Ponsler Metal Design / Original Police Substation

by Tim Gilmore, 7/21/2023

1. Hammer of the Heart

The blacksmith holds the red hot steel in flame that soars to 2,000 degrees. The steel “sweats”; its surface liquifies. Metal yields and bends and curves. No wonder there’s so much folklore about blacksmiths!

I don’t know what to call them, these strange objects both elegantly mobile and vulcan. The one that stands eight feet tall outside the baggage claim at the airport David calls Overlord.

I count a dozen of them throughout this old police substation and jailhouse that’s now David Ponsler’s studio, workshop, and home. Each stands like the axis of the earth wrapped in ecliptics, or the upright electron orbit in that hexagonal model of an atom.

In the late ’80s, David leaned to the fire to assist Scott Michael Lankton, the blacksmith charged with reconstructing an ancient sword resurrected from the Anglo-Saxon ship burial of Sutton Hoo on the Suffolk Coast northeast of London, during which Lankton cried out to Hephaestus – ancient Greek god of blacksmiths, metalworkers, carpenters, sculptors, metallurgy, fire and volcanos – and the ring of watchers rose their voices as the canvas the men wore caught fire.

Hephaestus at the Forge by Guillaume Coustou the Younger, 1742, the Louvre

Walking amidst massive metal implements where six jail cells stood a century ago, passing anvil and vise, hammers and forge – I recall Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1840 story, “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving” – “The fire threw its strongest light on his massive and sturdy frame, reddening his rough visage so it looked like the head of an iron statue, all aglow, from his own forge, and with its features rudely fashioned on his own anvil.”

“Lore!” David says. “There’s so much blacksmith lore. Because, you know, we control earth, wind, fire and steel.” When he loses himself in his topic, he plants his feet in a stance strangely both gentle and pugilistic. He speaks in an older Jacksonville drawl, the ends of words elongated in coasted release, and shapes his stories with the same fluid strength that infuses his most personal art.

I feel honored to meet the nine foot tall, 6,500 pound Chambersburg power hammer. “This is the baby right here,” David says. “This one’s rather rare. The design of it is no different than during the Industrial Revolution.” He’s been using this mighty machine for 20 years.

“It was built as a steam hammer,” he says, “although it left the factory ready to be run with compressed air.” It was built during World War II, but the war was over before the hammer saw service. “I was told it had one hour on it. It was virginal.”

He could have bought a new power hammer for a hundred grand, but got this one for $10,000. Not only was it a great deal, though it had to ship from Oregon, but David loves old things. He shows me a wrench he says was forged together somewhere in Colonial America from various steel pieces. Steel was rare before the Bessemer Process of mass-production in the 1850s, and sometimes more expensive than gold. You salvaged all you could.

Pointing into the heart of the beast, the innards of the Chambersburg, he says, “It’s a 300 pound hammer, which means this die, that ram and the piston together weight 300 pounds.” The hammer strikes 120 blows a minute. In the presence of this beautiful metal monster, you don’t have to call up Hephaestus: he’s here.

2. Salvation / Fatal Interrogation

Who was that little girl picked up tottering alongside the highway who waited for someone to identify her all those years ago at the old police substation? Who did police beat to death here, subject of that “fatal interrogation”?

It’s the only remaining substation from the days of Jax P.D. When the city and county consolidated governments in 1968, the Duval County Sheriff’s Office and the Jacksonville Police Department merged into a rare hybrid city sheriff’s office. The City had built another substation, now long demolished, for its segregated Black force at West Fourth Street and Jefferson in 1953.

1987 photograph, image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Marsh and Saxelbye, the city’s most prolific architectural firm of its era, designed the substation that’s now David Ponsler’s home and workshop in 1927. Its style echoed their design for the Jacksonville Police Headquarters downtown at 711 Liberty Street the year before.

Old Jacksonville Police Headquarters Building, image courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Marsh and Saxelbye designed some of the city’s most extravagant hotels and residences in the typical Mediterranean Revival style of the 1920s Florida Real Estate Boom, including the San Jose Hotel and Epping Forest. The police substation, however, echoes the headquarters building in Second Renaissance Revival, with an emphasis on rustication, a kind of masonic sculpting in massive stone, blocks beveled theatrically to highlight the joints between them. Here, rusticated stone frames the arched entry and central second story window, as brick patterned in herringbone fills arches over windows on the ground floor.

