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What an ugly duckling the Northbank used to be! Here's Jax's face during the Forties. This old portrait doesn't show what the city would grow into, for there is no indication of today's impressive riverfront. Indeed, there isn't much that remains from the picture, besides a few buildings and the Main Street Bridge, which opened in 1941. Let's get our bearings: The blue arrow points to the approximate location of today's Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts. The red arrow designates the future site of the well-known Jacksonville Landing, the semi-circular, waterfront marketplace with an orange roof. The green arrow pinpoints the present spot of the Hyatt Hotel, while the yellow arrow touches on the St. James Building, a former department store that now houses City Hall. In front of the St. James lies Hemming Park (Plaza).
This postcard looks down at the crowded, decrepit waterfront that Jacksonville once suffered. The card is postmarked 1942. The green arrow points to the first Acosta Bridge, and the red arrow denotes the Main Street Bridge, which opened the year before the postcard was sent.
We're taking a sea gull view of the Northbank on June 16, 1942. This area lies east of the Main Street Bridge. The Jax riverfront didn't look much better in this vicinity than it did west of the bridge. Docks and shipyards lined the shore. During the past couple of generations, however, most of these structures have given way to newer construction. The arrows point to the following spots: Blue arrow -- Main Street Bridge, the blue-colored span that still carries traffic. Red arrow -- The site of today's Jacksonville Landing marketplace. Violet arrow -- The location of the present-day residential community Berkman Plaza. Green arrow -- The old Maxwell House Coffee factory, which still makes its presence known with a rich aroma and the dripping "Good to the Last Drop" coffee cup sign. Orange arrow -- Marks what was once the future spot of the no-defunct "One Shipyard Place," a condominium complex. Yellow arrow -- The spot of today's Hilton Hotel, which stands on the Southbank. (Notice how empty large patches of the Southbank area used to be!)
How do you improve an ugly waterfront? One way is to erect new buildings! This is what the City of Jacksonville planned for parts of the Northbank during the late Fifties. In the picture above, a model shows the forthcoming Civic Auditorium on the left. Dedicated in 1962, this facility was renovated during the 1990s into the state-of-the-art Times-Union Performing Arts Center. The downtown structure sits between the Jacksonville Landing and the Acosta Bridge. The tall building on the right is the Atlantic Coastline Building, which opened in 1960. Mayor Haydon Burns successfully lobbied the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad to transfer its headquarters to the River City.

Downtown Wharves

ON THE RIVER’S SHORES — “A working son in the Florida family of playboys”: This description of Jax came from a federal government guidebook during the 1930s. Such cities as Miami and Palm Beach received the lion’s share of attention from most people. They had drawn tourists and property speculators like magnets. Nevertheless, Jacksonville chugged away, focusing more on trade and manufacturing. “The Gateway to Florida” steadily increased in population and industry over the years.

Unfortunately, though, the city’s growth resulted in awful eyesore of a waterfront. Wharves and warehouses crowded the Northbank, and railroad tracks added to the mess, especially west of the Main Street Bridge. To make matters worse, many of the rat-infested structures were dilapidated and run down.

AN EMBARRASSMENT — It seemed as if Jax hung its tattered underwear in public to dry. Train passengers going to South Florida usually crossed the railroad bridge that still lies next to the Acosta span. What an eyeful they got! And it could only grow worse with the building of the first Fuller Warren Bridge in 1954. The bridge was to eventually serve as a link in the new interstate highway system, jumping the St. Johns near downtown’s southern edge. Motorists on the span could look over at the city’s waterfront, receiving a dark first impression of the Sunshine State.

Something had to be done — And it was. Led by Mayor Haydon Burns, the municipal government began to take action during the mid Fifties. Over time, new waterfront buildings and parking lots replaced many of yesteryear’s dreary structures. Erected near the river were the County Courthouse, the 13-floor City Hall (today’s City Hall Annex), the 12-story pretrial detention center, and the Civic Auditorium (now the Times-Union Performing Arts Center).

Private businesses occasionally jumped into the act. They added structures like the CSX Building, Jacksonville Landing, and Adam’s Mark Hotel. It’s interesting to note, however, that many private enterprises initially shunned a waterfront spot in downtown Jax. To some extent, this was due to a negative reputation the area had received from the previous, unsightly facilities. No wonder the City of Jacksonville erected government buildings on what is now prime real estate. The vista from the 13th floor of the old City Hall used to be spectacular before being blocked by the Adam’s Mark Hotel.

The transformation of the waterfront still continues.

TRADE & THE RIVER CITY — Jacksonville has done away with the unsightly wharves and warehouses that used to bedevil its downtown. These improvements began during the mid 1950s. But where did the trade facilities disappear to? By the Fifties, most of the shipping had moved to newer docks in the Talleyrand Road area, which lays east of the current Alltel Stadium. More recently, the facilities have become even more dispersed, situated along the St. Johns River between downtown Jax and the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, the downtown riverfront appears more attractive and less cluttered. Ride over the Fuller Warren Bridge by day and you’ll see a most impressive skyline & waterfront. At night, the view is simply awesome.

~written by Glenn Emery

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