by Tim Gilmore, 2/7/2020
1. Heart as Big as the House
Walter Brazil (born “Brazile,” dropped the “e”) had a heart as big as the house. He’d grown up in the Great Depression and founded B & B Exterminating Co. in his rundown boarding house with that generation’s singular frugality and determination. He nurtured the business and he nurtured other people.
In 1962, when his sister Evelyn’s marriage ended in a vicious divorce, he made a home for her and her two children in the dilapidated old mansion. When her ex-husband showed up and demanded to take their older child with him, Walt kicked him off the front porch. Then Walt adopted two other children.
Then there was the old man in the attic. Really it was the third floor, but it was vacant other than one small room where the old man lived with no air-conditioning. Until the late 1990s, room numbers still hung on the doors and for 28 years, Old Rufus had lived in no. 3. As a little girl, Jessica Miner-Killian, now third generation president of B & B, was afraid of him. He was old and strange and lived at the top of the house in the heat and shadows and pigeons. She remembers being five years old and how, whenever she saw Rufus, she’d run the other direction.
Now that ramshackle boarding house and headquarters for B & B operates, fully restored, as a bed-and-breakfast. Jessica still associates the old house with her Great Uncle Walt. It meant shelter and solace for her whole family. It’s known as much life as a city.
2. Part of Every Nook and Cranny
Mary Mychael Waln sits across from me in the front parlor, talking about how her daughter Penelope, six years old, has roamed and internalized the 7,500 square foot cedar shingled house. “She’s growing up here, a part of every nook and cranny.” The Walns live across the street in the Napier Apartments, designed in 1924 by architect Henry John Klutho, and operate the bed-and-breakfast called Riverdale Inn in this 115 year old mansion.
It’s one of two houses left from what Jacksonville once called “The Row,” a line of about 50 mansions, the homes of the city’s wealthiest residents, fronting Riverside Avenue from Memorial Park to McCoys Creek at the turn of the 20th century.
The house was “dilapidated,” Mary Mychael says, when her parents-in-law bought it in 2002. “You could see the sky through the roof on the third floor.”
As she walks me through the inn, she points out her favorite aspects. The headboard of the bed in the St. Johns Room is made from one of the house’s original doors, as is the bar downstairs where women hang their purses on doorknobs beside the bar stools. The room called Margaret’s Window was converted from an original back sleeping porch.
One of the best things about running an inn, she says, is talking to people she’d never meet otherwise. Like the old man from the Isle of Wight who spoke of life back home in a stone cottage. Like the couple who booked the inn for their Indian American wedding, Indian ceremony on Friday night and American on Saturday. Mary Mychael’s husband Eric, a chef, said they could use the full-service kitchen if he could watch over their shoulders. Penelope came and wandered the kitchen to say hi. There were henna tattoos and turmeric face masks and an outside dance party.
Coming up the staircase where it doglegs to the third floor and the Oak Room, Mary Mychael says, as though casually mentioning another curiosity, “Oh, you know who’s staying here right now? Malcolm Gladwell. You know, the writer?”
I certainly do. I’ve assigned parts of Gladwell’s Tipping Point and Outliers to my community college students and devoured his podcast Revisionist History. He’d booked one night, stayed away all day, came back late, didn’t come down to breakfast, then asked if he might book a second night. “I guess he’s researching something,” she says.
3. Remnant of the Row
The Row didn’t stand long. Most of its houses lasted but decades.
Houses like that of Mayor J.E.T. Bowden, who won office by promising to keep alcohol and prostitution legal after having fought it as mayor of LaVilla, a black town risen from a slave plantation and now part of downtown.
Like the towering house of Jonathan Greeley, mayor in 1873 and ’74. Benvenuto rose six stories in Victorian cobwebs of scroll-sawn “gingerbread” ornamentation. When he was 13 years old, Greeley’s son Mellen, one of the city’s future great architects, lay afraid at night in his third floor bedroom, listening to water that gurgled and moaned above his ceiling where a cistern collected rainwater at the bottom of the three story tower.
What’s now the Riverdale Inn, a rambling cedar shingled Queen Anne style house at 1521 Riverside Avenue, was built in 1905 for William Kelly, vice president of an export company for “naval stores,” the industry name for products made from tree resin, ranging from turpentine to shoe polish and later linoleum.
City directories show Kelly lived here until his death in 1941. His obituary, however, said he died “in his residence on Algonquin Avenue in Ortega,” Jacksonville’s prime historic “old money” neighborhood. The 70 words of the second paragraph name his seven company presidencies and vice presidencies, ending with his leadership of Consolidated Naval Stores.
His obit bounced his early years from Georgia to Florida and back, until 1905, when he had this house built. In 1908, Kelly became vice president of Consolidated, then president from 1913 until his death. Civic leaders and the press sometimes referred to Kelly and other “turpentine magnates” as “the Gum Bunch.”
It got nasty at times. Newspapers depicted turpentine monopolies. According to The Miami News on April 6, 1914, the Jacksonville journalist and U.S. Representative Claude L’Engle, who died at age 51 in 1919, “enjoy[ed] the confidence and affection of a vast majority of the citizens of Florida due in large measure to the kind of people who have laughed at him. The ‘gum bunch’ in Jacksonville laughed before he exposed them and destroyed their power to rob the people of the state.”
