by Tim Gilmore, 1/21/2022
1. The House is a Living Thing
You could say Oak Street goes through Brooklyn and Riverside. You could say this old house, in its earliest years, went from 1047 Oak Street to 846. But it’s those who use the streets who go, not the streets themselves, and it was the address that changed, not the location of the house. Streets and houses stay still; usually. The Queen Anne-style Ricker House in Riverside’s Five Points, however, with its third-story corner tower and its scroll-sawn gingerbread draped across its gables and front porch, has moved more than once. In fact, it’s gone full-circle.
“Cherished old homes,” Peg Kenyon wrote in August 1974, “are really very much like living things.” It’s no surprise that one of the first newsletters published by then-nascent Riverside Avondale Preservation features the Ernest and Catherine Ricker House, but Kenyon starts her article by talking about moving houseplants.
“A friend of mine,” she writes, “likes growing plants for her home and she has found that they must be carefully and slowly moved from their original places of rooting to the indoors – or wherever it may be she wants to place them. One must move them step by step, each day bringing them closer to their new home so that the transition isn’t so abrupt that they wither and die.”
Her analogy alludes to this elegant wooden house having moved from 846 Oak Street to 717 Post. A quarter century later, the house would move a second time, to within 100 feet of its original position. Peg Kenyon was right that a house has a life of its own. Before my father died at age 95, he’d say he felt like he’d lived several lives. Likewise, the Ricker House.
Writing about old houses is a strange form of biography. Because a house, like a human being, but also like a city, is a “living thing,” in that it grows and evolves and, with a little anthropomorphic projection, accumulates experience through time, the story of a house is the story of all the life that’s been lived inside it. And because it’s the story of all that life, it’s the story of how people inhabited it, what they did with their lives there, how they projected themselves onto and into their home, how they defined themselves and found purpose.
2. Branchings of Branchings
Kenyon noted that Ernest “Ricker was a manufacturer of grocery specialties with a shop on Bay Street selling coffee, vanilla and other spices.” Indeed early 20th century city directories list the Ricker-Dobbin Company, partners E.A. Ricker and J.F. Dobbin, wholesale grocers, at 624 West Bay. Ricker had first arrived in New York, 18 years old, from Hamburg, Germany on December 10, 1879, his occupation listed as “zimmerer,” or carpenter.
In the 1890s, directories show E.A. Ricker running a “saloon” at 542 West Bay, corner of Bridge [now Broad] Street, LaVilla, selling “wine, liquor and cigars,” his “specialty made of the gallon trade.” Ricker’s establishment fit neatly into a line of saloons, taverns, pool halls and flop hotels radiating out from the city’s central passenger rail terminal. Bartender August Beyes took rooms above Ricker’s saloon. So did barkeep Frederick Puckhaber. Between the saloon days and Ricker’s grocery, he became part owner of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company at 624.
Ernest and Catherine build their fanciful house near the end of the streetcar line in wooded and sparsely populated streets with a view of the river from the tower. Maps showed an open square marked “Reserved for Park” where Riverside Park would soon be. The house stood at the corner of Barnaby and Fisk Streets, Barnaby became Oak, their address 1047, which changed to 846 before Fisk became Riverside Park Lane.
The Rickers brought eight children into the house, Ricker’s mother sold citrus from her grove in Ocala, and Catherine’s father Frank Marquis, listed in various census records as French and Polish, though the nation he’d fought for was the Confederate States of America, moved in and spent his last years here. Lula Jenkins, the family’s black servant, left her own home to cook for the Rickers every day.
In 1909, Ernest was elected to City Council and later to the Duval County Board of Commissioners. In 1914, he served as “grand president” of the George-Florida division of the Sons of Hermann, a mutual aid society for German immigrants.
His son Harold Emanuel turned 21 that year, on the eve of World War I. The house filled with Harold’s friends, surprising him, but hadn’t he expected it?, to celebrate his birthday on Tuesday, March 3rd. The Jacksonville Metropolis called him “a very popular young man,” and in the journalistic style of the time, had him “don the toga virilis,” the metaphoric “toga of manhood.” He’d been working at Atlantic National Bank for the past three years and 16 of his co-workers came down to the towered house to serve up “tempting refreshments,” sing songs and present him “a pair of silver military brushes.”
