by Tim Gilmore, 9/11/2023
The story of Chris Carver and the house called Gleniffer is a love story, a lifelong romance. Chris fell in love with Gleniffer when he was six years old. He bought the house – named by its builders and first residents, Scottish immigrants – from the original family when he was 28. Now in his early 60s, he says he’s ready to sell the house, though he’s not sure if Gleniffer is part of his family, or if his family is part of hers.
(You pronounce “Gleniffer” with an accent on the second syllable, though I’d first rhymed it with “Jennifer.” Standing in the foyer, having passed beneath the “G” in the shield over the portico and the house’s name in colored letters in the transom, I realize I should’ve noticed the single ‘n’ and double ‘f.”)
The organ in the parlor plays croony Al Bowlly songs from the 1930s and for Chris, in 1967, Gleniffer meant love at first sight. When we climb the stairs to the third floor, he says, “For the longest time, I thought, ‘This is why I’m alive and I’m healthy. It’s this house. And when and if I leave her, who knows where the story will go?’”
When Chris started first grade at St. Paul’s Catholic School just the other side of King Street, he looked forward to driving past Gleniffer every day. He also liked the daily drive by Dixie Crème Donuts at the corner of College and King Streets where there’s a cannabis dispensary now.
He can still see Gleniffer as he first saw her. “The house was completely overgrown. Even then, you could see, from the street, the eaves and parts of the roof sagging. There was one bulb lit on the porch, a yellow bug light, and the azaleas were up 15 or 20 feet high. You could hardly see the house and that one bulb always stayed on.”
The neighborhood had fallen hard. It was the midst of post-World War II suburban expansion, insurance redlining and “white flight,” and “the Grahams, Jimmy and Blanche, were getting older. They kept cash in the house and they got robbed a couple of times.”
John Shearer Graham was born in 1864 in the Kingdom of Fife, Scotland, between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth, north of Edinburgh, his wife Jessie in 1865 in a village north of Glasgow called Strathblane. Immigration records suggest the Grahams were the Graydons before coming through Ellis Island. They built Glennifer in 1915, having immigrated with their children Margaret, John Jr. and Jimmy.
The family operated John S. Graham Plastering from home. Their office stood off the dining room and every room downstairs differs in ornamental plastering styles to showcase their work.
Jimmy, born in Glasgow in 1902, helped his father and brother build the house and later lived here with his wife Blanche until both of them moved to a nursing home in the late 1980s. When Chris bought Gleniffer, she’d stood empty for about two years.
Sometime in the 1960s, as the urban core submerged itself in layers of Southern Gothic worthy of Tennessee Williams, Jimmy shifted the focus of the company from ornamental plaster to acoustic ceiling tiles. The change itself was a sign of the times. Jessie had died in 1939 and John in ’53.
Wandering along the organ and player piano, rows and rows of piano rolls and a regal cameo that adorned the wall of Chris’s mother’s antique store, Terry Carver Antiques, for 30 years on St. Johns Avenue in Avondale, I notice the classical harp shape on the ceiling by the bay window.
“The original colors inside were apricot and white,” Chris says. The Grahams did the plasterwork on the Willowbranch Library nearby and used the same colors there they’d used in their home. In fact, Gleniffer echoes across the three mile long historic district of Riverside Avondale.
The 1932 brick mansion at 3867 Arden Street, with its hexagonal front tower, built by Scottish-born Robert McDonald Smith and his wife, John and Jessie’s daughter Margaret, includes the Graham family’s interior ornamentation in egg-and-dart patterns and Scottish thistles and flooring.
Meanwhile, leftover fieldstones from the exterior of a house the Grahams built at Post and Rubel Streets remain piled beside a palm tree just off Gleniffer’s kitchen where they’ve stood since about 1930. The ground has risen, as the earth does, and most of the fieldstones now lie underground in a mound beside the palm.
When Chris Carver first walked beneath Gleniffer’s name in the transom a quarter century ago, the apricot and white plaster was coated in decades of soot. “The Grahams had a coalfire furnace go bad in the ’50s, just as the neighborhood began to decline, and the walls in here were black,” he says. When he pulled up the carpets, he found the floors blackened too.
As far back as the early ’50s, Gleniffer had “an undeserved reputation as being haunted,” Chris says. “My uncle lived nearby on Post Street and when he walked by this house in 1952 or 1953, its imposing presence, surrounded then by its own private forest, scared him to death.” The Grahams built Gleniffer’s exterior walls of coquina, that rare limestone natural to certain Florida beaches and now protected as endangered, and originally only painted the trim. Jimmy and Blanche painted the house in 1953 and Chris painted in the early 1990s, then again recently to put her on the market.
