records listing “Articles of Incorporation,” filed February 25, 1888, transferring land from the Jaudons to the State of Florida to The Edgewood Association. These documents are the cave paintings from the prehistory of Avondale.
In the 1920s, after the neighborhood of Edgewood faltered, Telfair Stockton, of old Confederate wealth, developed this extension of Riverside around the Beerbower house and called it Avondale, “Riverside’s residential ideal,” where only “the right kind of people,” the “correct” and “well to do” would and could live. The neighborhood of Edgewood blurred into the imaginary lines between Riverside and its “residential ideal” to the south. You can read it in the landscape still, like a watermark.
The Beerbowers called their coquina house “way out in the woods” home for a decade. Casper died in 1919. Not only did Edgewood never come to life as a neighborhood, but he built Avondale’s oldest house without ever seeing Avondale.
Casper and Ida built their prehistoric Avondale abode from the residue of ancient Florida, the sedimentation of dead sealife secreted and concreted by the ocean into rock over time periods as long as 250 million years. Coquina comprises the dead leavings of crab, shark, octopus, coral, countless mollusks, oysters, sea snails, and dead things that nobody living has ever imagined once existed.
Understood thus, you might consider coquina the greatest artistic composition, true “mixed media,” if you count the creativity of the ocean, the earth, and geologic deep time.
The last homes in Florida built wholly of coquina might be the seven houses seemingly risen of stone from swamp in the cluster that accidental Jacksonville architect Jim Russell built from the 1950s through the ’70s and called “Coquina Gates.” Just as Russell and his family did 50 years later, the Beerbowers collected large chunks of coquina from beaches south of St. Augustine.
2. The Tower, The Pre-Talkie Talkie, the Anti-Rag
Elsie Janis appeared in a “talkie,” singing an “anti-rag,” before the first “talkie,” not long after she lived in the tower room on Challen Avenue. If she did. There’s a star with her name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When photographs of the Beerbowers showed Ida in long skirts, standing beside an elaborate saddle, her hair piled high, or in a long lace gown and thick black choker, Casper in bowtie and suspenders and smoking a pipe, otherwise in top hat and tails, with—between them—their four dogs, long ago buried at Riverside and Challen, their niece Elsie wrote an anti-remembrance for The New York Times called “Lost to Memory.” The subheading read, “Elsie Janis Began Too Young to Now Recall First Appearance.” In 1932, she published an autobiography called So Far, So Good.
It was 1910 or 1911 when Casper and Ida added the two-story tower to the riverward side of their house. The scalloped Mission style parapet between the two side porches and their cantilevered eaves had been the house’s tallest point.
They built the tower for their niece as rehearsal space and residence. Whether she ever stayed in the tower, there’s no record, but Ginger converted Elsie’s music room to a bedroom and adjacent sitting room.
“Bidden” with her mother to the Blue Room in White House, Elsie bragged, “Once inside any house, irrespective of color, there was no escape from my precocity.” About 10 years old, she sang for President William McKinley “and his charming chatelaine,” the 1897 Spanish American War song, “Break the News to Mother,” intoning with toxic treacle that a soldier’s been wasted in war, then: “Just say there is no other / Can take the place of mother.”
In Elsie’s recollection, the president called her “predestined to be a star and kissed [her] on the brow.” Supposedly Elsie turned to her mother, prefiguring Shirley Temple, and said, “You kiss me too. I may never be kissed in the White House again.”
“Li’l Elsie” appeared on her first Vaudeville stage when she was two years old. In 1926, she held up her hands, palms out, thumb and forefinger touching, her eyes closed with song, her bobbed hair tucked under a cloche hat. By then, she’d dropped the “Bierbower” or “Beerbower” from the end of her name.
In 1927, the Jewish actor and singer Al Jolson wore blackface and sang, “Mother of mine, I still have you” in The Jazz Singer, the first full-length movie with sound, but the year before, Elsie sang the 1913 cabaret song, “Anti-Ragtime Girl” in a short film, with full sound, called Behind the Lines.
“She don’t do the Bunny Hug, / nor dance the Grizzly Bear. / She hasn’t learned the Turkey Trot / and somehow she don’t care. / For chasing ’round the restaurants / she doesn’t care a fig. / She can’t tell a tango from a can-can or a jig. / She don’t wave her shoulders / when the band plays “Itchy-koo.” / The Wedding Glide don’t make her senses whirl. / But you bet that she’s right there / on some sweet old-fashioned air / like “Genevieve, Sweet Genevieve.” She’s / my anti-ragtime girl.”
In London in 1914, Elsie Janis recorded “Florrie was a Flapper,” about perhaps the anti-anti-ragtime girl, singing, “Florrie was a flapper who was very fond of play. / She gambolled as a pretty lambkin should. / I’ve often heard it stated that she had a taking way / And I fancy she took anything she could.”