Four years later, on April 27th, Harold was inducted into military service, five months before his 30 year old sister Marion died and six months before Armistice. By 1920, he was living at home with his parents again, 26 years old, now a salesman for his father’s company, the momentum and trajectory of his life irreparably altered. Ann, 25 years old, stenographer for the family business, still lived at home, as did 22 year old Vera, 19 year old Erma and 12 year old Elise.
By 1940, 47 year old Harold, still an unmarried salesman, still lived at home with his parents, now in their 70s. Elise had married and moved to Atlanta, Erma to North Carolina. When Harold died on July 24, 1944, Ernest and Catherine were in their 80s.
When Vera and her husband, Conrad Mangels, survived the sinking of the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria in 1956, Conrad’s $3,000 brand new station wagon went down with the ship. Newspapers described how the luxury liner, having collided with the Stockholm of the Swedish American line, “rolled like a stricken giant before sinking into the Atlantic 50 miles off Nantucket.” The Mangelses were among 1,660 passengers rescued; 46 people died.
Vera’s older brother, Earnest Marquis, and his wife Liller Belle had boarded with Conrad’s parents, themselves German immigrants, on East Fourth Street in Springfield half a century before, Liller the younger sibling of the Mangelses’ servants. Vera and Conrad lived in a small house in the woods along Lake Shore Boulevard and ran Mangels Package House, first downtown at 300 West Adams Street and then closer to home at 4403 Roosevelt Boulevard.
3. You Can’t Go Home Again
Beneath the playhouse of the tower room, with its child-size stairway and diamond-shaped windows, Catherine spent her 100th Christmas here where she died in 1967.
Cathy Bowyer Fine ran Bowyer’s Restaurant in the house from 1993 to ’96, when she told customers that Catherine Ricker died “in the formal living room.” Fine said Ricker “wanted to live to be 100 and she did. She turned 100 on December 1st and she died on December 25th.” The owners of the Creole Queen, the restaurant that preceded Bowyer’s, had told Fine about Catherine’s ghost, whom Fine said she could feel behind her all the time.
Fine showed up to watch the house move from 717 Post Street back to Oak Street in 1999 and told The Florida Times-Union’s Sandy Strickland, “I didn’t give it a lot of thought until we had our experience with her.” Before she and her family opened Bowyer’s, Fine claimed, they were in the dining room when they heard “a sound like thunder,” though the sky was clear. “It was Catherine,” she said. “She was a little annoyed. So I talked to her and told her we would be taking care of her house and would be her friend.”
Cathy Fine said she always had a Christmas tree up by Catherine’s birthday. When the Ricker children were young, however, the first time they’d see the tree, placed in the front bay window, was when the sliding doors to the parlor opened on Christmas morning. “They had lined up on the stairs, waiting to be called,” wrote Jane White, who’d spoken with the Rickers about their childhood memories, for the September 1993 Riverside Avondale Preservation newsletter. “Their father had gone down very early to light the candles on the tree.”
When Catherine died, Riverside Presbyterian Church bought the house, and preservationist Helen Lane, wife of Edward Lane, Jr., president and son of the founder of Atlantic National Bank, struck a deal with the church to avoid the house’s demolition. The Associated Press wirephoto made newspapers around the country. Arms akimbo, a lone police officer stood beside his parked motorcycle, while kids on bicycles waited in the road before him. Together they watched the six-bedroom house balance, awkwardly elevated behind a truck, and move two blocks to 717 Post Street where it would become “a boutique for Now Generation fashions.”
Since Helen Lane was in Paris, her mother oversaw the move, sending her a telegram that said, “I do hope I got it in the right place, dear.” Retail space in the Ricker house rented out immediately: a Pappagallo clothing store, a beauty salon, a tea shop, an antique store and studio space for the artist Christine Schmidt in the tower.
Helen Lane, now 97 years old, still drives a yellow Volkswagen Bug. The furniture and curtains in her Ortega house are yellow. Now the Ricker House donned a yellow coat and Lane dubbed it “the Queen Victoria,” saving it from the fate of its longtime neighbors. In 1975, Riverside Presbyterian Church bought and demolished the house’s original neighbors, like 817 Oak Street, which housed Riverside Antiques.
