by Tim Gilmore, 2/17/2022
Our voices echo in the emptiness. Upstairs the furnishings that would have absorbed small talk and laughter are gone already. What other words and tones and gibberings and cries have touched these walls, bounced from the waves in the glass of these old windows? In this house, a businessman made decisions that would pollute the whole state for a century. In this house, a widowed proprietor cooked dinner for motley lodgers. In this house, physicians saved lives.
Our hosts greet us cordially, graciously, this very moment part of the house’s history. Usually, however, the history of a house resounds against the streets and context in which it’s evolved. Here, however, I can’t gauge stratigraphy, that analysis of the position and orderings of layers of archaeological remains. For saving this house meant uprooting and migrating it.
Newspapers couldn’t resist the wordplay. “Yesterday,” Ellen Avery of The Florida Times-Union wrote in February 1993, “Mark and Gayle Reinsch had a mobile home. Today, the Riverside couple will have a house boat – or at least a house on a barge.” It was something of a “block party,” Gayle said. Dozens of friends, some the Reinsches hadn’t seen in years, joined crowds of ogling strangers assembled in the downtown streets to watch the 90 year old, two-story, 200-ton house journey through the streets.
Built in 1902 for Wylie G. Toomer, co-founder of Wilson and Toomer, the largest fertilizer producer in Florida, the house rose off its foundation at 241 West Ashley Street, split into halves, then lifted on moving trucks. Sue Davis, who had worked at the Mitchell Clinic when it operated in the old house, thought it looked like it was leaning. Telling the story all these years later, Mark Reinsch remembers moments of near-panic, though he can laugh about them now.
Movers took down traffic lights and power lines and police cars escorted the house through 19 intersections downtown. The journey took about an hour. That was just to get the house to the river, where it spent the rest of the long day and night.The Toomers had built this house on the foundation of their previous abode, which was still new when it burnt in the Great Fire of 1901. Nine decades later, after they’d moved the house, the Reinsches excavated the site. They found melted glass underground, Mark says, and digging through a layer of lime, a strong fragrance of scorched earth wafted up.
“After they lifted up the house,” Gayle told the Times-Union in 1993, “I started digging around under there in the soot and ash, and I swear I could smell the Great Fire.” There’s my stratigraphy. Beneath how much of Downtown Jacksonville is the tortured breath of the Great Fire still trapped?
Wylie G. didn’t call this grand Colonial Revival style house home for long. When he died in 1906, he left Sue Pipes Toomer a double widow, since both Toomers had outlived their first spouses. Sue survived her second husband by a decade. Then in 1917, Mississippi newspapers called Charles Nevin Welshans a “prominent businessman” as he married Winifred Guise, reporting that the couple would “make their home in Jacksonville.” The 1920 census lists C.N. Welshans, Jr.’s occupation as “fertilizer manufacturer” and shows Winifred Welshans living in the home of her husband’s deceased mother at 214 W. Ashley. Soon the young couple would move to Shadowlawn Street in the tony suburb of Avondale.
In 1940, Mrs. Effie Slade, widowed boarding house proprietor, still reigned as kindly matriarch at 214, providing rooms to a daughter, two sons, a daughter-in-law, two grandchildren and 10 lodgers employed as stenographer, steamfitter, truck drivers, “seaman,” accountant. Mark Reinsch says he once talked to a former lodger who later worked at the Mitchell Clinic, who told him he’d lived upstairs during the Great Depression and helped cheer wandering minstrel shows from the now-long-removed upstairs side balcony.
Toomer, born in Mississippi, having fought for the Confederate States of America, went into business with Lorenzo Wilson, establishing their fertilizer plant at 1611 Talleyrand Avenue on the city’s Eastside in the early 1890s. He’d run for mayor in 1895 as the “Straightout” Democratic nominee against populist progressive William Clarke and coalition Democrat Dr. William Bostwick, who ran on a “harmony” ticket backed by a strange mix of conservative Republicans, Southern Dems and “negro” supporters organized by black attorney and State Representative Joseph E. Lee. Bostwick beat Toomer by about 400 votes out of a total of 2,789.
Eventually Wilson and Toomer Fertilizer Company ran satellite factories in Tampa, Fort Pierce, Port Everglades and Cottondale. The Jacksonville complex would employee 500 workers on its roughly 30 acres and include the company’s administrative headquarters, a research lab, plants for producing bags, sulfuric acid, nitrogen and fertilizer, and delivery garages that originated as stables for draft horses that hauled fertilizer.