1987 photograph, image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

When David bought the building in 2002, the decorative wrought iron fanlight had been boarded up in the front entry arch for decades. The City had replaced the fanlight in the Old Police Headquarters Building downtown with jalousie windows and lovers of the city’s architecture wondered if the original iron still existed on the substation. David shows me the fanlight laid out for retouching and painting in his workshop. He’s one man and the work here is never done.

In 1998, Dick Miller, retired detective sergeant and former city councilman, recalled being assigned here from 1950 until the station closed three years later. Though the building had no air-conditioning, Miller said, officers wore hats, ties and starched long-sleeve shirts.

Upstairs near locker rooms and a pool table, sergeants inspected officers’ dress in the drill hall before they went out to the street. Downstairs stood the sergeant’s desk, admittance room and, in back, six holding cells. “The paddy wagon driver would go to the beat cars,” Miller remembered, “search the suspects and take them to the station where they were booked and held until being taken to jail.”

In 1954, a year after the substation closed, the Police Academy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation began holding classes here. John Nelson, a former public safety director, taught criminal law to young officers, including two who became sheriffs, Jim McMillan and Nat Glover, the first Black sheriff elected in Florida since Reconstruction.

1987 photograph, image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

The building also housed the Jacksonville Police Athletic League, dedicated to “enriching the lives of children by creating positive relationships with law enforcement” through sports. PAL leased the space for a dollar a year and built a concrete-block racquetball facility between the substation and the fire department station next door. Here, kids boxed and wrestled and played racquetball and lifted weights.

1987 photograph, image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Blurred black-and-white photos snapped in May 1987 show the substation boarded up and overgrown. Saplings and vines rise up over this small fortress of a building, the earth sending up fingers and shoots to bring it back. Already the whitewashed racquetball structure looks soiled and ancient. Brutal Florida ages the world quickly.

When this blacksmith and sculptor, breaking away from his family’s business, poked around the enjungled old station 15 years later, firefighters from next door came out and asked, intrigued and half-mocking, if he was buying the place. Of course not; he wasn’t crazy. Then, a short while after he’d bought the place, he was clearing out storage the firefighters had packed upstairs when he heard crackling overhead and saw sparks. All these years, the City had never turned off the electricity.

Once as David stood cooking in his kitchen on the ground floor, an older woman knocked at his door. She said she’d wandered away from home, a toddler, 1935 or ’41 or ’47, and bounced along uncertain legs by hundreds of cars flying past fast, Roosevelt Boulevard, Highway 17, when someone slowed down on the sidewalk before her, scooped her up, and brought her to the precinct station until her parents came to find her.

Then comes the mention — did it not happen? or was it not, of course not, entered into record? — of cops beating a suspect to death. “I do recall there was a to-do over a suspect being fatally interrogated there soon after it opened,” veteran newspaperman Bill Foley said in a 1998 email to Joel McEachin, head of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission. Foley, reporter and columnist at The Florida Times-Union for four decades, had written brief colorful T-U retrospectives since 1986.

One of Foley’s tightly worded retros, published April 17, 1996, told of a drunk woman named Bessie who drove her car into a ditch one Friday night in April 1927 at the then-new subdivision of Venetia. “Bessie was booked at the Riverside substation on McDuff Avenue,” Foley wrote, and as officers searched her belongings for “illicit hooch,” this being the height of Prohibition, they found instead “spurious coin.”

The next day federal investigators grilled the distressed and hungover Bessie in her cell on McDuff and she spilled secrets. The counterfeit coins came from a night watchman whose daughter Bessie babysat. When agents searched his Southside home, they found molds and molten silver and finally, buried in his yard, an “entire mini-mint for turning out 50-cent pieces, quarters and nickels.”

3. Craftsmanship and Rebellion

David speaks of clients who look through his portfolio of renderings and photos of previous designs and want the same vision repeated, but says, “They can’t have them, because I won’t do it twice.” He’s turned down projects to repeat what he’s already done or to replicate an original design for which he lacks respect as either a craftsman or an artist, or both.