The December 1975 issue of The Old-House Journal featured an article called “Saving Two Southern Victorian Fancies,” which featured two of Helen Lane’s several Victorian restorations, her “Queen Victoria” and “Princess Royal,” the 1901 Willis Gerow House at 632 May Street, which Lane saved in 1972. “Nothing is more satisfying,” she told the Journal, “than to take something which was once beautiful and which is now a pitiful, sad, abandoned eyesore and restore it to its original state of usefulness and beauty.” She said she had loved the Ricker House all her life and had watched it decline for years.
In November 1985, New Orleans natives Randy and Nancy Brehm opened the Creole Queen in the Ricker House and served jambalaya, seafood gumbo and, “when available,” boiled crawfish. Firefighters extinguished a blaze that climbed an exterior wall to the attic two years later. In the ’90s, Cathy Fine cast different rooms of Bowyer’s Restaurant in their own themes, including a sports room, a sewing room and a military room, hanging the latter with posters, photographs, uniforms and other “military paraphernalia.” Wanderlust Travel kept offices in the house, advertising airline tickets, cruises and air charter travel. When the house moved again in early September 1999, the owners of A Tasteful Café decided to close up shop, rather than relocate.
The second move brought the Ricker House back almost to its starting point, less than 100 feet from its original home. When the Ricker House, or the “Queen Victoria,” moved back to Oak Street in 1999, Riverside Presbyterian Day School moved in, relocating its administrative offices.
The house, though no longer a residence, had made its way back home. Place means more than occupied space. Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again proves it. Home is more than a house and a place is also a time. You can sense the Ricker family in this space, but you can’t find your way into their nights and days. What results is the psychological sense of haunting.
4. Sun Faces, Liminal Spaces
“Sometimes in the evenings, when I’m working late by myself, I’ll hear something in the house,” says business office manager Lu Stuart, who’s been with Riverside Presbyterian Day School for 35 years. “I’ll hear something that sounds like a book dropping downstairs. I’ve even gone to the top of the stairs to say, ‘Hello? Is anybody here?’” She remembers watching the house’s last move, dearly hoping it wouldn’t tip and fall on its side on the school playground.
The school has just renovated the Lane House, as they now call it in honor of the preservationist who saved it. Head of School Ben Ketchum talks about how the house “anchors” the private school and “reflects [its] values” of “honoring tradition while moving forward.” Ketchum describes how the renovation came about, how the whole southfacing wall was full of mold, the mold led to finding moisture from a leaking roof, which led to the discovery of termites.
Ketchum’s office is the former master bedroom on the second floor. Fond of the house’s decorative elements, he points out how the rosettes in the top corners of window casements all differ. Walking from room to room, you count dragons, floral wheels and mischievously faced suns. The suns looking across the interior to the east keep their eyes open, while those facing west close their eyes. The surround of each tiled fireplace has its own color and pattern, the overmantels decorated with mirrors, sawn spindles, suns and floral motifs. A cipher in the top panel of the front door shows Ernest Adolph Ricker’s initials.
Some of the most striking original details, however, are gone. When earlier renovations dropped the ceilings, they covered the frescos of angels in the parlor, apple blossoms in the living room and still-lives of fruit in the dining room.
Heading gingerly up the tiny steps to the tower room, my shoulders all but touch the walls on either side. The diamond shaped window panes at the landing originally held rose-colored handblown glass. In the tower room at the top, floor-to-ceiling windows look out to each cardinal point. The impracticality of the space matches the view, but Peg Kenyon, in her 1974 RAP newsletter story, imagines the tower the perfect playhouse for the Ricker children.
Below the tower, elementary school kids run across the playground, screaming with laughter. For six and seven year-olds at Riverside Presbyterian Day School, the house is either something from a fairy tale or the place you go when you’re in trouble.
When Ernest and Catherine built the house, they’d already had Earnest, Marion and Catherine, Harold was born the year they moved in, and Ann, Vera, Erma and Elise followed. Perhaps for the Ricker children, the tower, with its child-size liminal space, its tiny landing windows and steps squeezing ascendant to a womb in the treetops, functioned as playhouse over the bedrooms, a separate sphere that became whatever world they chose to imagine.