by Tim Gilmore, 10/21/2018
1. Salvage / Demolition
On Valentine’s Day, 1998, I stood in a blank city block, where old brick and wood-frame buildings had been demolished in LaVilla, and watched the downtown implosion of the Robert Meyer Hotel on the block west of Hemming Park.
I remember the countdown. I recall the tall 1957 structure first buckling, then collapsing toward the center, then flattening to plumes of dust and debris and 40 years of all the living that ever occupied its hallways and rooms. The crowd cheered. My heart broke, then sunk like deadweight.
Because it’s been done almost lovingly, the demolition of the Jacksonville Woman’s Club in Riverside, though architecturally and historically a greater loss, seems, by comparison, anticlimactic.
Demolition’s the wrong word, according to Lori Ann Whittington, Director of Advancement for the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, which owned the building in its final years. The taking down of the shambling Tudor Revival-style brick and timber building, designed and built in 1927 by architect Mellen Greeley, Whittington called a “salvage.”
Artist Jim Draper said he’d heard rumors from years before of bathroom utilities falling from floor to floor, but never knew if they were true. In 2015, inspectors found a giant lair of Formosan termites devouring the grand structure from underneath.
In August 2016, Whittington said “salvage” (not “demolition”) crews were taking the building down one brick and one Italian roof tile at a time and saving them to be used again in “a future garden learning center.”
The insect-filled wood, however, would be shipped to an incinerator, not laden landfills or be sold as infested wood chips.
2. Rooms Remaining from Houses Long Lost
Abigail Adams, first Second Lady and second First Lady of the United States, clearly her husband’s intellectual equal, radically advocated married women having property rights and, in 1776, castigated the supposed “passion for Liberty” of slave-owning Virginians, since they did “deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.” The most famous such Virginian was Thomas Jefferson, who succeeded her husband as president.
In the spirit of women like Abigail Adams, the “Woman’s Club Movement” began in Jacksonville much as it did elsewhere in the country. As Jim Crooks writes in his requisite Jacksonville after the Fire, 1901-1919: A New South City, “In January 1897 about forty women met in the parlors of the Windsor Hotel downtown to organize a Woman’s Club. Their efforts reflected steps taken by middle-and upper- class white women in towns and cities across the country in the 1880s and 1890s.”
Causes seen as primarily “women’s” have encountered the same contradictory status of being both exalted and discounted that women themselves have historically experienced. On one hand, it’s largely because teaching was a “woman’s profession,” akin to caretaking and raising children, that it remains undervalued and underpaid even today. Nevertheless, many of the earliest “women’s causes,” like legislation against child labor, women’s suffrage, and environmental preservation and protection, became important Progressive issues early in the 20th century.
In the 1890s and 19-teens, women’s club members, despite their social concerns, kept to expected appearances. They wore their hair and their dresses in the dainty and conservative fashions of their day, and referred to themselves publicly as Mrs. Husband’s-Name, i.e. “Mrs. Arthur G. Cummer” (as opposed to Ninah Cummer, or indeed Ms. Cummer’s birth or “maiden” name of Ninah May Holder).
Ninah Cummer, wife of a lumber magnate, served as the second leader of the Jacksonville Woman’s Relief Committee after the Great Fire of 1901, and co-founded, with her mother-in-law Ada Cummer, in 1903, the first Jacksonville Mother’s Club, a predecessor of later Parent-Teacher Associations.
In that first half century, Ninah Cummer and the Jacksonville Woman’s Club worked for “social justice” causes, aid and relief efforts, and cultural and educational advancements ranging from the Ladies’ Friday Musicale to combined fundraising efforts, across racial divides, with Eartha White, the greatest humanitarian leader of the South, the founder of the Clara White Mission, named for her adoptive mother.
Along Riverside Avenue, in the line of mansions once called “The Row,” Arthur and Ninah Cummer built their Tudor Revival-style house in 1902. Arthur’s parents, Wellington and Ada, lived in the homestead between the mansions of their sons Arthur and Waldo. Ninah incorporated into her home a literary and artistic salon and gallery.
