by Tim Gilmore, 12/21/2021
When the ballet master moved out, in came the rock n roll bands in a long list of successors to the alligator novelties heiress. Every old house is storied, just like a life, a collector of its experiences. “The Green House” on Riverside Avenue, most famous from its days as a rooming house when young rock musicians jammed here, knew death, fallings in love, damnation, salvation. It’s no less Romanticist than the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s friends burning his body on a beach in Italy and pulling out his heart.
Whether Fred and Fannie Barwald displayed the goods they sold at Osky’s Alligator Store at 221 West Bay Street one can only hope. In what corner would they have placed the alligator electrolier? Did Mrs. Fannie Richard Osky Barwald daintily showcase the armadillo basket in the crook of an outstretched elbow? What of the alligator claw “finger purse”? Did Fred sip his bourbon from a hornback flask?
The word “chandelier” includes the root for “candle,” so an electrolier was an electrified chandelier. A three foot tall “alligator electrolier” – reptile dead, stuffed, and wired – holding one light fixture in his front paws cost six bucks. The same sized alligator holding two lights cost eight. A five foot tall alligator electrolier holding two lights cost $12.
Old postcards and catalogues of the downtown store show packed display cases and long aisles of curio cabinets. “This odd and attractive basket,” the Osky’s catalogue announced, “is made from the back of the little animal known as the armadillo. The tail forms the handle and the body the basket proper. Two sizes, $1.50 and $2.00.”
When the Barwalds had the Shingle Style house with its two story turret bay built in 1911, Osky’s was at the peak of its success. Fred and Fannie had taken the business over after her father’s death and had a national reputation. They shipped live baby alligators and made every imaginable mercantile use of dead ones.
Fannie’s father Jacob had immigrated in the 1880s from the shtetl of Dombrovitza, in what was then part of Hungary and is now Ukraine, to Cincinnati where Fannie was born. Jacksonville directories list him selling “souvenirs” in 1896 and “curios” in ’97, then working as a “jeweler” in 1905.
When Jacob Osky died, 46 years old, on the 2nd of December that same year, The Florida Times-Union called him “Joseph” and Fannie “Jennie.” The newspaper continued, “His establishment on West Bay Street is one of the handsomest in the city, and he did a thriving business. Thursday night he was cheerful as usual and talked pleasantly to many friends, telling them that he was spending a very happy Thanksgiving Day. About two years ago he sustained the loss of his leg, owing to blood poisoning as the result of trimming a corn.”
Fannie inherited everything. She married Fred, the store manager, two years after Jacob’s death and together they ran the business. The finger purse was “made from an entire alligator claw, highly finished, with a black strap.” A one pint “genuine hornback alligator skin whisky flask” sold for six dollars. The Barwalds sold the house just six years after they’d built it. Fred died in 1919 and Fannie married her sister-in-law’s widower three years later.
The house became home to a realtor, to a “pioneer fruit canner,” to the president of Southland Dairy Products, to an attorney and city councilman, to the vice president and treasurer of Arnold Printing and Label Company, to a stenographer. City directories listed prominent men, listed their wives as “Mrs. [Prominent Man],” then listed their wives as widows.
Lesa Dingman Kelly remembers her father, Nolan Dingman, dancing through the Green House when her family lived here, 1963 to ’68, recalls playing “on a narrow dark staircase in the back, off the kitchen, which led to an upstairs bedroom. We called them The Spooky Stairs.” Once, her baby brother Derik “climbed through the window of his room and fell off the roof,” she says, “right near the front porch steps. He survived with only a few stitches to his head.”
Nolan Dingman had studied with George Balanchine in New York, then returned to his hometown to teach ballet and tap at Hinson’s Dance Studio above Edgewood Pharmacy in the early 1950s. He danced on The Jackie Gleason Show, joined the Ballet Guild of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Civic Ballet Company, and flourished in the guild’s Stravinskyesque “Ballet Primitive” alongside Frank Spolar’s rearranged “Pas de Deux” from Ludwig Minkus’s Don Quixote and “an abstract ballet to the music of Ravel.”One year, for a feature on the start of the school year, a Times-Union photographer took pictures of Lesa, brother on one side and sister on the other, waving goodbye to their mom and little brother and sister on the porch. The older kids are wearing school uniforms, the girls in short plaid dresses, Nolan, Jr. in dress pants and short-sleeved button-up, headed for St. Paul’s Catholic School. A Mullaly’s Lawn Service vehicle is parked on Riverside Avenue behind them.
Even at home, Nolan danced all the time, lost himself with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake thrumming in the upper corners, the music pulsing against coffered ceilings and staircases and the waves already forming in window glass. He moved through the house like a spirit on the face of the waters, received its flow and fit his sinews and calves and ribs and iliac wings to its tides.
