by Tim Gilmore, 8/28/2021
1. From “Oriental” Mansion to “Apartment Deluxe”
The colonel’s wife decorated an electrolier with “two dozen crimson mums” in “a room already dominated by crimson tones and highlighted by the five Confederate flags the colonel insisted be draped over the fireplace.”
An electrolier distinguished itself from a chandelier by using electric lights instead of candles. These days we elide the difference and call electroliers “chandeliers.”
Jax-based architect Rutledge Holmes designed the grand house, frequently called “exotic” and “oriental,” built in 1905 for Colonel Raymond Cay. A decade later, the Old Confederate, having waged war against the United States before retiring extravagantly in it, was dead.
That’s when Julian Prewitte, prominent landlord and real estate developer, moved into the Cay Mansion and hired architect Roy Benjamin to design the San Juline Apartments beside it, built with “steam heat, gas, and speaking tubes.” Prewitte seems to have named the grand apartment block for himself and to have sanctified himself in the process.
A 1913 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shows Cay’s house facing Riverside Avenue, his carriage house facing May Street behind it, and a thin open triangle on the southern side of Cay’s trapezoidal lot where Riverside Avenue cuts toward the open field where Memorial Park would soon stand.
Architectural historian Wayne Wood, who once lived in the San Juline, points out that when Benjamin designed the apartment block on the Old Confederate’s side yard, apartment buildings occupied a new kind of space in the American psychology of place.
“Apartments weren’t really thought of as a place to settle down in to live,” Wayne says. “Before this time, if you needed temporary housing, you stayed in a boarding house. The idea of home ownership was primary. But after World War I, people started to see apartments as a viable place to live and they started to be designed for new couples and families.”
Indeed Jacksonville’s Florida Metropolis reported in 1916, “The apartment idea in Jacksonville, as all through the South, is a comparatively new one. People have only during the last few years come to the point where they can regard an apartment as a home.”
Benjamin hadn’t yet designed grand theatres across Jacksonville, including the San Marco and Riverside Theaters, the Sarasota Opera House, or the Park Lane Apartments, Florida’s first apartment highrise. Benjamin and builder H.F. McAden would work together on several apartments including the Avondale, the Lauderdale and the Plymouth just north of Downtown in Springfield and the Aberdeen, the Hartmore, the Oakdale and the San Juline in Riverside. Benjamin and Mellen Greeley designed the Fenimore Apartments, named for novelist James Fenimore Cooper, just down Riverside Avenue.
Benjamin’s and McAden’s apartment buildings did more than make apartment living acceptable. They made it desirable, in the words of Daisy Hart Smith, descendant of city founder Isaiah Hart and namesake, via her maiden name, of the Hartmore Apartments, “apartment deluxe.” They also shaped the psychogeographic format of Jacksonville’s earliest suburbs, now the urban historic core.
2. Interior Gardens
Palms and ficus grow singly, dark green, spare and tall, minimalistically, in their appointed spots around Debbie Akins’s apartment on the third floor. In cabinets in the foyer and the kitchen, head planters watch over the corners and shadows. They once were the heads of dolls or mannequins, the tops of their heads trepanned to host houseplants.
The living room walls glow a soft maize, the furniture an off-white, the trim white, as the August afternoon sunlight floods gently through the enclosed porch. Debbie used to prefer darker hues, but these shades better express this chapter of her life.
Over the space between the sofa and the fireplace hovers a lightweight and light-to-the-eye Indonesian chandelier (surely an electrolier!) of hundreds of “windowpane” capiz shells.
Bookmobiles hang from hooks against the yellow brick walls of the porch. I don’t mean the trucks and vans libraries employed in the 1960s and ’80s to serve less populated areas as mobile library branches. These objets d’art are mobiles à la Alexander Calder, made entirely of the pages of old books. Debbie made hundreds of them and sold them at Riverside Arts Market until the arthritis in her hands got in the way.
She smiles nervously about showing artworks made from the destruction of books to a writer with a few thousand books in his personal library, but I love them. Each of these mobiles contain from 300 to 600 pages and took more than 20 hours to make, though she’s made others with more than 1,000 pages.
Debbie moved in in 2017. She’d lived at Jacksonville Beach and in Middleburg and grew up on the Northside. Nancy Purcell moved into her second floor apartment in 2018. She’d lived in Ponte Vedra for 21 years, but was always downtown for the symphony, the Museum of Contemporary Art Jax and the Cummer Art Museum, and she sings with the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus. She decided she wanted Riverside’s walkability and restaurants and to be closer to those cultural amenities.
Hundreds of books line the bookshelves in Nancy’s sun room. A bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda’s All the Odes lies on the glasstop table in front of a wide band of five tall leaded glass windows looking onto the park. This is her writing space. It connects her present to her past, she says. “Books, photos and remembrances of people I love surround me here while I hear people talking below me on the sidewalk or in the park.”
These wide window bands are one of the details that give the San Juline a Prairie School inflection. Every apartment looks toward the river. As the 1916 Florida Metropolis explained, “The plans of the building were drawn so that each of the 14 apartments […] has a southern exposure and a frontage on Riverside Avenue. Another feature is that the narrow lines of the building give each apartment a rear northern exposure, which allows perfect ventilation, and the cooling river breezes can sweep through open windows of the dining room.”
This August afternoon, heat and humidity broiling outside, Debbie gives my daughter Emily a young potted tree. She and Nancy subscribe to Emily’s monthly floral arrangement through her business Floral Anthology. The tree is a dark green Audrey Ficus, elegant and slender, the national tree of India. The ficus moves across Riverside, from the interior garden of one historic three story apartment building to the interior garden of another. One more connection across this intricate web of urban history and geography.
3. High Teas for the Misses
Besides the “crimson mums” in Colonel Cay’s mansion, the 1907 society column detailed the “palms and ferns and chrysanthemums” in the central hall, the “yellow mums in the library” and the “autumn leaves and magnolia wreaths in the little den to the rear where Till’s orchestra played all afternoon,” though it never did mention the colonel’s wife by name.
When the San Juline rose in the Old Confederate’s side yard in 1916, the floral displays moved into the new building. “A profusion of Killarney roses, against a backdrop of greenery, ferns, palms and other tropical plants” converted the apartment of “Mrs. H. Dale Smith” into what The Florida Times-Union called a “veritable floral mower.” Surely it meant “bower.” It was Wednesday, December 20, 1916, and the occasion was a high tea given to compliment Mrs. Smith’s sister, Miss Kate Meggs.
Just as readers weren’t given Colonel Cay’s wife’s name, Kate’s older sister’s name remains occluded. It’s so often a frustrating part of reading history. Mr. Dale Smith stayed Mr. Dale Smith, but a woman changed her title from Miss to Mrs. and took not only her husband’s surname, but in public mentions, his first name too. Her husband’s identity completely eclipsed her own.
At least we know “Miss Kate Meggs,” debutante, was “one of the most attractive of the coterie of charming girls introduced to society this season.” If Kate had much of her own identity, we don’t know, but being “attractive” and “charming” and wealthy, she’d certainly soon attract a husband’s identity to supplant it.
Other “rooms were decorated very simply” on Monday, February 4, 1918, “ferns and other growing plants and yellow jonquils being used to advantage.” It was “Mrs. John S. Arnold, Jr.” who gave the high tea for her sisters, “the Misses Sarah and Ella” Taylor Slemons of Orlando. Mrs. John “entertained at auction,” and Miss Bessie Hill won “a dainty French blue and gold powder jar.”
A century later, Debbie Akins and Nancy Purcell became close friends when they both moved into the San Juline as divorced women, happy and independent, making for themselves their own space, looking out toward Memorial Park, Charles Adrian Pillars’s statue representing “the winged figure of youth,” and the St. Johns River. There was no Memorial Park, only an open field from the San Juline to the river, when older sisters gave teas for debutantes in 1916 and ’18.
4. The Hole in the Center of the Years
“Oh yes,” John Montgomery says, “that’s the donut hole.” He means the San Juline’s middle years about which nobody seems to know much, the 1930s through the ’70s, though John’s knowledge gets us a little closer to the hole in the center from both sides.
He reminisces lovingly about Margaret and Georgia, “the old secret lesbian couple,” who’d lived in the San Juline longer than anyone else prior to John’s 35 year tenure. He sounds slightly frustrated in describing the Great Depression years. “When the Depression hit, tenants started burning anything they could burn in those fireplaces, but they’re too shallow. They were only meant for gas.”
Though the 1929-’30 list known as The Four Hundred, modeled after the Gilded Age New York society list, included four residents of the San Juline Apartments, including Mrs. Jessie Fritot of cigar family fortune, the declines of the Depression led to disrepair that became status quo, John says. “I think for a long while, it was not a jewel. It was just basically maintained.”
In renovating his condo, John uncovered a speaking tube in the wall. Also called voicepipes, speaking tubes consisted of two cones on either end and an airtube in the middle and allowed early residents to talk from one room to the other. He laughs about it. “It only went from the living room to the bedroom, one room away, but it was a luxury item.” His condo still has all its original plaster and lath and he covered the brass tube back up in the wall.
When he bought his condo in the mid 1980s, Wayne Wood had lived here several years prior and Congressman Charles Bennett, then in his 20th or 21st term—he’d been in office since 1949—was his next door neighbor. Bennett became a good friend, but John’s fondest reminiscences may be of Margaret and Georgia, who’d been together for 50 or 60 years and had called the San Juline home since perhaps the late ’60s.
5. Histories in the History
The feminist leader, historian and writer Carita Doggett Corse stayed on in the San Juline in its less glamorous years in the early ’60s. The work of her life was often difficult but joyous and the grand old apartment building suited that condition. And it made sense to work diligently in the settling layers of heavy history since her great-grandfather John Doggett had come here in 1820 and helped found Jacksonville two years later.
Corse began her work with the Federal Writers’ Project in the Great Depression and became Florida director in 1935. After the project shifted funding from federal to state sources in 1939, she continued on as director until 1942. She created the Negro Writers’ Unit and brought Zora Neale Hurston to Jacksonville to headquarter an exploration of black folklore. Corse had worked for women’s suffrage and was the first director for the Florida chapter of Planned Parenthood.
By 1962, Corse was in her early 70s and most of her major accomplishments were behind her. Though she’d published Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the New Smyrna Colony of Florida in 1910 and Shrine of the Water Gods, about Silver Springs, in 1935, she continued the Florida lecture circuit. She was robbed once, her niece Jean Shepard recalls; thieves tied her up, early 1970s. Otherwise, the dust of the San Juline seemed to settle more heavily every year.
Another writer and historian would move into the San Juline years later, a young optometrist, still aiming into his own future in the preservation and resurrection of the past. Wayne Wood enjoyed watching the river, sitting on his balcony in the pouring rain without getting wet. He’d helped found Riverside Avondale Preservation and was writing entries for the Jacksonville Historic Landmarks Commission’s tome Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage.
Writing an article called “The Grand Apartments of Riverside: The San Juline and the Fenimore” for the RAP newsletter in 1975, Wayne wrote, “Three years after the completion of the San Juline, the city purchased the 5-3/4 acres across the street for $125,000 to develop into a park […] The winged statue in [Memorial Park], one of Riverside’s most well-known landmarks, was designed by St. Augustine sculptor Charles Adrian Pillars and was dedicated on December 25, 1924.”
When Wayne lived in his third floor walkup, publication of his magnum opus, the richly illustrated and gorgeously designed book Life: The Untold Story of Charles Adrian Pillars, was still decades away.
6. Margaret and Georgia
During the Jax “snowstorm” of 1989, which measured a couple inches and gave Florida a rare “White Christmas,” John Montgomery put his old gold Chickering baby grand piano to good use. Every year, he hosts a luminaria party. That year, all four local news stations stopped by to film John playing piano and everybody having a good time. There was a bar set up outside and as many as 400 people inside and out.
Even his friend and next door neighbor Congressman Charlie Bennett came by for a couple luminaria parties, though John says he was “a very, very quiet guy and didn’t really entertain much in his home.”
It’s hard to believe he’s been here 35 years, he says. It was only supposed to be a couple. And everybody told him he was crazy to move in here. “The whole area was so blighted,” he recalls. “There were lots of really rough houses and you couldn’t walk in the park at night.”