She appeared in silent films and wrote songs for film stars like Gloria Swanson transitioning into sound in The Trespasser in 1929 and Bette Davis in the 1939 film Dark Victory. She was most famous as the so-called “Sweetheart of the AEF,” the American Expeditionary Forces, an American Army formation on the Western Front in World War I.
Perhaps, in the tower on Challen Avenue, she wrote about Johnny McCoy, the “soldier boy” who fell in love with a “Red Cross nurse.” Perhaps she never stepped foot inside. Perhaps Casper and Ida waited there for her. Perhaps they listened to Elsie on the Victor Victrola two thirds as tall as Ida. Perhaps she stopped in town, once or twice.
3. This House of Long-Ago Extinction
There’s irony in that the Beerbowers built a house of ancient sealife, that Mary Hendrickson spent her years in this house cultivating plantlife, and that Casper had railed against plants that choked the water and thus the boat with which he’d once made a living.
Captain Casper said the “plant jam” broke his paddle wheel more than once. In George Buker’s 1992 book Jacksonville: Riverport—Seaport, he writes of the difficulties steamboats faced in moving through downtown infestations of water hyacinths in the 1890s. He mentions “Captain Beerbower, of the tug Ida B.,” having to turn down jobs to tow boats in early 1897, since he could “not know what moment we will have our wheel taken off by some log in the mass of hyacinths.”
Earlier that decade, Spanish consular authorities had hired Beerbower and the Ida B. at three a.m. one night to run down Napoleon Bonaparte Broward’s gunrunner steamboat Three Friends, which smuggled fighters and munitions to Cuba during its revolution against imperial Spain. The Ida B. and Three Friends crossed in the St. Johns River, and since Broward moved toward the city that night and not toward Cuba as the Spanish consul had suspected, Beerbower’s boat engaged in no gunfire. The boats passed in a violent peace.
The Beerbowers gave their name to the house, but lived in it hardly long enough to haunt, while the botanist and horticulturist who saw this infinite-dead-sealife structure the best place to experiment with new vegetation lived here more than 30 years.
Mary Hendrickson died in 1993, having experimented inside and out with ferns. Most famously, she cultivated the leatherleaf, then grew it en masse at a Gainesville farm, from which it filled countless bouquets for thousands of florists for decades.
The house never entered the market. Ginger Harris lived in Mandarin when Mary Hendrickson died, but she regularly drove slowly the three mile expanse of Riverside Avondale, peering at the houses. A friend of hers ran estate sales. She ran into him downtown at the city’s celebration for its one millionth resident and he told her he was working the most incredible estate. She knew what house he meant. Soon she met Mary’s sisters. They bonded. The house would be Ginger’s for the rest of her life.
It was 1996. She was only 29 years old. Some of the structural, plumbing, air-conditioning and kitchen updates she made were half a century overdue. In the bathroom, where she soon expanded the kitchen, rain had poured from the ceiling to the floor.
Before Mary Hendrickson, city directories listed more than a dozen residents since the Beerbowers. Ginger unfurls documents of accessions of property, dissolutions of mortgage, blurrings of plattings and neighborhoods into promises of new wealth for the “right kind.” Pages of mortgage stubs mark 1920s and ’30s.
In 1977, in her regular Jacksonville Journal column “Tell Tilly,” Tilly Teller mentioned speaking with Lynn Beerbower, former City Councilman of the early 1950s. Speaking of herself in third person, Teller wrote, “Tilly had occasion to chat with Lynn Beerbower,” to find out “how small boys used to earn their pleasures before the custom of giving allowances came on the scene.”
When Lynn’s parents “were prominent residents on Challen Avenue,” he told her, “I’d go down to the [Jacksonville] Journal and buy two papers for five cents, which I’d sell for 10 cents. With the 10 cents I bought four Journals which I sold for 20 cents. Now I was all set. I went to the Casino Theatre for 10 cents, spent a nickel on a hot dog and another nickel for a Coke.”
In the mid 1990s, the house lapsed into probate. Weeds grew up along the outer walls. The oldest house in Avondale, the house that preceded Avondale, grew crowded with dog fennel and chamber bitters and milk thistles and mantids and earwigs and “true flies” and hoppers. One Florida season suffices for the earth to threaten to retake the world.
To live in a house built of coquina, Ginger found, was to balance constantly Florida’s extreme temperatures and humidity. All the rest of Florida seemed to sink about the house. The walls were solid, exterior to interior, and the limestone absorbed the winter.
In times of intensest rain, bits of million year old sealife long extinct condensed outside to race storms to the ground, and so also all laws of disorder, eventually to come to one beautiful final and balanced statement of satisfaction and pain and peace and thus final word as Word.
For, says the mystical Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.” Or indeed the orphic creed of Florrie: “Florrie was a flapper who would gad about the town. / She’d lunch with you, she’d dine with you, she’d sup. / She often said she didn’t feel the need to settle down. / She had so many friends to settle up.”