Originally the city limits ended at the driveway. The Grahams bought several lots of old plantation land expecting to build future houses for other family members, but built Gleniffer where they did so she could receive city utilities. Across the street, an elder bald cypress thrives where once was a cattle pond and though the wetlands filled in, Chris imagines what waters must persist underground to keep the cypress so vibrant and strong. Originally, a pathway to the alley between the houses on College and Post Streets passed through the woods, never built upon, to Gleniffer’s west, but closed up decades ago.
Chris was starstruck when Glennifer went on the market in 1989. “The area was so run down,” he recalls. “The ‘For Sale’ sign was nailed 10 feet up in the tree. I walked inside with my mouth hanging open. I didn’t see those decades of soot on the walls. I thought I was in a fairy tale.”
Most of the storefronts around the corner on King Street stood empty and he could hardly imagine it becoming “one of the most popular entertainment districts in the city.” Park Place, now the city’s oldest gay bar at King and Post Streets a block away, hadn’t yet opened in its original location down on Park Street.
Astonishingly, turning the corner from King Street, where people “get drunk as Cooter Brown,” brings quiet, yet Chris’s son tells him when seated out front of Kickbacks Gastropub, he sometimes hears Chris cranking away at Big Ethel, his favorite musical instrument, weighing 1,100 pounds, one of 83 issues of her particular model in 1979.
Meanwhile the player piano rolls the sheets and invisible fingers touch its keys, an early form of Artificial Intelligence, an automaton, a ghost playing Henry Lange playing “Fox Trot in C Major” and “Red Lips” and “Kiss My Blues Away” from 100 years ago. Or Zez Confrey playing his novelty song “Dizzy Fingers.” Extra organ pipes stand sentry in the foyer. In another front room, a red-piped music-roll Orchestrion, something like a player-organ confused with a steam whistle calliope, awaits a decades-lapsed spiration.
In high school in the 1980s, Chris made decent money playing piano for parties, at weddings and in nursing homes. Now he just plays Big Ethel for fun. Occasionally Glennifer has expressed her disapproval of a guest through Big Ethel “jamming up and plinking and plunking.”
“My kids and I all speak of the house like she’s a sentient being,” Chris says. “She’s part of the family. Either that, or we’re part of her family.”
Chris’s father John Carver, a hairstylist, was also a well-known psychic, and though he was no longer alive when Chris bought Gleniffer, he’s thought often of what his father might experience walking through the house. In the early ’70s, in the early years of Chris’s love for Gleniffer, John hosted a 90 minute show on WJCT FM, Stereo 90, called Yesterday, on which he played old records and clips from old radio shows like The Phantom and The Fred Allen Show.
It saddens me at times when I fail to feel to spirit of place, the genius loci, the city as organism within and around me. I feel it here. The everlasting ghost that is the city fills the people within it, inhabits the structures and architecture, rises from the ground itself through the city’s every interior angle.
Here, in Gleniffer, Scotland rises and branches across Riverside, touching Glasgow 200 years ago and sending tendrils through Jacksonville 200 years from now.
When I leave, I can hear the organ four houses away, mulling and roaring eerily and lushly through the pines and palms and rooflines and lost moments of urban histories enacted in city streets platted on old farmland. “When new people move in,” Chris says, laughing, “I say, ‘Let me know if you ever hear the organ and it’s too loud, so I can be sure to crank it up louder.”
It’s hard to imagine Chris going through with Gleniffer’s sale, but if it happens, and he moves to the only house he’d live in anywhere else, in Fayetteville, Tennessee, he knows already how he’ll deal with the neighboring roosters, which make “the people living in and selling the house now very unhappy.” If the roosters wake him at 4:30 in the morning, he says, “I’ll throw all the doors open and start playing the organ full blast.” He bets “the roosters becoming dumplings pretty quickly.”
Chris says he’s ready to move. He’s made peace with the thought and the house has told him, in ways he’d rather I not explain, that it’s okay to let go. It is, perhaps, the kindest thing someone we love can tell us, deathbed wisdom, selfless. Yet the greatest point of a city, and all the lives that make it up, may be that life continues.
Still I imagine the organ sounding out the tune to that old Billie Holiday song. “So I smoke a little too much / And I joke a little too much / And the tunes I request / Are not always the best / But the ones where the trumpets blare.” Will Chris, like Billie, “go at a maddening pace,” pretending it’s taking Gleniffer’s place? And if so, “what else can you do / At the end of a love affair?”