But one of the great joys of those first years was getting to know Margaret and Georgia, the perfect Southern Gothic introduction to the San Juline. They’d been together for decades. He calls them “secret lesbians,” but says, “I’m gay so it was easy for me to tell.” They’d both served in the military and had great stories.
Walking into their place was “like going into Grandma’s attic.” They had collections of collections. John recalls unusual carvings, masks from perhaps the Pacific Islands. And since this ground-floor Grandma’s attic was also something of Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop, he purchased a pair of strange old lamps from them. “They were handmade in Iran, from galvanized piping, and the shade was composed of all these different kinds of colored glass soldered together.”
Before the San Juline became condos in the early 1980s, the physician Emmet Ferguson had owned the building. “Jerry, his wife, loved the building,” John says. “It was her pet, and Emmet, he did not want to buy it.” The Fergusons are best known in this part of Riverside for living in “the castle,” which means the Jacobethan style Leon Cheek Mansion, built in 1928 around the corner on River Boulevard.
Looking back before the Fergusons bought the San Juline, you’re in “the donut hole” again, that gap in the middle years, but Margaret and Georgia remembered when the Fergusons bought it. “They were kind of like the history of the San Juline itself,” John says. “They had been here forever.”
7. The Story Bus
After Julian Prewitte lived in the Old Confederate’s mansion while Benjamin and McAden built the San Juline, Francis Fleming, son of Governor Francis Fleming, a former Confederate soldier now considered one of the most racist governors in Florida’s history, bought Cay’s old mansion. When the younger Fleming died in 1948, it became the first home of the Jacksonville Art Museum, today’s Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville.
Colonel Cay’s two-story carriage house that stood behind the mansion and fronted May Street and the trolley tracks sold separately when the art museum purchased the main house. In the 1970s it housed a gift shop called the Mole Hole. Today it’s Cecil Vignutti’s Studio for Hair.
A century ago, elegant tour buses drove visitors from Jacksonville’s grand downtown hotels through its new suburbs. Up and down Riverside Avenue, paved with bricks, the sleek buses shuttled, mingling the businesses of tourism and real estate. The San Juline was a prime stop. It’s easy to imagine the ghosts of those buses today taking the old roads, some spectral guide telling tales. The stories accrue and accrue.
When Lynn and Mary Jarrett first moved into the San Juline in 2001, buying two ground floor condo units and merging them, radiologists who’d practiced in the 1661 Medical Building, just the other side of May Street, had used the two condo units closest to them for storage for years. Riverside Hospital, built in 1911 where the Publix Shopping Center stands now, would be demolished later in ’01; the medical office complex, with its folded concrete plate rooflines, designed by architect Taylor Hardwick in 1957, would come down in ’04.
The radiologists had cut a door from one condo to the next through the kitchen, combining both units for office space and storage. In some ways, the Jarretts completed what the radiologists began by opening up the middle and making one double sized unit.
Tom Gallacher moved to the San Juline in 2012. One morning he was riding his bicycle from his one-bedroom pied-à-terre in Avondale to his daily workout at the YMCA in Brooklyn. He saw the estate agent putting out a “For Sale” sign, stopped to look at the condo, walked through the dark kitchen last decorated in the 1970s, saw Memorial Park through the porch when he entered the living room, and put a binder on it. That was it.
He’s hosted a string quartet on his balcony and watched the Cable News Network report on Hurricane Irma from in front of his home. During the storm, he was stuck at work in the Federal Reserve Building downtown, monitoring the flooding of Memorial Park across the street from his front steps on national television. But the San Juline stands high. The waters stopped at Riverside Avenue.
The spectral magic bus stops outside the San Juline, carrying its clientele of “Riverside characters,” most of whom are now forgotten. Half the San Juline’s lifetime ago, the English rock band The Who sang, “I’m so nervous, just sit and smile. / (Too much, magic bus.) / Your house is only another mile. / (Too much, magic bus.)” There are simply too many stories. (I haven’t even mentioned Dell Cassidy’s death at home here in August 1918, or, decades later, the coked-up woman dancing naked on a back balcony.) The San Juline collects them. Like a Decameron. Like Arabian Nights. Like a grand old apartment building in the center of the city, its own living entity, constantly accreting its autobiography.