Then time turned on itself as it does, shifted its gusts, and replaced the ballet master with longhaired rock musicians. Dingman danced and taught in North Carolina and Vermont and Honolulu and blues-infused rock bands played at bars and teen clubs and at be-ins at Willowbranch Park. Members of bands The Second Coming and The Load moved into the Green House, and when it “got too crowded,” as Michael Ray Fitzgerald writes in Jacksonville and the Roots of Southern Rock, the Second Coming moved into “the Gray House,” a few houses down Riverside Avenue. From that move formed the Allman Brothers Band and Gregg Allman wrote the song “Whipping Post.”
A hippie girl from Waycross, Georgia named Judy Seymour moved into the Green House with her friends Mary Hayworth and Dean Kilpatrick. Playing to a packed audience of longhaired teenagers at a place called The Forest Inn, singer Ronnie Van Zant said The One Percent was thinking of renaming itself for Leonard Skinner, the “physical education” coach at Robert E. Lee High School who’d told the boys in the band to cut their hair. Judy was pretty and shy and 21 years old when she met Ronnie at a gig the band played downtown at The Comic Book Club.
She invited Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Green House to jam and rehearse whenever they wanted. Dean wore long capes to go with his hair. He’d become Ronnie’s friend and roadie and would die with him in that ’77 plane crash. But not yet. The band jammed after midnight and stacked mattresses against the windows to contain the wailing of guitars. Skunky clouds of weed tumbled and unfurled around the fireplaces and up the stairs. They lost moments that lost themselves into hours, opening themselves to the experience so deeply they lost time altogether, these moments the opposite of recorded, so real they never could find them again.
In 1974, developers proposed demolishing the Green House and several adjacent houses, including 2821 Riverside, where preservationist and writer Wayne Wood would later live, to build a large apartment complex. Attorney George Martin bought the houses instead, moved into 2805, demolished the house at 2811 “to make an appropriately spacious yard to go with my house,” explaining, “I bought five houses just to get one house.”
When Ed and Ruth Brown opened the house to the public for the 1982 Riverside Avondale Tour of Homes, the promotional booklet called it “an almost perfect example of the Shingle Style house,” noting “its wide wraparound porch” and groupings of windows. It marked the house’s Craftsman Style influences too, “beamed ceilings, wainscot panels” and built-in bookcases and benches. Ed had designed “most of the wood furniture,” including “the Grandfather clock on the stairway.”
A dozen firefighting units and more than 50 firefighters, five years later on August 4th, vanquished flames resulting from an electrical short in the garage behind the house at 11 a.m. They’d closed off Riverside Avenue. A police helicopter circling aberrantly in the apocalyptic smoke made an emergency landing on the Robert E. Lee High School football field. Fighting a hellish humidity, firefighters cut a large hole in the roof that released a billowing column of black smoke like steam shot from a tea kettle.
The Browns, who owned Flower Garden Day Care and Educational Center in an old gas station across from another gas station nearby on Park Street, were away visiting dolphins and sea lions with a group of children at quaint Marineland, south of St. Augustine, originally billed as “the world’s first oceanarium.”
The fire spread quickly from the garage to the back of the house and up through the second floor. A Jacksonville Journal photo showed firefighters and paramedics moving the yet unidentified dead body of 90 year old Elmer Tennant, Ed’s stepfather, who lived with the Browns and died of smoke inhalation on the first landing of the stairs.
One more time, the Browns restored the house. It lived its life through them but also without them, on its own terms, with its own stories. “I answered the door one day in 2000 and this young man from a magazine wanted to write about Lynyrd Skynyrd rehearsing here,” Ruth later told Peggy Harrell Jennings of The Resident Community News. “I didn’t even know who they were.” The column was called “If Walls Could Talk.” They do, always, though sometimes it takes a poet or a psychogeographer, romantically attuned, to hear them.
Sure, you can hear Ruth say, you can hear the staircase, you can hear the creakings of the old house whisper it, hear the whistlings of the stillest tides in most recessed interior corners, how Ed, oh Ed, was so handsome, Ed from Chicago in ’24, marionette lines on either side of his mouth, Ed who was calm, Ed who was sure, who was peaceful like strength, who was strong like a gentle hand, who could fight in the war and retain a philosophy for peace, who could box and not mess up his face, a face that could run its own advertising business and still help Ruth start Flower Garden on Park Street, oh Ed, strong and sure even when Ruth nursed him after his stroke.
Ed Brown was 93 years old when he died on Christmas Day, 2017. He and Ruth had been married for 71 years. The house let the Browns call it home, just as they knew it lived its own life without them and would likely, though fire nearly wrote history differently, succeed them. Now the house stands empty. All its longing echoes within it, shadows of Nolan dancing. Night falls. The alligator electrolier has run off with a hippie girl. The house is comfortable in its own dark.