by Max Marbut
Special to the Daily Record
The City Council is considering a proposal to demolish the Annie Lytle School, one of Jacksonville’s officially designated historic landmarks.
“It’s a classic case of the conflict between preservation and economics,” said Doug Milne, trustee for the Ida M. Stevens Foundation, which has owned the property since 1980.
There has been a public school at the corner of Gilmore and College streets since 1891. The first one was made of wood, but after the Great Fire of 1901, that type of construction for schools in Jacksonville became undesirable.
In 1915, voters approved a bond issue to build a dozen new brick schools, including Riverside Park School (Public School Number Four), which would replace the old wooden schoolhouse.
The new structure was designed by architect Rutledge Holmes in the neoclassical style and was completed in 1918. Grammar school students who lived in Riverside attended the school, later renamed the Annie Lytle School after a long-time teacher and principal, until Jacksonville’s new expressway isolated it from the neighborhood in the late 1950s. It closed in 1960, then was used by the school system for administrative offices until 1971. The building has been vacant ever since.
The property was purchased by the foundation with the intent to convert the school into senior citizens’ apartments, like it had done with the old Duval High School on Ashley Street downtown, but changes in subsidies and tax laws made the project unfeasible.
The City approved historic landmark designation in 2000, the same year a developer put forth a proposal to convert the building into luxury condominiums, but because of the economic climate and changes to the expressway and Fuller Warren Bridge, the plan never became reality.
City Development Co. of St. Augustine aquired an option on the property in 2003 with intentions to preserving the landmark, possibly as housing for seniors, reviving the original 1980 plan.
“We wanted to do it as a renovation project, but the numbers wouldn’t work,” said Lynn Fournier of City Development Co.
Buildings aren’t designed today the way they were a century ago. Fournier said that no more than 45 percent of the renovated space would be rentable, compared to 85 percent in a modern design.
Time also has taken its toll on the Annie Lytle School. There was a fire in 1995, the roof on the auditorium has caved in and the building has been vandalized for years.
City Development Co. then looked at the project from a new-build perspective. Company officials determined they could save at least $3 million by tearing down the old school and building a modern structure with profit potential.
A demolition request was filed with the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission last September, which was rejected. An appeal has been filed, so now it’s up to the City Council.
“We are trying to encourage officials to take another look to see if the city can support the retirement facility project, but if the appeal is accepted by the Council, that may be the end of the building,” said Lisa Sheppard, the Historic Preservation Commission’s senior planner.
“We think it’s in the city’s interest not to maintain a blighted property,” said Fournier.
When asked about the possible demolition of an historic landmark, Milne said, “It’s not what we want, that’s for sure. We’ve tried for years to preserve it. We’ve just run out of options.”
Losing one of Jacksonville’s architectural landmarks will diminish the city’s heritage, but even preservation advocates agree that times have changed.
“While the Historical Society has supported preservation of that property for many years, we are painfully aware of the economics,” said Emily Lisska, executive director of the Jacksonville Historical Society. “It adds a wonderful fabric and texture to the neighborhood and to Jacksonville, but most people realize that we can’t preserve them all. The preservation community has to turn its attention to other projects.”