The citywide celebration of the 450th anniversary of French explorer Jean Ribault’s discovery in 1562 of the St. Johns River came to its finale Tuesday evening at the Main Library.
The 30-foot-wide painting by Lee Adams, depicting the story of Ribault’s claiming Florida for France and the founding two years later of Fort Caroline, was officially unveiled on the fourth floor of the library.
Jacksonville Public Library Director Barbara Gubbin said the library is honored to be the new permanent home for the mural.
She said the artifact is a valuable addition to the Florida Collection, which is comprised of more than 20,000 books, images and other archived objects.
“It’s our newest gem,” said Gubbin.
Emily Lisska, executive director of the Jacksonville Historical Society, recounted the mural’s history, beginning in 1958 when Sears, Roebuck & Co. decided to enter the North Florida market.
Lisska said the company considered opening three suburban stores, but opted to purchase property Downtown and construct what she described as Sears’ “flagship store in the Southeast.”
The centerpiece of the store was the “Jean Ribault Room,” a fine-dining restaurant on the second floor. Sears commissioned artist Lee Adams to paint the mural, which was displayed in the restaurant until the company relocated the business in 1981 to Regency Square.
Lisska said Sears executives chose the restaurant’s name and the artwork to salute the 1962 celebration of the 400th anniversary of Ribault’s landing.
“Sears trumped everyone,” Lisska said.
After the store closed, Sears gave the painting to the School Board. It was stored at Lee High School for more than 20 years until it was partially restored and installed in the cafeteria at LaVilla School of the Arts. It remained there until artist Jim Draper restored the work and installed it in the library.
Another historic artifact devoted to the French colonization of North Florida has been on public display for more than 50 years.
Although it’s now almost hidden by trees, on the outside wall of the former City Hall, now the Courthouse Annex, on East Bay Street is a two-story-high, 80-foot wide bas-relief sculpture of the Florida peninsula.
The design includes three sailing ships, representing the arrival of the first colonists, and a shield marking the location of Fort Caroline along the St. Johns River.
Attorney Wayne Hogan has an excellent view of the sculpture from his office in the southwest corner of the Blackstone Building.
“I’m lucky enough to see it every day,” Hogan said.
He’s concerned about preserving the sculpture, since it honors the area’s history and is the most striking element of an otherwise unremarkable example of modern architecture.
The structure’s fate is uncertain after the State Attorney’s Office moves out in two years, but one suggestion is to demolish the building and possibly designate the site for a new Downtown convention center.
“I hope the City will find a way to preserve the sculpture. Maybe it could be a wall in the convention center,” said Hogan.
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