He designed the archway at the entrance to Stockton Park in Ortega, candlestands at St. Johns Cathedral downtown, the front gates of the grand historical home called Los Cedros and the spiral staircases beside the thousand metal curio boxes and Wall of a Million Pennies at the Goozlepipe and Guttyworks dining space at Kickbacks Gastropub and Belgium Basement around the corner on Riverside’s King Street.

image courtesy Kickbacks Gastropub

He recently completed a project for a client in Naples, Florida that’s taken seven years. In an interview published in the Summer 2023 edition of Anvil’s Ring Magazine, he explained, “There were 14 balcony railings that totaled 145 linear feet and they were all forged and fabricated in bronze. Then I designed fences and gates for a pool area and finally the front entry, which included two entry gates, a pedestrian gate and a matching panel.”

Naples home gate renderings

David first entered his father’s blacksmith shop when he was six years old. His father had started Wonderland Products, a metal fabrication company, in 1950. David was born in ’61. When he was eight years old, David started welding sculptures from scrap steel. When he was 14, he welded railings and staircases for Arlington and Southside apartment buildings, working in the afternoons after school and in the summer. That same year, he lit the fire and hammered hot metal for the first time in his father’s coal forge.

In the mid-’80s, his father made some interior residential railings that brought in a good dollar per foot, while David designed and made a gold leaf balcony for a San Marco client, which caught the eye of a designer across the street who also worked for the Uibles’ house in old-money Ortega, the estate called Los Cedros.

Palm Beach architect Marion Sims Wyeth had spent months in Spain studying the Toledo residence of the Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco in preparation for designing the home of State Health Officer Raymond Turck in 1924. Turck named his estate for the line of cedars along his driveway.

Los Cedros, image courtesy Wayne Wood

Six decades later, Jack Uible, chairman and chief executive officer of Florida National Bank, had contracted architect Clyde Harris to restore a balcony, but was interested in the San Marco balcony a young David Ponsler had designed. David recalls, “Harris was a pretty old man when this happened, and I rose to the challenge. This was beyond my father’s capabilities. I made a full-size drawing. I’m figuring out my interpretation of this quintessentially French railing. And I changed some things from the original because from the beginning I’m like, ‘This is my design.’”

He took his design to Harris, who immediately retracted David’s changes. When Harris was out of town the following week, David says, “I went out and installed my design on site. Clyde came back and said, ‘Well, I see you didn’t do what I asked you to.’ And I said, ‘No sir, I couldn’t. I had to do what I thought was right.’ He said, ‘Well, the client loves it.’”

Then Harris asked David to restore the front gates at Los Cedros. “Clyde had designed those gates some, I don’t know, 40 years earlier. They were in bad shape. And I’m in front of the Uibles’. Clyde said, ‘I want you to restore these gates.’ I said, ‘Clyde, I don’t want to restore these gates.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I questioned the workmanship, the quality of the materials, the design. And the gates were originally his design. So I redesigned the gates.”

Los Cedros, from Anvil’s Ring, Summer 2023

The gates at Los Cedros, made of forged and fabricated steel with copper swags, won the 1987 National Ornamental & Miscellaneous Metals Association’s Mitch Heitler Award, named for NOMMA’s founder. There’s no higher American metalworkers’ honor.

4. Stories at Critical Temperature

You pass any street corner, any angle of night or morning, you’ll miss stories the city has buried under stories. Here, eras of city cut across city at a seven-point intersection sliced through with railroad. The Purple Petunia, eerily nearby concatenated, gravitated a whole city’s worth of history. Then again, so does every angle of city; just dig.

I get lost, delightedly, in the blacksmith sculptor’s steelily punctuated stories and metallurgic explanations. “Steel becomes non-magnetic at about 1500 degrees,” he says. “It’s called the Critical Temperature. If quenched, which means cooled quickly, typically in either oil or water, it becomes hard. So hard it’s brittle. That process is called hardening, whereas tempering actually softens the hardness to make it usable for its intended purpose.”

For instance: “A knife needs to be pretty hard to hold an edge, but needs to keep from breaking easily if flexed. A cold chisel, on the other hand, can stay harder, since it won’t easily flex and break.”

Beside his workshop, David grows rows and rows of vegetables — beans, corn, okra, tomatoes, squash. Blacksmith / sculptor / gardener — it’s a continuum. It’s a primal connection with the earth and David’s rescue of this building from the earth’s reclamation honors it. He knows, this man of the forge and of rows of beans and sunflowers, how all history folds into the earth. Here he makes art in fire.