In the 19-teens, when the Woman’s Club building was still downtown at 16 East Duval Street, Ninah designed a formal English garden on the riverfront behind her husband’s house, including the planting of that centurial wisteria vine that spreads still, despite hurricanes, across and over arbors in the gardens behind the Cummer Museum.
In 1931, Ninah designed the Cummers’ “Tudor Room,” a mahogany-beamed and paneled drawing room furnished with antique European sofas, chairs, desks, and framed artworks, and the “Italian garden” between mansion and river, replete with stone chairs, brick paths, and the reflecting pool that most recently survived Hurricane Irma.
Though none of the three Cummer mansions survive, the Tudor Room remains, in replication, in the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, where Arthur and Ninah’s mansion once stood. The gardens remain. Until 2016, just next door, the 1927 Woman’s Club building remained.
Ironically, in the two years since the demolition of the Woman’s Club building, a new political and cultural movement, #metoo, a new surge of feminism, has rocked the United States. None of the 476 women candidates who’ve run for Congress in 2018 have made their way onto the ballot as Mrs. Husband’s-Name.
3. Red Roses, River Air, Silvered Hookhand
Jimmy Wilson, one of only two World War II quadruple amputees in America, “marched with unfaltering step” to the altar “and claimed his bride,” the Associated Press reported in the summer of 1950.
Wilson and “television model” Dorothy Mortensen were married at the Jacksonville Woman’s Club on the St. Johns River, before 300 guests and “a traditional Southern setting of red roses and river air.”
He wore a maroon bow tie. She wore “Chantilly lace appliqued in scallops onto a glistening white satin skirt and long court train.”
Wilson and Mortensen both said, “I do,” and the AP reported that “Wilson with his silvered hookhand took the ring from his best man and slipped it on the finger of his bride.”
The couple had met at Jacksonville Junior College, which later became Jacksonville University, and matriculated together to the University of Florida.
She studied Drama in Gainesville. As soon as Wilson graduated with his bachelor’s in prelaw, the couple married, whereafter he’d “tak[e] his bride to Denver where he would study law at the University of Colorado.” First came “an auto honeymoon in Canada.” No word on whether Mortensen graduated or simply finished with her “MRS Degree,” as many women then did.
The AP reported that with his “silvered hookhands,” Wilson took notes in class “in his own handwriting.” He typed 25 words a minute and asked for no extra time for in-class exercises. He rode a bike, drove a car, danced, and shot a rifle “with considerable accuracy.”
In May 1954, the Associated Press said that Jimmy’s good luck began when his bomber crashed in Vermont in 1944. He’d lain in the mountains for three days, his limbs frozen, until rescuers found him the only survivor of a crew of 10 and surgeons amputated his arms and his legs.
When he returned home to Jacksonville for Christmas 1945, the city threw him a parade and raised $19,000 in Victory War Bonds. The Philadelphia Inquirer raised more than $103,000, while The Jacksonville Journal and Radio WJHP together raised another $20,000.
Wilson said, “The government paid for my education. I get a good pension every month. The government built me a specially-designed house, and best of all I have a lovely wife to share it with.”
He took piano lessons and could play “The Missouri Waltz.” Though he feared the dark, where he had trouble getting his bearings, and had a hard time slipping dimes into payphone slots, he said, “I can pick up a hot pan in the kitchen or stick my hand in the oven.”
His good luck even kept him from bar fights. “One look at those hooks clamped around a glass,” he said, “is enough to discourage the average guy from choosing me for a scrap. And another thing, I can smoke my cigarets shorter.” [sic]
4. The Dean of Jacksonville Architects
Sometime in the late 1970s, Wayne Wood, founder of Riverside Avondale Preservation, asked Mellen Greeley, often called “the dean of Jacksonville architects,” which of his designs he liked best. Greeley called the Tudor Revival-style house at 1816 Avondale Circle his favorite, but his restoration of the St. Augustine Post Office and Customs House and his design of the Jacksonville Woman’s Club building followed closely.
Greeley was almost 100 years old, though Wayne says he was “amazingly agile. He always wore dark slacks, a white shirt and a thin black tie. He had this wonderful shock of white hair and wasn’t the least bit bald. He was fairly tall, with only the slightest stoop in his shoulders, and he walked with a cane.”