In the late 1940s and early ’50s, city directories listed the Kelly House as “Guest Home and Dining Room,” and the Quakers William and Irma O’Neall ran it as their boarding house for a decade.
In 1999, Albert Ellis O’Neall dictated his reminiscences to his grandson, telling him he came to Jacksonville in 1941 and stayed “with [his] folks, at their boarding house on Riverside Avenue.” O’Neall died in 2011, 102 years old, the oldest known graduate of the University of Florida, “of complications from a broken hip.”
Seven decades prior, O’Neall negotiated with another boarder, Orren McJunkins of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and took a job designing airfields throughout Florida and Georgia. In the next couple years, though he grew up pacifist as a Quaker, O’Neall led construction of a bombing range, an airfield and “satellite bombing facilities.” When he found out his wife Margaret was pregnant, the Corps allowed him to move his family back from Orlando to his parents’ boarding house.
On Thursday morning, August 19, 1943, Margaret’s water broke and Albert rushed her to Riverside Hospital, where my maternal grandmother died and where Publix Grocery stands now. Then he “went back home and had breakfast and took a little nap.” Shortly after he woke and strolled back to the hospital, Margaret gave birth to their daughter Marjie, Marjorie Ann, whose son Arden Herrin, at the end of the 20th century, transcribed his grandfather’s “autobiography.”
4. Levels of Snoop
“To me, the house was never that big,” says Bret Burmeister, the son of Cyndy Brazil, one of two children Walter Brazil adopted. “You were always confined to small pockets of the house where there was a window-unit air conditioner,” he says. “Or in the winter, to the parts of the house the furnace in the basement could heat.” Most of that vast house, most all the time, broiled in the fevers of Florida’s heat and humidity.
Bret speaks of his grandfather with reverence, of how he rose from the Depression, purchased the declining old boarding house and financed his new business enterprise by continuing to rent rooms.
Walt and Elizabeth Brazil lived in the rambling house and ran B & B Exterminating Co. from the southwest corner, the office opening from Lancaster Street at the side. Jessica Miner-Killian describes the worn downstairs where the family spent much of their time as “oldschool creepy formal, with big elaborate mirrors.”
Bret recalls the kitchen, now the Riverdale Inn’s formal dining room, as having one long generous family table where he did his homework and his grandmother Elizabeth taught him to make dumplings. It was one of the few air-conditioned rooms in the house. When his grandparents installed their first microwave here, he says, “The thing was the size of a Buick.”
Jessica remembers the gothic allure of the old declining mansion, the childhood frisson of exploring its peeling labyrinthine spaces. She laughs and says, “Your level of snoop depended on how much sunlight was left.” Her cousin Bret’s tone never wavers from reverential, but Jessica sounds ever mischievous.
“Plus,” she says, “we were always afraid Rufus was gonna get us!”
5. Urgent Deals Downtown
“He’d give you the impression that he had a real estate business,” Charlie Towers told me, 2015, two months before he died at the end of April. I was doing research for my book The Mad Atlas of Virginia King. Charlie, 91 years old, still visited his office daily, 66 years after he’d joined the prestigious family law firm Rogers Towers.
“Rufus,” he said, “Virginia’s brother, he was an unusual character.” Driving downtown to his office, Charlie would see Rufus waiting at the bus stop near Memorial Park. He’d stop and give him a ride. On the days he didn’t, he felt guilty about it.
“He’d let you know,” Charlie said, “he was taking the bus downtown to go to work. It was early in the morning. But he was never really going in to work, and there was never any office, at least not by the time I was giving him a ride.”
Rufus would ask Charlie to drop him off at various street corners downtown, rarely the same location. “Then,” Charlie said, “he’d wander into a bank or some other place where he could get some free coffee.”
Charlie remembered Virginia too. She was always selling a magazine subscription and wanting to take a picture and asking you about some old house. He didn’t know she was writing a book, certainly not that her book, Interesting Facts about Leading People and Families of Duval County: Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings, would balloon from about 100 pages to more than 8,000.
He forgot how he came to know that Rufus was Virginia’s brother, especially since Rufus denied it. “He’d say he had never even heard of her, his own sister.”
“I never did know Rufus King to do any work,” Charlie said, “but he would usually let on that he had real estate clients and urgent deals to attend to when I drove him downtown in the morning.” Though Rufus always spoke to Charlie, Charlie couldn’t remember the subjects of their conversations. He simply never understood what Rufus was talking about.
6. Fire at the Palms / Business Invisible
As late as 1983, Walter Brazil owned the three story boarding house called the Palms Hotel downtown at 129 North Market Street, where in late March of that year a disgruntled former boarder named Larry James Bana set the fire that killed six people and injured three. His seventh victim died days later.
“That was the beginning of the end for my grandmother’s health,” Bret Burmeister says. “My grandfather took care of people and the fact that people died in his building haunted him for the rest of his life.”
In fact, Bret says, it’s the fact of Walt’s heart being big as this old mansion that brought Rufus King to be part of the family.
