by Tim Gilmore, 10/18/2022
I walk up the long driveway, gawk at the gables, then wander in circles around the 15,000 square foot Tudor Revival style mansion, built in 1928 on the riverfront on Richmond Street, looking for John Hove. I’d passed him out front, wearing coveralls, spraying down stacks of bricks, and assumed he was one of the workers.
Hove, a former Swedish judge, has been working on the house for a decade. He’s lived here for two years and says the renovation has less than a year to go. He’s removed 72 trees, including 18 pines, as well as oaks and magnolias, and 160,000 bricks from the perimeter wall. He brought in 240,000 new bricks for exterior walls, though he kept what bricks he could, and he’s incorporated 156 truckloads full of concrete, more than 1500 cubic yards. He tells me most of that right away.
He shakes my hand, walks me through the breezeway, points to the swimming pool he’s added, and introduces me to Wylie, the stone canine named for Wile E. Coyote, positioned to keep the geese away. “And yes,” he says. “It works.”
John Hove moved to Jacksonville in 1989 to expand the family business his father had started in Sweden. While his brother Anders still runs the Swedish side of the company, John is president of Jax-based Buffers USA, which manufactures, distributes and sells freight and cargo transportation hardware. When Yvonne Hove first saw the house, she decided she and John had to have it.
Architectural firm Marsh and Saxelbye designed the house for Edward Lane, a founder of Atlantic National Bank, and Anna Taliaferro Lane, just when the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s gave way to the Great Depression. When the house was under construction, Ms. Lane, the daughter of U.S. Senator James Taliaferro, supervised the bricklayers from a lawn chair. Whether or not they appreciated it hasn’t come down from history. Photos of 1930s garden parties at the height of the Great Depression show dozens of men and women standing before the house in elaborate white like a scene from The Great Gatsby.
Bill and Jean “Pokey” Towers bought the house in the late 1960s. Bill’s family was the Towers’ half of Rogers Towers, the Jacksonville law firm formed in 1905. It was Pokey who invited the strange hypergraphic woman Virginia King to Christmas here, because otherwise Virginia would spend the holidays alone. Virginia kept reprinting versions of her book, Interesting Facts About Leading People and Families of Duval County; Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings, from 1968 to 1976, though her handwritten final edition, spanning 8,448 pages, was never printed.
The last family to reside here was that of Raymond Mason, Jr., son of the president of the Charter Company, an oil, insurance and communications conglomerate, who’d lived in that other grandest mansion in the city, Epping Forest, where, in 1976, Mason, Sr. hosted a summit with President Gerald Ford and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, conducted by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
When the Hoves first drove past the house, they could hardly see it through the trees. The house was in steep decline, sewage and water systems collapsing underneath and the basement beneath the kitchen constantly flooded. Basement water lines stood higher than the electric panels that replaced original furnaces and sump pumps worked “55 minutes an hour.”
The grand foyer and hallway to the kitchen were covered and darkened by excessive additions of interior woodwork and wardrobes covering windows. In a house this size, once decline begins, it quickly becomes all but impossible to catch up with.
Hove never expected the renovation would take so long, nor cost so much. He says now, “If I’d known, I might have tried to talk my wife out of it,” though he’s not sure he would have succeeded. He didn’t know what strange wonderful Christmases the house had harbored and couldn’t have known what personal tragedy the next decade would bring.
Perhaps the holiday kindness of another era will yet echo through these many rooms and corridors, for Pokey’s annual Christmas invitation meant the world to Virginia King. Pokey called Virginia “Ginger” and Virginia called Pokey “Pork Chop.” Pokey may have been Virginia’s only real friend.
“I felt protective of her,’ Pokey told me when I was working on my 2015 book The Mad Atlas of Virginia King. “She was a nut, but she was a person.” Pokey died on June 3rd of this year, 96 years old.
“I remember one Christmas,” Pokey told me, “when my mother bought Virginia a hat – everybody wore hats then, and Virginia wore a hat long after everyone else had stopped – and had me deliver it to her.” Pokey was young, in her early 20s. Virginia was about 15 years her senior but seemed decades older. Virginia told her to take the hat back, said it was ugly and she didn’t want it.
Virginia exhibited the characteristics of someone with Asperger Syndrome, though she was born too early for such a diagnosis. Symptoms include remoteness; difficulties with social interactions, displays of empathy and nonverbal communications; and obsessive fixation on particular topics.
Pokey had Virginia over for Christmas “because,” as she said, “you knew that otherwise she’d be lonely.” Pokey explained, “If you went to hug her, she’d push you away, but it still meant something to her to be hugged.”
Without the Hoves, this house might have seen its last Christmas. It was that far gone, John says. On the stairs inside, he holds up the original finials that will soon again grace the newel posts, sculpted elephants, pelicans, jokers, and a curious long-bearded gnome John calls “the Wanderer.” In the massive stained glass window over the front doorway persist original images of castle parapets and St. George slaying the dragon.
John’s converted the high attic floor to a full third story. Attic stairs used to rise only through servants’ quarters, but he’s connected them to the central heavily coffered oak staircase, raised the top floor ceilings from eight to 15 feet, replaced an ancient elevator, and added a balcony from one of four bedrooms.
From back of the house near the river, behind the Victorian three-cherub fountain he purchased from a home in nearby Ortega, he points out the diminishing size of the roof slates, each 40 percent overlapped by the slate above it, as they rise. The larger slates adorn the lower levels, midsized slates above them, both crowned by slates smallest. The effect of the diminishing of slate size toward the top is an extension of distance, an illusion of the house standing even taller than it does.