Mellen Greeley’s father was Mayor J.C. Greeley, whose six-story gingerbread-coated Victorian house stood tall where Jackson Street now touches the river in Brooklyn. When Jonathan Greeley first built his house in 1872, it stood a handsome two stories, its veranda as wide and tall as the house.
Twenty years later, the house rose cobwebbed in scroll-sawn and lathed ornamentation. The two-story house took on a third, then reached another two stories in a tower topped by a sixth-story observatory. When Mellen became a teenager, his bedroom moved up to the third floor, and a metal-lined cistern collected rainwater between his bedroom ceiling and the first floor of the tower.
At night, the 13 year-old future architect lay awake, in bed, listening to the water gurgling and drumming and moaning in the metal tank above his room. The otherworldly sounds of rainwater collecting above his third-floor ceiling frightened him, no matter that the house bore the name, Benvenuto, “Welcome.”
Wayne remembers jumping into a car with architects Mellen Greeley and Robert Broward and driving over to the Woman’s Club building. He recalls the high ceilings, the oak timbers, and remembers asking Greeley the secret of his longevity.
Mellen Greeley, who’d helped form and then served as first president of the Florida Architects Association in 1912, said the secret to living a long life was being a peaceful person. He never got mad. Nothing upset him. He never smoked, nor drank. When Greeley was eight years old, in 1888, he’d shaken hands with President Grover Cleveland at the Sub-Tropical Exposition in Jacksonville.
He’d found the elaborate decoration that draped his childhood home tacky, and the Tudor Revival style of the early 20th century, with its pitched roofs and decorative half-timbering, became his signature.
Riverside Avondale Preservation was but six years old when it honored Mellen Greeley for his 100th birthday at Florida Junior College’s Kent Campus in 1980. Wayne helped Mellen blow out the candles on his cake and recalls, on another occasion, watching the ancient architect feed raccoons by hand.
5. You’ll Never Be Mrs. Somebody-Else.
In and out of itself goes the world, and the world falls ever into the earth. The world’s born old. The earth renews itself as the world falls continuously into the earth.
This understanding does not counter the need for progressive policies and social movements that advance us. For the world must rise, because we live in the world and must make it and our lives better, even as it falls. The world ever decays. And spring returns perpetually to the earth, makes it new, again and again. The Woman’s Club both lifted the world and planted its gardens.
Always comes a younger generation. They love, they live, they give birth to new ideas, creatively and intuitively, old ideas renewed. We were them, and they’ll be us, so Mellen Greeley died, 101 years old, in 1981. All his memories of being that child in tall weeds at the side of the river I wish I could preserve.
Still. Living your life is the process of forgetting it. You learn that truth, the older you get. That you, after the fact of you, should be remembered, comes as blessing or curse, either way as accident of history, no matter how hard you’ve fought all your life to achieve it. Or escape it.
Won’t 13 year-old Mellen Clark Greeley, even now, walk us to his father’s sixth story? Don’t you recall the last years, the 19-teens, when the tall house stood empty, when kids broke in, climbed the stairs and shudders and bookshelves, when boys spooked girls they fancied but misunderstood, when old men accused young readers of Keats and Yeats of “dancing through history”?
My brilliant and sunshining daughters, won’t you always remember we encircled the reflecting pool in Ninah’s garden? We focused on reflections on shallow waters. You were three years old and six when you walked behind the gargoyle, pointed to its buttocks, covered your mouths with your tiny hands, laughed so hard you could hardly stand.
We walked the river, alongside it, placed our palms on the trunks of wisteria. When you ran, both of you, the brick paths, excited, I followed you happily. When you grew tired, I pulled you up into my arms, both of you, and cherished your falling asleep on my shoulders.
Where the falling worlds touch the rising earth, a door appears. Though the Woman’s Club building, demolished or salvaged, is gone, the door still stands. The door stands alone on the knoll. The door stands upright and awkward in the sunshine and wind. The door stands without the grand structure to which it belonged. The door waits yet beside the river.
Ninah Cummer meets us there. As does Eartha White. They know. You’ll know yourselves by your own names. You’ll never be Mrs. Somebody-Else.