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Martha Reed Mitchell: Putting the D in Doyenne

A doyenne is a woman considered to be the senior, or most prominent, member of a group. In the highest social echelons of late nineteenth-century Jacksonville, that woman was Martha Reed MitchellMartha Reed Mitchell, a tall, well-built woman with brilliant blue eyes who lived largely, built largely, and left one of Jacksonville’s most lasting legacies.

According to an excellent article by Louise Stanton Warren, a former JHS board member, Reed was a relative newcomer to the city in 1866, but already had a proven record as a “doer” (thus the D in doyenne). Mitchell had co-founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which saved George Washington’s home as an early act of historic preservation.

As the wife of Alexander Mitchell, a banking, insurance and railroad mogul from Milwaukee, Martha Mitchell was in a position to sustain such emerging charities as the St. Luke’s Hospital Association, serving as its president for 25 years. A devout Episcopalian, she also labored tirelessly to establish All Saints Episcopal Church. But in society’s eyes, Reed’s most enviable accomplishment was Villa Alexandria, the palatial home she built along the St. Johns River on 140 acres of what is today San Marco.

The Villa Alexandria, circa 1882, as viewed from the front--or river--approach.

The Villa Alexandria, circa 1882, as viewed from the front–or river–approach.

According to Warren, Villa Alexandria was “one of the premier villas of the world.” It included a three-story frame mansion, stables, tennis courts, a polo field, extensive orange groves, a swimming pool, stunning formal gardens, and a massive boathouse the size of a small hotel. (Today’s River Road was her carriage way, and it’s said that chips from her garden’s many marble fountains still turn up in present-day yards.)

However, it was the house’s opulent interior that inspired the most reverence. A world traveler who crossed the ocean 18 times, Mrs. Reed filled Villa Alexandria with fine paintings and furniture by European masters. The dining room was said to be “a masterpiece of magnificence.” (Details about the home’s interior can be found in Mrs. Charles LeNoir’s oral history of South Jacksonville, recorded for the Federal Writer’s Project.) Mitchell’s bedroom, with hand-carved decorative woodwork, had a prominent bay window facing the river, hung with white silk curtains and over-drapes of blue brocade.

The Florida Dispatch enthused, “The general tone of “Alexandria” is refined, quiet and reposeful.” According to Warren, “Reed regularly opened her villa for dazzling parties to benefit the new hospital and All Saints Episcopal Church, and people flocked across the river, like Vikings in their lighted boats, to experience and enjoy the luxury.”

The winter home of the Mitchells, along the banks of the St. Johns River.

The winter home of the Mitchells, along the banks of the St. Johns River.

When Reed died in 1902, her obituary in the Florida Times Union underscored her impact on the city: “Kind of heart, helping others and trying to make beautiful the lives of the weary and struggling, she was always engaged in benevolent work, and countless and unknown are the many good works she performed that brought sunshine into many hearts and many homes.”

After her death, the Villa Alexandria estate eventually fell into ruin. The mansion and all of the other buildings were demolished by developer Telfair Stockton in 1927. The first lots in Stockton’s new San Marco development were sold in 1929 to John and Carl Swisher, who built homes on the waterfront where this splendid mansion once stood.

Martha Reed Mitchell is buried in the historic St. Nicholas cemetery.

Martha Reed Mitchell is buried in the historic St. Nicholas cemetery.

Mother of a U.S. Senator, sister of a Florida Governor, and grandmother of General William Mitchell, founder of the Air Force, Martha Reed Mitchell is largely forgotten today. We believe it’s important to remember her.

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