He shows me how the old walls featured seven distinct brick colors, while the violet and another grayish orange shade couldn’t be reproduced in replacement brick. Pointing up to exterior heights, he indicates how the row-locks are laid so as to produce eXes in the brick layout that you barely notice at first. Once you see them, you can’t not see them.
In upstairs window frames, steel signatures caption the Crittall Casement Window Company and footnote an invisible irony. Crittall was a Swedish company that expanded into Detroit, as these cartouches indicate, but went bankrupt in the U.S. in the Great Depression. Crittall still operates, however, in England, and John’s ordered new steel for the conservatory, the garage apartment windows and other steel frameworks on the property from Crittall in the U.K.
The original gold leaf from the ceiling of the octagonal breakfast room has vanished, but the medallions and stone fireplaces remain. John has hung newly purchased antique chandeliers, propped a suit of armor in the foyer, and hung a mirror, purchased from Avonlea Antiques and Interiors, complete with a bullet hole, the story of which nobody will ever know, that somehow failed to shatter the glass.
There’s a “funnel effect” as a long renovation nears its end. The first tasks make the largest differences – replacing what seemed like miles of exterior brickwork, eliminating the crawlspace that had corroded and shrunken and bred fumes up into the house, busting apart and replacing the cracked and failing limestone doorway frames. Then there are carpenters who spend three and a half years on site entirely dedicated to this one job. Toward the end, however, a million smaller details remain and portend eternal incompletion.
For the last two years, John has lived in a couple dozen square feet of this cavernous old mansion. In one room, there’s a Swedish mangle, a mechanical laundry press unfolded and cranked by hand. In a room he laughingly calls his “kitchen,” boards lie over the tops of chairs, a coffee pot in the corner. Though he’d never imagined the renovation would last this long, it’s become a raison d’être, a reason for getting up every day and going forward. “I promised her I’d finish it,” he says of Yvonne.
Though Yvonne was born in England in 1943, her father’s service in the Royal Air Force took the family to Germany and Singapore. She married John, her second husband, on New Year’s Eve, 1976, and the couple had Johanna, Hanna they called her, in Stockholm, in 1983.
Hanna was six when the Hoves moved to Jacksonville. She was 32 when her husband, a U.S. Naval officer named Craig Becker, drugged her and pushed her out the window of their seventh floor apartment in Mons, Belgium.
The Hoves had been working on the renovation for three years. Hanna, apple of her father’s eye, smiled when he pointed the camera her way, as she helped clear the grounds. She wore white-framed sunglasses as her pregnant belly swelled her tank top. When Hanna was little, John read to her, put her in the basket on his bicycle handlebars, posed for a camera while doing pushups as she sat on his back. Now he designed extensive new apartments for her over the six car garage.
Hanna was a licensed psychologist and worked for several years in Norfolk, Virginia, before marrying Craig, a Navy lieutenant. When he was assigned to Belgium, she went with him, ironically moving closer to her parents’ home countries and her own place of birth, as Craig grew increasingly violent. In 2013, Craig was arrested at a U.S. Army hotel in Belgium for beating and choking Hanna. Headlines in the Navy’s Stars and Stripes newspaper called him a “war hero.” By September 2015, the couple had split, reconciled, and were planning to separate again, Hanna getting ready to move into her own apartment. Her father was building that apartment out, even then, at the rambling old riverfront mansion in Northeast Florida.
Craig gaslit Hanna even after her death, telling Belgian police the psychologist was mentally unbalanced and had leapt to her death after taking pills and drinking excessive amounts of wine. Belgian police initially ruled her death a suicide, but medical examination showed no drugs, including alcohol, in her system.
Three years after Hanna’s death, Yvonne died, on Valentine’s Day, 2018, of heart failure. The U.S. Navy had declined, at that time, to charge Becker. He’d remained in Belgian custody for two years, but the Navy refused jurisdiction of the case until Secretary of Defense James Mattis intervened and ordered it to do so after Yvonne’s death. Nearly seven years after Hanna’s death, Craig Becker was finally convicted of murder on April 30, 2022, not six months before Hanna’s father guides me through the house he alone of his immediate family has survived.
John’s face still carries the sweetness that it did years ago, when he was 40 years younger and Hanna was a baby, but a sadness casts a constant pall across it now. If the strength of his determination is less visible in his countenance, however, its testament resides in the house.
Over the arch of the porte cochère, he points to a newly invented coat of arms and notes the mottos in two languages. He translates the Latin “Velle Est Valere” roughly as “Where there is a will, there is a way” and the second phrase from Swedish: “He who has the conviction will find the strength.”
John hasn’t been home to Sweden since before the Covid-19 pandemic, but his brother Anders is coming for Thanksgiving. Now 68 years old, John has started a new relationship, because, he says, in this still mostly empty house, “Being alone sucks.” His girlfriend has helped him order complementary parts for the house and is organizing the upcoming family get-together. John misses his brother dearly. Thanksgiving will be the first time they’ve seen each other in years.
Meanwhile, though it’s named the Lane-Towers House on the National Register for Historic Places, John plans to petition to rename the house “Hove Hall.” Not only is Hove his last name and a hall a grand country residence, but Hall was also Yvonne’s maiden name. They were married for 41 years.