Charlie Towers was certain Rufus lived in “the boarding house that’s now the Riverdale Inn,” though the last listing in Jacksonville city directories for Rufus King, Jr. was 1951.
Bret describes Rufus as “soft spoken but not shy. He had the mental capacity of a young child, but he wasn’t dumb. He was a routine kind of person. If you got him off his routine, that confused him.”
Indeed, Rufus came down from his attic room and left the house in his three-piece suit at eight o’clock every morning. His 1951 listing in the city directory places his real estate office downtown in the Slappey Building, built in 1923, at 317 West Forsyth Street. Whatever he did there for a time, he roamed across the city in his suit for 40 years conducting business invisible to everyone else.
Walter and Elizabeth Brazil “worked diligently,” Bret says, “to get Rufus on Social Security. At first, when the check came straight to Rufus, he’d spend it the same day and not know what he’d done with it.” So Walt started to cash the check and give Rufus $20 a day.
Bret speaks almost as respectfully of Rufus as he does of Old Walt. “He had the fortitude to say he wouldn’t work for nothing. So he helped out. He’d bring in the groceries for my grandmother. He’d mow the grass. And he understood his doing these things to be his job for which he earned his $20 a day.” Never mind that the money was already his? “He’d mow the grass in his three-piece suit in the middle of August.”
7. In the Attic, In the Bedroom
Sometime near their father’s death in 1943, Virginia King and Rufus Jr. stopped speaking to each other, though both of them were “characters” seen wandering Riverside daily. She told people her brother was dead. He said he had no sister.
The Brazils, who’d adopted Rufus as a “fixture in the family,” didn’t know about Virginia, whose strange and unreadable book grew through each edition to its last iteration of 8,448 single-spaced handwritten pages.
When Bret’s grandmother died in the late 1980s, he moved into the house to be close to his grandfather. Every Christmas in Bret’s and Jessica’s childhoods, the house filled with more than a hundred guests “that ranged,” Bret says, “from mayors to people who mowed lawns for a living. I miss that,” he says.
Since, as a little boy, he always thought of his grandmother’s house as solace and refuge, his mother began to call it “the Sugar Castle.” The house was the family citadel. Whenever anybody in the family faced adversity, they came home to the old dilapidated mansion. Bret lived here off and on from age 19 to 28 or 29.
Walt asked Rufus to come down to the second floor, to an air-conditioned room where he could build him an en suite bathroom, but Rufus declined. He stayed in his tiny space, 10 feet square, with its twin bed and small chest of drawers, walking every day to fast food restaurants Krystal’s and Wendy’s, around the corner in Five Points, adding continually to his collection of sugar packets and napkins.
The Brazils discovered Rufus had a sister after he became sick in 1990 or ’91. They took him to St. Vincent’s Hospital just down Riverside Avenue. Doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer and found him a “convalescent home” at San Juan Avenue and Hyde Park Road on the Westside, where he died a few months later.
After Rufus was cremated, officials handed Bret his ashes to deliver to the old man’s next-of-kin. That’s how Bret found out Rufus had a sister he’d never mentioned, living just down the street in a rundown Riverside apartment. He brought the box of Rufus’s cremains to Virginia, but she wasn’t there. She too had grown sick and a “representative” accepted what remained of Rufus.
Now Walt was sick and lonely in the big house and Bret lived on the second floor by himself to keep him company and listen to his stories.
Walt’s bedroom had always been downstairs, within a few steps of the company office. It’s Jessica who tells me, “The space that’s now the bar in the bed-and-breakfast, that was Walt’s bedroom.”
“He would’ve liked that his bedroom became the bar,” Jessica says. Walt observed cocktail hour religiously every afternoon at five. “He loved to have friends come over and he always liked to entertain.”
For almost half a century, Walt kept his bedroom between the family kitchen and the company office. When Walter Brazil died in 1997, 80 years old, B & B Exterminating, in order both to honor their patriarch and let him depart, moved its office and sold the house.
In 2002, the last residential address of “The Row” became the Riverdale Inn, comprising 10 luxury suites all named after streets in Riverside. It’s coincidence a room named for Margaret Street echoes Margaret’s water breaking at the O’Neall’s boarding house. History works in those non-configurable odds of odd patterns.
It’s incumbent upon me to mention “The Gilmore” is ground floor, the smaller of two rooms in the carriage house. It’s the last room named. Eric and Mary Mychael Waln named it for the house where they lived on Gilmore Street. It’s the humblest quarter here, appropriate, if I may wax (or wane) personal, since my great-grandfather Tom Gilmore, who echoes in ways I’m still trying to map and chronicle as Tim Gilmore, was a Central Georgia sharecropper. Promotional material says, “The Gilmore is an intimate space meant for sharing.” Indeed. So were those crops, the cotton and corn and beans.
If you believed in ghosts, you’d have to honor this house with those of Walt and Rufus. It’s earned them. It’s seen life from every angle. Like a story. Like a city. Hearth and headquarters, incubator of exterminators, “sugar castle” and boarding house, this penultimate remnant of the Row, having lived so fully, it tells The Whole Story.