May 3rd, 2021 was the 120th anniversary of Jacksonville’s Great Fire. That event matters in any conversation about historic preservation in Jacksonville, because relatively few downtown buildings survived the fire, and the wholesale destruction of our downtown resulted in a surge of new building that is entering its second century. In that sense, the oldest buildings in downtown Jacksonville now stand as artifacts of the Great Fire. Our urban core is like a time capsule of city planning, architecture and construction as they were understood and practiced in the first two decades of the 20th century. It was only beginning in the 1920s that planners and architects had to work around the technology of automobiles – a consideration nearly absent from the pivotal years in Jacksonville after the Great Fire.
Members of the Jacksonville Historical Society know that, each May, we observe National Historic Preservation Month. It’s the occasion for our annual list of Jacksonville’s Most Endangered Buildings, which will be the focus of next month’s online program. Since last year, buildings have been removed from the list and others added. This year, in addition to highlighting those at risk, we will point to some notable rescues, to acknowledge the dedication and immense hard work that goes into any historic renovation. We’ll also note the disappearance of some of old Jacksonville’s architectural fabric, such as the Moulton and Kyle Funeral home, lost to fire, and the Doro Fixtures complex, demolished to allow for re-development in a decision that admittedly took us by surprise.
In assessing the future of Jacksonville’s historic buildings, we have grown alert to an endangered category, namely churches. The sources of trouble for aging churches are several, which emerged from a panel discussion at our January online Speaker Series event. Whether a church is a century old or barely fifty years, like many in suburbs such as Arlington or the Beaches, the economic burden on congregations continues to increase. Even for those who remain outside of church, those distinctive buildings are established landmarks that define our neighborhoods. Their future is uncertain because of forces beyond the control of those who are their stewards.
Another category of buildings at growing risk includes public schools. Like churches, schools are also neighborhood landmarks, as well as markers of our own life experiences. As with an aging church, school buildings do not lend themselves easily to adaptation, and as they age into the 21st century, they can sometimes become difficult to sustain in the use for which they were originally designed. A neighborhood school built a century ago, or even in the midcentury period, is typically obsolete without substantial modernization or outright replacement. But nearly every one of us can recall moments from the most formative years of our lives, that we associate with the places where we and our classmates received our educations. Naturally, those memories have fueled the present controversy over the names of certain older public schools that memorialize the Confederacy, and the ways that those names are interpreted.
Economics and demographics are constantly at work altering the way that we use and value land and buildings – change is a constant. Finding a new use for an older building can be a challenge, and usually must be about more than nostalgia. But where an historic structure gains a new life, its value grows along with its contribution to the community around it. It helps tell the stories that define the place it occupies, making its past tangible and authentic. That’s why historic preservation creates economic development in addition to cultural capital.
Part of the mission of the Jacksonville Historical Society is to make the case for historic preservation, and to advocate for those who are willing to take the risks that go with it. If you know of an historic structure that helps tell Jacksonville’s stories, share it with us. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the stories that will appear as we deliver on our mission.
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer