by Tim Gilmore, 8/5/2014
Jerry Ferguson and The Castle are 86 years old.
She sees herself as the caretaker, the curator, of the great work of art in which she’s lived for almost half a century. In fact, she sees her “Jacobethan-Revival”-styled mansion, though it is certainly her home, as still the house of Leon Cheek.
Joann Purdie helps her mother unroll about 20 sheets of full-sized arms-length blueprints at the head of the antique French table in the spacious dining room. Behind us, diamond-paned windows in lovely dark casements emit sunlight.
The building of Cheek-Neal Coffee Co., which later became Maxwell House, was the lifework of Joel Cheek, who founded the company in 1892. His son Leon Cheek hired Roy Benjamin, one of Jacksonville’s most prolific architects, to build this monumental house. The Jacobethan, a portmanteau of Jacobean and Elizabethan, is an architectural style so formal as to be stern and the Cheek House’s three and a half story crenelated square tower makes it even more imposing. Nevertheless, realtor Ann Dunsford Curley, great-niece of Leon Cheek, says, “My Great-Uncle Leon built that house to live in just as any other family does.”
Benjamin designed the house’s interior arches in exact alliance. The westward loggia makes use of a Roman arch, while all the others are Gothic. Standing in the loggia, as rain drives diagonally against the house, we look at the exterior wall built in Flemish Bond, bricks laid stretcher between header, width between depth. He designed the great room with the true height of a cathedral ceiling.
“The house was my [Great] Aunt Margaret’s project,” Curley says. “My [great] uncle wanted to purchase the point on the river which is now called Fairfax Manor and put an estate home on that property surrounded by woods and horses and dog stables. It was considered way out in the country at the time. However, [Great] Aunt Margaret wanted to live closer to town.”
Since Leon and Margaret Cheek had no children of their own, Curley says, “They doted on my father and his two sisters. My father spent every summer with them as a growing boy.” Her father, Ensor Rubidge Dunsford, adored his Aunt Margaret, married a Margaret, and named Ann’s sister Margaret.
Cheek had the house built for just more than $100,000. Jerry shows us the receipts and the correspondence between architect and workers. Forty years later, the Cheek Estate offered the house for close to that same price. White Flight was in full sway and the neighborhood surrounding the house was in steep decline. “When my parents inherited the house,” Curley says, “my mother did not want to live in a crime-riddled [sic] neighborhood full of hippies and drugs. My mother did not want to be alone in that neighborhood at night.” The Fergusons bought the Castle for $65,000.
When you stand at the front door, you immediately notice the great concrete depths in which the entrance recedes. Though interior walls are concrete two feet thick, the receding doorway indicates an external wall nearly double that. The house is built on 177 copper-capped concrete pilings.
Though recently increased salinity in the St. Johns River has forced salt into the soil of the most riverward of Riverside Avondale, killing oaks and cedars, and though Jerry recently had the diamond-paned windows repaired and the chimneys repointed, the house itself, the Castle, will be here in a thousand years. At least. It was built to survive anything—even time.
Curley lovingly remembers Sundays in the ’60s, when she ran the halls, played in the elevator with her siblings, climbed onto her great-uncle’s lap, and hung out with the family’s black servants, Julius polishing the cars, Clementine rolling pastry on a marble slab in the kitchen.
When the Fergusons bought the mansion, they began hosting tea parties for Riverside school children whose price of admission was having learned a poem. The children would sit at the long dining room table, 20 students at a time per tea party. They would recite their poems by the fireplace. A “king” would “knight” them with a sword. Jerry’s deceased husband, the physician Emmet Ferguson, once published a book of the poems he’d been required to memorize in school.
My sister Wanda has visited this house once before, the only time the house has ever been on the market. She wasn’t yet 10 years old. Jerry and Emmet Ferguson bought the house in 1968, two years after Leon Cheek’s death.
Wanda came with her sisters and our mother (I came later from a second marriage), and a realtor showed them the house, from the basement up to the second floor, though the three and a half story tower wasn’t entirely accessible.
Wanda remembers the elevator, fronted with black accordion grating. She remembers large and expensive furniture squeezed to the center of a great room, all walled off by red velvet roping. Mom had grown up not quite poor, then moved to Fairfax Manor between wealthy Avondale and old-money Ortega when she was 12. But Mom’s mom grew up wealthy on a plantation called The Oaks in Sanford, Florida. Even when she lived in that little yellow house on Randolph Street, our grandmother presented herself with “class,” easily shocked and prim, asking seven year old me to preach to her as she sat on her antique yellow sofa with her pocketbook and her Bible.
The realtor told Mom and my sisters the basement was reserved for servants’ quarters and that children who misbehaved could be sent down below to the basement-as-dungeon. Buzzers placed under the carpets throughout the Castle, which Jerry confirms, could instantly call servants up from the depths.
Within a year of their buying the house, Emmet and Jerry hosted an extemporaneous dinner for Florida Governor Claude Kirk and his entourage. The Fergusons were occasional guests of the Carters at the White House, and President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn stayed at the Cheek Castle before, during, and after his presidency. Yet the Fergusons had bought this grandest Old Jacksonville house for (relatively) dirt cheap because American cities had turned their backs on their urban cores.
The houses immediately surrounding the Castle belonged to slumlords and filled with transients and addicts and wanderers. Jerry refers to an erstwhile apartment house behind them as a former “commune,” though her daughter Joann says it was more of a “flophouse.”
As the wealthy old families of the neighborhood fled, Riverside’s once-great mansions, including those in the several square blocks of St. Johns Quarter surrounding the Castle, near Five Points and Memorial Park, attracted hippies, fans of the city’s burgeoning rock n’ roll scene, and all those sad young transients of a generation.
There were urban legends about the “Abandoned Castle” in the late 1960s, stories about strangers lighting bonfires in the rooms and swinging from the chandeliers. Police checked the place regularly for vagrants. Jerry says somebody broke the elevator lock, so the Cheek family hired a night watchman, worried that someone would fall down the elevator shaft. “Most of them had no destructive intent,” Jerry says, “and the police knew who most of their parents were.” Ann Curley, however, is skeptical young people threw parties in the abandoned old house. She calls it “hogwash.”
Joann Purdie still remembers the first time she ever set foot in the Castle, right after her parents bought it. Windows were busted out, and the floors were besmirched with thick unidentifiable spills and countless broken bottles and light bulbs.
A full page magazine ad from the year this house was built shows a servant bringing a silver coffee tray to a wealthy woman dressed in purple and seated at a great table. “As a painter mixes colors on his palette,” the ad says, “so Joel Cheek mingled many coffees years ago. A Southerner of the Old South, born with a genius for flavor, he created a blend with a touch of mellow goodness which no other coffee has ever had. Quickly Joel Cheek’s blend found favor with the great families of Dixie.” The ad told magazine readers to buy Maxwell House Coffee and to tune in to the Maxwell House Coffee Radio Hour in the evenings.
We are all only in between. Even coffee can be mythologized. Leon Cheek built this Castle. The Fergusons preserved it. Whether Joel Cheek were a Southern plantation aristocrat playing Claude Monet with coffee blends or lost children ever swung from the chandeliers, all of us will have been here equally. Some of us were privileged a stone legacy. All of us will have left stories, bending back, with a Doppler Effect, into the disappearances behind us.