by Tim Gilmore, 12/13/2019
1. Ocean Storm in the Sky
In 2017, when Hurricane Irma wrapped the oldest apartment highrise in Florida in her apocalyptic embrace, it sounded like freight trains crashing about the apartment 10 stories high. The Tomans’ condo in the Park Lane Building has one of the best panoramic views from any living space in this city. Across the open space that connects their living room and dining room, they can see the bars and restaurants of Five Points from one side and the widest point of the St. Johns River from the other.
In the midst of Hurricane Irma, Tim and Amanda had perhaps the best view of the fury of the storm in all of Jacksonville. “The whole time,” Amanda says, “I thought this building was coming down.” When the waters crashed through the ground-floor garage doors and blew into the elevator well, the building shook on its axis.
This primordial highrise still relied on its original electric panel, which floodwaters fried. The building became an island, completely surrounded by water. Looking down from three sides of their condo, the Tomans took in the great ancient violence of the river come up on the land that’s long congratulated itself as Riverside.
It’s a great story to say you’ve lived through, even exceeds the hurricane scene in John Huston’s 1948 noir film Key Largo, whether or not Tim and Amanda consider themselves Bogart and Bacall. The Park Lane stood without power for two months. Since the electrical brain was original, and since hurricanes had just hit Houston and Miami, tenants had to wait on backlogged specialty contractors who worked only on old systems, based in New York.
So the Tomans relocated temporarily to a shopping mall hotel on the Southside, the antithesis of what they wanted in a home, though it had the benefit of a Bold City taproom on the ground floor.
It was Tim’s lifelong dream to live here. When he was 10 years old, he’d visit his grandmother in Riverside, who always took him to Memorial Park. Looking up at the Park Lane, he always said he’d one day call it home.
Tim jokes that their bathroom window offers the city’s best view from a toilet. Their small son Arlo’s room looks from one wall over Memorial Park and from another toward the center of Five Points. Tim and Amanda’s bedroom looks over the park from one wall and the river from another.
It was Amanda who took down the wall that once separated the kitchen from the rest of the apartment. The kitchen was originally servant’s space. The servants came up from behind, climbing the fire escape before breakfast and dinner. The rattling old iron, which was long out of code, still hung off the building when Tim first bought the place. He loved to sit out there, perched over the river, with a coffee or a beer. Now the Tomans have a larger galley kitchen, with a multilayered history, than do most residents of refurbished urban spaces.
Tim’s been here 12 years. He and Amanda have been married for 10. They both grew up at the beach, at one point living just a couple streets apart without ever having met. After Amanda moved back to Jacksonville from Chicago, a mutual friend introduced them at Mossfire Grill in Five Points. Now Amanda works downtown at the Main Library and Tim operates his dentistry at the beach.
On New Year’s and the Fourth of July, their home becomes an intimate theater to fireworks from all directions: across the river downtown, from Mandarin to the southeast, from the Florida Yacht Club in Ortega, from San Marco due south over the water. When revelers launch their own firecrackers from Memorial Park below, explosions sometimes flower a few feet away from the Tomans’ hurricane-resistant windows.
When last May a Boeing 737-800 charter jetliner slid off the runway at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, a friend of Amanda’s in New Jersey, having just seen the news, woke her with an early phone call. The view wasn’t particularly dramatic, but she and Tim could see a “big shiny silver object” seemingly abandoned and sinking into the river.
Since Hurricane Irma, Tim says he knows his days here are numbered, but the Tomans acknowledge it’s a magical place for Arlo to base his earliest memories. And though Amanda’s not crazy about the balloons that pass their windows, conscious as she is of their environmental effects, she loves those moments when she catches a glimpse from the corner of her eye, looks to the nearest of three directions overlooking the city or the St. Johns, and sees a fleet of Chinese lanterns, ancient and red and floating illuminated through the blue haze high over the river.
2. Jane Dear
On April 1, 1991, George Benjamin, son of the architect who designed Jacksonville’s Florida Theatre, San Marco Theater, Five Points Theater and Park Lane Apartments wrote his niece Jane Rothschild, calling her, “Jane dear,” and sending her a list of her grandfather Roy Benjamin’s projects, “compiled from a hand-written, loose-leaf book in my possession.”
“By today’s standards,” he writes, “it’s hard to imagine a Park Lane Apartment building being built for $350,000, or a Leon Cheek house for $105,000.” He also sent her a copy of his father’s agreement with William Kemp of Kemp, Bunch and Jackson, KBJ Architects, to whom Roy Benjamin bequeathed his practice. “As far as I know,” George Benjamin wrote, “there was never any real expression of gratitude on the part of K, B, or J.”
