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115 Years After the Great Fire . . .

Pre-fire buildings and post-fire masterpieces are still threatened

May 3 is arguably the most important day in city history. It’s the anniversary of Jacksonville’s Great Fire of 1901. This year, Jacksonville marks 115 years since the conflagration wiped out 2,368 homes and buildings in eight hours. The fire began in the LaVilla area and rapidly spread east destroying most of the city’s downtown.

The rebuilding effort was monumental. Within two years more structures dotted the city than before the fire. By the end of the decade, a magnificent business district showcased some of the state’s tallest buildings.

In the later 20th century, many of the grand post-fire buildings were demolished when it seemed their usefulness had died, but the city also celebrated “great saves” of local structures nearly lost; prime examples are the Jacksonville (train) Terminal and the St. James Building (Cohen Brothers), now City Hall.

Yet, today, significant post-fire buildings—and even pre-fire buildings that barely missed the fire’s wrath—are at risk, and some buildings are so compromised they seem beyond the point of return. On West Ashley Street are remnants of the 1895 Genovar’s Hall with a few oddly propped up walls—a reminder of historic preservation gone wrong. The 1885 Brewster Hospital on Monroe Street was restored, yet sits empty, a terrible fate for an historic property since deterioration is typically most rapid in empty structures.

Downtown historic buildings have been demolished for promised construction that never materialized. A sad example is the loss of the 1902 Christopher Building on Bay Street. Its demolition was advocated many government administrations in the past. And what’s in its place now? It’s a half finished condominium complex, blighting the Jacksonville skyline.

The history community is desperately worried about the fate of three early 20th century buildings flanking Laura and Forsyth streets–the Bisbee Building, the Marble Bank and the Florida Life Building. Nearly 15 years ago, the JHS presented a program, The Most Important Corner in the Southeast, to highlight the importance of these structures. Now, added to that list is a neighbor, the 1926 Barnett Bank Building. Here we are years later, after many hopeful announcements about restoration and redevelopment of this corner, and we still have no solution, but the story gets worse.

Last week, JHS President Ed Booth discovered a group of teenagers skateboarding on the rooftop of the Bisbee Building. He viewed the shocking scene from his law office perched high in the sky. Now, we have an active destruction problem, a breaking and entering charge and even more serious and horrifying, a major safety concern. There is even talk that the Henry Klutho-designed building is so compromised it needs to come down. Such a loss would constitute a preservation tragedy.

In an ideal world, we would find a way to restore our most significant downtown historic properties. These special buildings when used and maintained would serve as a unique and magnificent backdrop for a vibrant downtown.

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