by Tim Gilmore, 10/3/2016
Demolition had begun. A local TV news reporter contacted Gunner Miller, the real estate representative for Riverside Baptist Church, to ask for his comments on the sad fate of the Martha Washington Hotel.
Riverside Baptist Church owned the dilapidated 1911 mansion and 1938 hotel addition and had decided, in 1976, to tear it all down for a parking lot. Such was the end of untold numbers of beautiful old buildings across Riverside Avondale and other historic neighborhoods in the “white flight” and suburban explosion of the latter half of the 20th century. Just two years before, in 1974, Riverside Avondale Preservation had formed to fight such losses. RAP had recently coalesced a group of six investors to save the Martha Washington. Miller turned down their offers repeatedly.
Miller surprised the reporter by saying the demolition had been halted. A second investment group had offered to save the Martha Washington. Miller said he’d known secretly about the group for some time and used the clandestine group to counter RAP’s offer. Young urban activists and preservationists assumed Miller was bluffing.
When the reporter found out later that afternoon that demolition had begun, he contacted Miller again. Miller claimed he’d forgotten to tell the wrecking crew not to proceed, but that since demolition was under way, it might as well continue.
Wayne Wood, then a young optometrist who’d recently spearheaded the formation of RAP, offered, according the June 1978 RAP newsletter “to personally pay to cover the wrecking company’s cost to immediately stop the demolition.”
Wayne remembers the episode as “the most dramatic victory in RAP’s entire history.”
“When I heard the wrecking ball was ready,” he says, “I rushed over and found Miller on the third floor. Demolition had started on the front right corner.”
Miller made no mention of the other investment group, of whom RAP activists never discovered a trace. Accompanying Wayne was Cynthia Parks, whom he calls “the best reporter The Jacksonville Journal ever had. She made newspaper journalism lyrical.”
Miller twice refused a check Wayne offered him for $6,000 to call off the demolition and cover the wrecking company’s costs for the day.
“We stood outside and watched as the wrecking ball swung back. If the ball had hit one more time, it would’ve caved the wall in. It had already done some damage with the first swing. But just as the ball swung back to hit the building again, the chain broke.”
Miller said on TV news that he hadn’t heard Wayne offer to pay the demolition crew to stop, but in Cynthia Parks’s story on the front page of the next morning’s Jacksonville Journal, she reported that Miller had twice declined Wayne’s offer.
At nine a.m. that following morning, as protestors marched with placards before the old hotel, Miller met Wayne and two other RAP members at the Martha Washington and accepted their original proposal.
Brenda Kelly has lived in her corner of the Martha Washington Hotel since it was converted into condos in 1981. Her unit was the first condo completed. Cathy and Jerry Ray, who oversaw the renovation, moved into the unit across the foyer from hers, while the long extension from the center and back of the old hotel fell to pieces.
The core of the structure is the original three-story mansion, built in 1911 for lumber magnate Bryan Blount, with its two story Doric columns, high dormers, and deep and vast veranda. In 1938, a long addition stretched from the back of the mansion, and the whole pile became the Martha Washington Hotel. In counterpoint to the tall George Washington Hotel downtown, the Martha admitted only women. During World War II, however, the hotel became a boarding house that specialized in housing servicemen and their families.
Wayne Wood interviewed Ms. H.W. Strickland in 1974. After World War II, the Martha Washington entered decades of decline as a boarding house. When Wayne spoke with Ms. Strickland, she had been leasing the rambling shambles for 14 years, first from the Pace family who’d owned it since the 1920s and for a year from Riverside Baptist Church. Ms. Strickland ran the Martha Washington as, in Wayne’s words, “something between an old folks’ home and a boarding house” with 25 or 30 residents.
In 1976, the old building contained four parlors, two dining rooms, a butler’s pantry, seven fireplaces, a wraparound veranda, and 29 rental units, including the garage apartment in the old carriage house. Today, part of the cavernous porch has been enclosed and forms the kitchen and dining room of Brenda Kelly’s condo, the parlors are boxed into separate units, and the whole structure contains 11 condos.
Brenda may’ve had a sense early on of all the other lives lived in this building before her, but for more than three decades now, the Martha Washington has been home. It’s a part of her.
Brenda is the last original tenant of the Martha as condominiums. She watched the units develop after hers and knows the layout of the century-old congeries perhaps more intimately than anybody else.
Brenda lived here when the sprawling back of the complex was rotting away from the original mansion, and a homeless carpenter employed in the latter portion’s reconstruction squatted in a back unit and lit bonfires inside on winter nights.
She was here several years ago when two tenants fought late at night and one of them fell through the original glass in the foyer’s front door.
She was here when her piano tuner told her that decades before, he’d taken his first piano lessons here in those post-World War II boarding house days, when he was a little boy and used to ride his bike up and down the central stairs.
She doesn’t think the staircase is original, but century-old photos taken during the Blount family’s residence indicate it might be. Initially, the foyer of the Blount Mansion was far more open than it is today. Brenda’s been told the Blount staircase set back some 20 feet behind today’s stairs with rows of round heart-pine columns in procession, but original photographs show the columns around the staircase situated where it is now.
Still, when the building was at its zenith, no little boys taking piano lessons would ride their bikes up and down those stairs. The foyer and the open parlors held wedding receptions for young debutantes.
Brenda’s not the Martha Washington’s only Brenda. Timothy Dalton and Brooke Shields starred in an almost unanimously panned 1989 movie called Brenda Starr, in which the unit across from Brenda Kelly’s became the Oval Office. Among Brenda’s memories living here are progressive cocktail parties from the early 1980s and the fact that Brooke Shields was very gracious and down-to-earth.
As I leave the building, a young tattooed woman leaves behind me. She’s heading out into the evening to walk her dog. When I tell her I’m writing the building’s story, she says, “Please tell me there are ghosts here.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I ask.
“Definitely,” she says.
“So have you felt anything paranormal since you’ve been living here?”
She shakes her head sadly, side to side. “The only strange presences I’ve witnessed are the squirrels in the attic.”
That may be. But like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Martha’s lived numerous lives—those of Southern aristocrats, World War II servicemen, indigent elderly women, and 21st century hipsters. If the chain on that wrecking ball hadn’t snapped, Riverside would have only another parking lot here.
But Martha wasn’t ready to give up the ghost. She had yet more living to do, does still. She anticipates, with the stalwart old vibrancy of yet healthy brick, and of Story that withstands—and stands stronger from—its discrepant stories, whatever her many lifetimes still may come.