It produced a million tons of fertilizer a year until 1971, when chemical giant Kerr-McGee Corporation purchased it. The complex closed in 1978 and the city spent the next 40 years wondering how to clean up the site’s deep and deadly toxic residue. Signage on fences closing off the site warned of potentially fatal levels of arsenic, as well as lead, dioxin and PCBs. The Environmental Protection Agency declared these acres, while one of hundreds of Kerr-McGee “Superfund sites” in 31 states, the most polluted site in Florida, garnering the state’s highest score on its Hazard Ranking System.
Meanwhile, in the years of its transition from a residence to a rooming house to a medical clinic, the Wylie G. Toomer House downscaled dramatically. Its changing aesthetics matched the gothic decline of the central city across the middle of the 20th century. The house stands halfway between the once behemoth First Baptist Church, which swallowed up, demolished and replaced scores of buildings in its widening orbit, and the long abandoned Duval High School building, restored by architect Ted Pappas for elderly housing in the 1970s.
Dr. John Henry Mitchell converted it to medical offices in 1946 and his son, Dr. John Lewis Mitchell, abandoned the house in 1988. The house withstood the emptying of a central population through White Flight in the ’50s and ’60s and the increasing homeless population from mental health deinstitutionalization in the ’80s. Along the way, the house lost its two-story porch, its second floor side balcony and the widow’s walk from its peak. The Mitchell Clinic covered the original parqueted teakwood floors and fireplaces, removed pocket doors and stained glass windows, and hid high ceilings behind fiberglass drop panels.
Then, in February 1993, the house set off across the St. Johns River in halves. Mark Reinsch remembers a moment when it looked like one half might too steeply tip the back end of the barge it was boarding, raising the other end, sinking the house and scooting the barge out houseless across the waters. Somehow the Reinsches avoided heart attacks. The Wylie G. Toomer House squeezed beneath three bridges and took the Ortega River to Cedar River to a high vacant waterfront lot at 2700 Lake Shore Boulevard.
The Reinsches had paid $80,000 for a year’s taxes and moving fees and the house was theirs. Now came the hard part. It needed wiring and plumbing, a new foundation, a new roof and termite extermination. Both attorneys, the Reinsches had lived in Riverside for 10 years. Three decades later, Mark says, echoing across an empty second floor, “I wanted to build a house and Gayle wanted to restore an historic house. She won.”
Living in an apartment while they made the old house livable, Gayle told the Times-Union’s Jennie Geisler, “Once it has a kitchen and a bathroom, it will start to look more like a home.” As “Pennsylvania Dutch” country, where Gayle grew up, is really Deutsch, it made sense she’d earned a master’s degree and taught German at the University of Florida before changing careers to practice law. She’d always loved old houses. She anticipated lots of work ahead and decades of married life in the storied house made theirs. “We’ll certainly have something to fill up our years,” she said, “even our retirement years, probably.” Mark and Gayle had no idea, of course, that so soon after moving a mansion downriver, Gayle would be diagnosed with cancer and die, 51 years old, in 1999.
Mark jokes about “taking a break from restoring the house for 18 years.” He raised their son and two daughters here and remarried. Now, he and Lynn are selling the house, listing it at $1.7 million, planning to retire to North Carolina. Mark says he’ll miss the house, miss the winter sunsets on the water, having poured three decades of living into these old rooms, but he’s ready to let it go. Everything has its time and every old house allots but a season to each resident. Wall sconces still show the moment of transition from using gas lighting to electric, one fixture pointing upward, the latter facing down.
Mark had the original stained glass transom over the front door reconstructed and reinstalled, trading an old Volvo for the work. The original address, 241, floats in a wreath of laurel branches and the new address, 2700, hovers above and in front in chipped paint. Mark’s reinstalled pocket doors, one of them original, uncovered fireplaces and floors and ceilings. He replaced the two-story front columns, which had replaced the original two-tiered verandah, with two stories of porches and newer Corinthian columns. What little paint the whole façade wears is chipped, a dormer of fish-scale shingles peering out from top center.
Out back, marking the way up from the river, wintry vines encrusted in dead growth engulf Corinthian columns on a pergola behind a line of more Corinthian columns added to the back porch. In this juxtaposition, the February pool wanes unnecessarily decadent. My stratigraphy is warped by the watery voyage of the Toomer house. It’s no wonder one of the Reinsch daughters became a forensic archaeologist.
Mark and Lynn know the sale of this house depends on the perfect buyer: someone who loves old houses, someone with the heart (and the means) to resume the restoration. The ground downtown at 214 West Ashley Street still lies unhoused, the city restoring itself, building after building, around it. Perhaps the next owner will move it back to West Ashley and reincorporate its history. Or maybe the next chapter continues the house’s expatriate life here on Lake Shore Boulevard, sinking roots deeper, further integrating downtown histories into the strata of exile.