Roy Benjamin’s January 29, 1963 obituary called him “responsible for the first skyscraper in South Florida at Lakeland where a 10-story marble arcade building was erected in the 1920s.” His father Simon had served as first president of the Jacksonville Jewish Temple. He designed more than 200 movie theaters throughout the Southeast, but among his favorite designs was the Park Lane.
Unlike later apartment towers, the Park Lane connected to the river wall and fronted the St. Johns River, built in the “Mediterranean Revival” style of the 1920s’ Florida Land Boom. Its setback design granted terraces to floors above the 10th, where the Tomans live now. Climbing 16 stories, including the ground floor but triskaidekaphobically skipping the 13th, the Park Lane is considered the oldest highrise apartment building in Florida. In 1926, it was one of 10 buildings under construction in what newspapers called “The Year of the Skyscraper” in what was then Florida’s biggest city.
3. Wrinkles in Time and the River
At first, Mary didn’t like her cousin Madeleine so much. What kind of child didn’t know how to play? Mary’s favorite thing to do in all the world was to ride her bicycle, but Madeleine didn’t know how. When Madeleine’s father, the writer Wadsworth Camp, and her mother, also named Madeleine, visited from New York, they stayed with young Madeleine’s grandfather in Apartment 1A in the Park Lane. Mary thought of the great circular sidewalk in Memorial Park, just beneath the apartment tower, as the best place in the city to ride bikes, but Madeleine, the future Newbery Award winning writer, was “such a loner, always writing or reading.”
So recalled Mary L’Engle Avent for literary biographer Leonard Marcus in an interview published in the 2013 book, Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices. Madeleine L’Engle died in 2007, age 88, best known for her novel A Wrinkle in Time and author of more than 60 other books. Mary also recalled the great scandal.
Bion Barnett, Madeleine’s maternal grandfather, was president of Barnett National Bank, founded by his father William. It would soon become the largest bank in Florida and carry the nickname, by the time of Bion Barnett’s death at age 101 in 1958, “Florida’s bank.” When the L’Engle Camp family visited him at the Park Lane in the early 1930s, he lived with his second wife, whom he’d once adopted as his child, for whom he’d left his first.
“What happened was,” Mary Avent told Marcus, Bion, who “had fallen in love with a young Frenchwoman,” told Mary’s Aunt Lina “he wanted a divorce,” to which Carolina responded, “You will be my husband until I die.” So Bion moved to France to be with Anna and her two children. “After a while,” said Cousin Mary, “the future Mrs. Barnett, who was a devout Catholic, got tired of living with Mr. Barnett as a companion, so he adopted her as his daughter.”
By the time the young third-generation Madeleine visited her grandfather at the Park Lane, Anna was Bion’s wife, for he’d brought suit against the Catholic Church to “unclaim” her as his daughter in order to marry her. Carolina had finally relented. Though Madeleine never mentioned it in future writings, Mary swore the scandal “hung like a cloud over Madeleine’s head,” at least while she was in town, because “everyone in Jacksonville knew the story.”
Though Madeleine spent parts of her childhood in New York, the French Alps and Switzerland, when Carolina became ill in 1933, she and her parents moved back to Jacksonville and settled at the beach. Madeleine later chronicled her even earlier memories of her great-grandmother, Madeleine Margaret L’Engle, in her 1974 memoir The Summer of the Great-Grandmother.
“It was at the ocean that I first went outdoors at night and saw the stars,” she wrote. She recalled being in someone’s arms, a parent perhaps, or “Dearma”—“someone I loved and trusted enough so that all I remember is being held, and seeing the glory of the night sky over the ocean.” That experience and vision marked her imagination for life.
The family stayed at the beach until her father died on Halloween or the day before, 1936. Fantasy novelist Bill Ectric writes of how Madeleine “probably learned to love the written word from her father, a well-known writer in his own right who usually wrote under the shortened name Wadsworth Camp.” In his February 22, 2017 Folio Weekly article, Ectric draws a line from Camp’s mystery novels The Abandoned Room, upon which the 1920 movie Love Without Question was based, and The House of Fear to his daughter’s A Wrinkle in Time and The Wind in the Door.
According to the official story, Camp died from lung damage sustained from mustard gas in Word War I, though a 2004 New Yorker article called “The Storyteller: Fact, Fiction and the Books of Madeleine L’Engle” describes Charles, in the words of family members, as “a big, handsome man in a white linen suit, smoking cigarettes on the porch and drinking whiskey,” and surmises heavy drinking led to his death.
Whatever the cause, when Madeleine’s father died, her mother moved to Apartment 5C of the Park Lane to be closer to her father, chairman of the board of “Florida’s Bank.” Indeed, shortly thereafter, Bion took Anna back to Europe, where she died privately in Monaco in 1937. When Bion came back to the States, he spent the next 20 years at 1A, four floors beneath the daughter to whom he was closest. When his future famous granddaughter started Smith College in 1937, she still listed her mother’s apartment, 5C, as home.
4. Century Sampling
Twelve years ago, when Tim Toman first moved in, he was the youngest resident of the Park Lane. Other than his next-door neighbor, Jeff Martin, a Jacksonville University professor of geography and climatology, the rest of his neighbors seemed to have been born with the building. Jeff envies Tim the best views, three sides of his home, but Tim envies Jeff his balcony.
Jeff says there’s no better place in the city for a person who studies the weather. Three nearly completed puzzles occupy spaces on Jeff’s hardwood floors and gloriously colored weather maps decorate the walls. Ironically, the climatologist was away on a months-long motorcycle trip when Hurricane Irma lashed the building.
Back in 2007, Tim recalls, the Park Lane was still known in certain city circles for hosting two of the most lavish and exclusive parties of the year—one for Christmas, one for the Kentucky Derby. All living former mayors felt bound to attend. Long black cars deposited attendees, returned for them later. Both galas, everyone knew, were Flo’s.
Flora Hyman, who lived in 1B, across from where once resided Bion Barnett, had called the Park Lane home “forever.” She turned a blind eye on the doings of those with status, kept her other eye peeled for all other comings and goings. Legend, also known as “Flo,” said she’d “singlehandedly” stopped Mayor Jake Godbold’s construction of the downtown Riverwalk from rounding Memorial Park and ending at her front door. She never did trust the Democrats.
On the Fourth of July, 1997, the writer Mary Freels Rosborough died at age 101. For four decades, she’d lived in Apartment 9C. Half a century before, her stories appeared in Collier’s Weekly, McCall’s and The Saturday Evening Post. She wrote about the Everglades and the Florida logging industry in her 1954 and ’55 novels Don’t You Cry for Me and A Clear Place in the Sky. When Mary was a little girl, so her granddaughter Duncan Sawyer told me over lunch, several years back, an elementary school teacher asked her class to conduct and write interviews with the adults they’d one day become. So Mary interviewed her future self as writer.
Then there was Ivey Wisenbaker Prescott, who lived in 12A, open terraces to either side, of whom, when he appeared in social registers, it was said he was “wealthy from timber.” When “Ivey and Brownie,” meaning Prescott’s friend and fellow horse racing enthusiast, Brownie McClean, “jetted in” for the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Springs, society pages caught them at Canfield Casino. If not with QE2, yet with the Aga Kahn. In 1985, when “The Grand Party” was the gala theme, Brownie purred, “Everybody wants Woody; he’s divine,” and Ivey and Brownie took a private jet to Newport to see Mary and Foxy. So skipped the times about always, tripping the light fantastic. Prescott died at age 92, always upright, always accompanied by a different beautiful woman, 50 or 70 years younger, in 2010.
Evelyn Nehl had called the penthouse suite home. Her patronage of the arts in this city spread nearly half a century. She’d won Best Actress for Theatre Jacksonville, 1970 to ’71, for her performance in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter. After her son, also an actor, John Steven Hughes, died of complications from AIDS in 1989, she organized the effort to bring the AIDS Memorial Quilt of the NAMES Project, often called the world’s largest artwork, to Jacksonville. Nehl died at age 79 in 2011.
When Flo died in 2015, the Park Lane’s two exclusive annual parties, for the past few years but shadows of their former success, died too. Her obit called her “active in the Republican Party” and asked that donations be made to Riverside Baptist Church.
Meanwhile, the Park Lane makes other connections to the city’s writers. Sonja Mongar, whose novel Two Spoons of Bitter won Florida’s Royal Palm Literary Award in 2018, tells me, “I had a lover who was an artist who lived there on the sixth floor. The building smelled of old wood. We had tea on the balcony in the mornings and drank beer in the evenings. The view of the river and sky was always spectacular.”
Sohrab Fracis, who lives in a second-floor condo closer in to Five Points, says, “I grew up partly, on family vacations, in my father’s family home on Park Lane.” For a moment, I’m thrown. I know the basic outlines of Sohrab’s story and have read, written about and assigned his masterful 2016 novel Go Home and his Iowa Short Fiction Award winning collection, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America. Then Sohrab follows up an ellipsis: “in Secunderabad, India. So,” he says, “when I walk past the tower to or from the river now, I always feel like, in a way, I’ve come full circle. Or more like the diameter of our globe, from one Park Lane to another.”
Tim Toman greets me in the original lobby, fronting the river, now closed off except for occasional association meetings, and we step beneath the old coffered ceilings and enter the ancient elevator, crossing an infinity of former crossings, old comings and goings, a city within itself, like every such station every inch of the ghosting city. We hit the buttons, rise, head up through the stories, every day of our lives, only ever barely conscious of the histories drenching us, through which we walk and soak our psyches and our souls.