Fletcher Building (Ghosts of “The Row” and the May Street School of Architecture)

by Tim Gilmore, 8/6/2021

1. “The Row Today,” Yesterday

Nature’s first green is gold, / Her hardest hue to hold.”

In the section called “The Row Today” at the end of his 1976 book Riverside Remembered, George Hallam depicts the blasphemies—the empty fields, the parking lots, the fast-food restaurants—that replaced the architectural masterworks.

Fletcher Building, 1960s, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

He includes among them architect Taylor Hardwick’s 1963 Fletcher Building, for which the 1902 home of James Munoz, a Venezuelan-born “merchandizer,” and several other grand houses had been demolished.

The book is a dirge, so “The Row Today” doesn’t include the two mansions from the line of houses once called “The Row” that still stand on Riverside Avenue, one of which is the Riverdale Inn.

Hallam, a Jacksonville University English professor whose bio photo shows him dimple-chinned in turtleneck, longish hair, mutton chop sideburns and glasses, begins this section with the end of Robert Frost’s 1923 poem, named for its last line: “So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down today. / Nothing gold can stay.”

George Hallam, author’s photo from Riverside Remembered, 1976

He writes, “Although much of the beauty of Riverside and Avondale still remains today, The Row does not.” The Row included many of Jacksonville’s costliest residences from McCoys Creek down to today’s Memorial Park.

“What was once known as one of the most beautiful streets in America,” Hallam writes, “has now become a business district. (Ironically, in the 1890s, Riverside Avenue was named Commercial Street.)”

J.E.T. Bowden House, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Frost’s poem begins, “Nature’s first green is gold.” If Hallam taught the poem at JU, I wonder if he spoke of that philosophical idea of reification, the treatment of the abstract as physical or the social as natural. Surely it wasn’t nature that built the city’s old wealth.

When Taylor Hardwick’s Fletcher Building was new, preservationists and historians maligned it. Most of them today have come around. Hardwick was “Mid-Century Modern,” that vague phrase now venerated in a nation that counts a lifetime back “historic.”

Fletcher Building, architectural rendering, from Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design

Likewise, the National Register of Historic Places requires a building to be at least 50 years old to be considered historic. It takes time, you know, to sort history out. What’s new that kills what’s old, if it’s lucky, grows old itself. What challenges history becomes, if its success persists, historic.

2. Past-Perfect Honeycomb

“Her first leaf’s a flower; / But only so an hour.”

When he was 37 years old, his first wife Mildred having fled Florida to attempt an acting career on Broadway, John Zabud Fletcher married 22 year old Naniscah Tucker. A decade later, 1944, Naniscah drowned in the ocean in the process of saving their boys Tucker and Paul from drowning. John Z. had two sons from his first marriage as well, John and Jerome.

Having dissolved John Z. Fletcher and Associates in ’43, he kept in business a bus company, a restaurant, and real estate and insurance interests. Jerome and Paul, a son from each of J.Z.’s marriages, helped in their father’s insurance business, and when he died at age 63 in 1960, resurrected the name John Z. Fletcher and Associates.

John Zabud Fletcher, courtesy Florida Southern College

Three years later, they hired Taylor Hardwick to design a new eight story building near Five Points in Riverside. He built them a precast mica-glinted concrete honeycomb that looked to many residents of a declining Riverside emptying out to White Flight like everything wrong with new architecture.

In Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design, published just before the architect died in 2014, he wrote, “A glass enclosed, large conference room on the roof accented the top floor and had a remarkable cantilevered canopy of precast concrete T-beams. The canopy provided shade for the glass and the penthouse’s sweeping view of the St. Johns River. The rooftop boiler flue pipe was exaggerated to become a prominent obelisk motif.”

3. Hiding from Virginia

“Then leaf subsides to leaf. / So Eden sank to grief [.]”

The Fletcher Building stands eight stories where James Munoz’s large Shingle Style house with its encompassing porch and rounded eaves  stood for 60 years. It also stands where Virginia King lived in an apartment in the early 1950s, though her mention of her former address here is buried in the convolutions of one note in more than 23,000 in the last edition of her very strange book.

James Munoz House, image courtesy Wayne Wood

Indeed Virginia lived in nearly 20 Riverside Avondale addresses throughout her life. She was “a Riverside character,” seen marching headlong, angled forward in pillbox hat and stern face, set on the next house to photograph before its imminent demolition. People laughed at Virginia. They hid when they saw her coming. They pretended not to be home when she called. They’d not yet heard of Asperger Syndrome.

Virginia’s neverending book Interesting Facts about Leading People and Families in Duval County; Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings, printed in multiple editions from 1968 through the ’70s until its ultimate unprinted 8,448 page handwritten version in the early 1980s, attempts to track all demolitions, societal changes and new developments in her hometown.

Virginia King, before the Haydon Burns Library under construction, photo by Rocco Morabito, 1965

When I researched and wrote my nonfiction novel The Mad Atlas of Virginia King in 2015, I feared my obsessive hypergraphia was turning me into her. Not a week goes by that I don’t feel her with me.

In note 26 of the section “Beautiful Homes that Have Changed a Good Bit in Jacksonville” in the 1971 third edition of her book, she writes, “Marc L. Fleishel’s [formerly James Munoz’s] home 1002 Riverside Ave. & Post St. was sold in 1959 and was torn down Jan. 1960. 1963 Fletcher Building was built.”

