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Jacksonville’s Great Fire Redefined the City

May is National Historic Preservation Month, when the Jacksonville Historical Society releases its annual list of Jacksonville’s Most Endangered Historic Structures. This year’s Bicentennial edition of the list will be unveiled on May 18, at our Endangered Places luncheon. Click here to register or read on in the newsletter for more information.

At 200 years old this year, Jacksonville retains very little of the built environment as it existed in 1822. The most prominent example is the plantation house on Ft. George Island, built in 1798 by John McQueen as the residence for his Sea Island cotton plantation. Labor by enslaved people constructed the McQueen home, as well as other structures on the plantation built later, under the ownership of Zephaniah Kingsley. The evidence of our complicated local, state and national past continues to emerge from research into Kingsley, his extended family and his far-flung enterprises. Today the entire property is owned by the National Park Service, and thus in no danger of demolition or redevelopment.
Left, stereograph of the Kingsley House, 1886, by George Barker (From the Library of Congress)

For much of Jacksonville’s first 79 years of existence, development took place using timber construction. That was natural, the city having grown amidst the pine forests of Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia. Cheap lumber was nearby and abundant, much like other fast growing new cities of the 19th Century, such as Chicago. Like Chicago in 1871, wood structures made Jacksonville vulnerable to a major fire, which swept the city on May 3, 1901, obliterating its central business district and surrounding residential blocks.

What happened next helped define modern Jacksonville. The devastation of the Great Fire of 1901 created a clean slate on which to design and build a new downtown. Just such an opportunity had made the careers of innovative Chicago architects who experimented with new construction technologies and pioneering designs in that booming city. In the early 1900s, Jacksonville similarly attracted ambitious, sometimes youthful architects such as Henry J. Klutho, Henrietta Dozier, Wilbur Camp and others who threw their talents into a surge of new construction.

The nearly three decades that followed the Great Fire saw Jacksonville grow swiftly and take on the outlines that are its 21st Century inheritance. That is why, in 2022, the city is home to a generation of homes, schools, churches, banks and other places that are roughly a century old. Some of the places that might have defined those pivotal decades, physically illustrating the Great War and the Roaring Twenties in Jacksonville, have disappeared. The typical reason is obsolescence, either physical or economic. That’s a normal part of the life cycle of a neighborhood or a city – after all, cities owe their existence and growth to economic activity. At some point, though, fresh economic value begins to emerge from adapting and reusing the physical artifacts of a city’s past. That is what we are seeing in today’s Jacksonville, and that is why the JHS calls attention to places that appear at the greatest risk.

Under the rules of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, homes and other structures become eligible for historic designation at 50 years of age. The reasoning is that 50 years is enough time to gain historical perspective as to the significance of a place. In fact, from around 30 to 60 years of age, buildings tend to go through a period of historical irrelevance – no longer new, but not yet old enough to have accumulated the weight of history that could make them interesting. An example was the Jacksonville Landing, at 32 years old no longer economically viable and, therefore, demolished in 2019 to make way for more valuable uses of the riverfront.

Buildings and sites that represent the past help tell the unique story of a place, differentiating it from all other places. That’s how preservation strengthens identity and citizenship. Not all old buildings or sites can be preserved, nor should they be. But where preservation takes root, value ultimately follows. For example, some of the highest value residential and commercial real estate in today’s Duval County is in the Riverside-Avondale Historic District. Fifty years ago, those neighborhoods were at the nadir of their historicity, threatened by a proposed new expressway.

How much of Jacksonville that exists in 2022 will endure until its quadricentennial, in 2222? Jacksonville’s Bicentennial moment is a time to take stock of its past, to reflect on what makes this city distinct from all others, and to look ahead at what we hope for it to be in the decades and centuries ahead. Join us on May 18 for that conversation!
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society

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