Fletcher Building, 1960s, photo by Virginia King

A sampling of note 10,162, much I’ve greatly compressed, from her final unpublished edition, goes:

“An agreement to sell […] Baymeadows golf and tennis clubs […] Fletcher Properties, Inc. of Jacksonville […] Jerome Fletcher, chairman of the board […] no changes at Baymeadows […] sale did not affect the management […] linkside patio homes […] Fletcher said his firm and its partners […] Pritzker family of Chicago […] tract of undeveloped property […] Wilshire Equities owns […] apartment units, mostly in California […] Fletcher and his brother Paul […] Yale graduates […] one of their first developments […]

“But in 1963,” the paragraph continues, “they bought houses at 1002 and 1020 Riverside Avenue, demolished them, and built the Fletcher bldg, which is now the Broadview Executive Center.” Virginia then lists how the Fletcher brothers developed multiple suburban properties, including The Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach.

Virginia King, before the Haydon Burns Library under construction, photo by Rocco Morabito, 1965

Virginia King, Virgin Queen of Riverside, was certainly no fan of Taylor Hardwick. A 1964 Florida Times-Union photo by Pulitzer Prize winner Rocco Morabito shows her standing in front of Hardwick’s Haydon Burns Library, still under construction. The new library rose where architect Henry John Klutho’s Beaux Arts-style 1901 City Hall was demolished and was taking the place of the original Carnegie financed library across the street.

In the photo, she stands rail-thin, umbrella perched as walking stick, purse tucked under her arm. Tersely she told reporter Cynthia Parks, “The old buildings were built better and they look better.”

Jacksonville Free Public Library / Bedell Building, courtesy Florida State Archives, floridamemory.com

4. River-in-Itself

“So dawn goes down to day.”

From the rooftop lounge of River & Post, you see the tops of strong old oaks and the genial span of bridges across the lambent dark blue river. It’s $10 for the bourbon and berries, $14 for six jumbo shrimp.

It’s been years since I ran into Henry. He taught philosophy at Florida State College at Jacksonville and at least two other community colleges that “upgraded” their names. I remember his hands shaking. He loves a Bloody Mary. Has a Double Mary Morning (olive, rosemary, Tabasco) throughout the day. “It’s good for you,” he says, “like a salad.”

When Paul and Jerome renamed their father’s firm John Z. Fletcher upon his death, they chose this “suburban location,” now considered part of the urban core. Down below, a few isolated 120 year old houses hunker down amidst 1960s’ condo towers, office blocks and a new five-over-one style apartment building.

“That’s the thing about the thing-in-itself,” Henry says, elucidates, demonstrates. The river is not the river. The ground’s not the ground. The thing’s not the thing. It’s only a sign of the thing. Epistemology never touches ontology. Unless maybe you dove head first onto Riverside Avenue.

Years ago he was diagnosed with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis,  the same enigmatic monster that shut down and killed my mother when I was a child. I don’t remember her shaking like he does. She couldn’t move much at all. Paralyzed, neck down.

“I mean,” he says, “you can’t say the actual brick. So how many more degrees of variance between what you mean by ‘history’ or ‘love’ or ‘sanity’?” And what of proprioception and ‘diminishing metaphors’ and apophenia? Maybe it’s all schizophrenia anyway.

Second time I’ve been up here this week, last time for a while. It’s too bro-ey for me. Maybe that’s a good thing. If it weren’t so frat, I might take to hanging out up here too much, and I can’t afford to keep ordering the shrimp.

5. Idylls of the Kings

“Nothing gold can stay.”

You could see Taylor Hardwick’s offices from up here on the roof of the Fletcher Building. The architect’s structures gained ground across old neighborhoods as he designed insurance offices and medical facilities and bank branches with folded plate concrete and zig-zag stairways and wide glass panels and drove a Ford Thunderbird with its own color designated “Hardwick Gold.”

Hardwick’s Thunderbird parked before the Hughes Brothers Filling Station, which he designed, corner of Roosevelt Boulevard and San Juan Avenue, from Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design

In the section of Virginia King’s book called “Beautiful Homes That Have Changed a Good Bit,” she records the moment in 1959 when Taylor Hardwick and Mayberry Lee turned two 50 year old Riverside houses at 764 May Street into their architectural offices and connected them at the second floor with two separate glass-walled concrete bridges. He fronted them with perforated prefab concrete walls. If Hardwick’s HQ were still there, you’d be able to see it from up here on the rooftop lounge of River & Post atop his Fletcher Building.

from Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design

Magazines like Architectural Forum and House and Home featured Hardwick and Lee’s new headquarters. The firm used the ground floor of the second house as Atrium, Inc. a furniture showroom. Like so much of Riverside before it, the Hardwick and Lee offices are gone now, part of a lost block of offices of Mid-Century Modern architects including Herb Coons and Robert Broward. Architect Ted Pappas began his career with those older architects here in what he called “the May Street School of Architecture.”

from Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design

At least the live oak Virginia King photographed in her typically crooked blur, as though she never stood still to snap the photo, is still here. It’s grown gorgeously. Each of its multiple trunks now measure what the tree measured at its greatest girth 60 years ago. Perhaps soon someone will be able to scale it to a tumbler of bourbon on the rooftop.

from The Tampa Tribune, September 29, 1904

More than 100 years ago, when his lovely house, with its cedar shingles and rounded eaves, stood right here, James Munoz was a favorite for king of Carnival, which, reported The Tampa Tribune on September 29, 1904, would feature “rough riders, chariot races, high wire, casting and diving acts” and fireworks. Munoz, “a great social favorite,” was “just as popular in business circles.” The Tribune reported, “His friends, and they are legion, declare that he shall be King!”

Oh what strange forces of history and city coalesce at every corner! But not even Hardwick Gold, paraphrasing Frost, lasts forever, and whether or not Munoz was crowned Carnival king, Virginia King is still queen of Riverside.