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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jun. 11, 201905:20 AM EST

Brewster Hospital finds new tenant: ‘We are part of the revitalization of LaVilla’

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The North Florida Land Trust moves its headquarters into the restored historic building.
by: Caren Burmeister Contributing Writer

Brewster Hospital, the historic landmark where blacks received medical care during 60 years of segregation, is finding new life as the North Florida Land Trust’s headquarters.

The nonprofit land conservation organization recently moved into the building at 843 W. Monroe St.

Unlike most land trust projects, this effort is not about preserving property, but rather the history of Jacksonville’s blacks, who relied on the hospital from 1901 until it closed in 1966. 

The restored Brewster Hospital building at 915 W. Monroe St. celebrated with a ribbon-cutting in April. The building was renovated by Danis Construction LLC as the headquarters for the North Florida Land Trust.

“We are part of the revitalization of LaVilla,” said land trust President Jim McCarthy, referring to several new buildings in the neighborhood once known as the “Harlem of the South.” 

The renovation drew a lot of curious passersby, said Jeff Kelley, project manager with Danis Construction LLC. 

“People would often stop by and say they had worked at Brewster or had been born there,” Kelley said.

Built about 1885, the former hospital withstood the Great Fire of 1901 and decades of neglect. It closed two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which led to a shortage of funding.

It has its original wood floors, wooden staircase, double hearth and windows that stretch from the floor to its 12-foot ceilings.  

The red brick, Victorian-style building with its gingerbread porch and two-story veranda with intricate scrollwork was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It comprises  5,700 square feet of space.

Its completion can’t come soon enough for Doris Putnam, a retiree with a 43-year career in nursing. She graduated from Brewster Hospital School of Nursing in 1961.  

“We’ve been working with people Downtown for many years to get it restored,” said Putnam, who toured the renovated building with the Brewster and Community Nurses Alumni Association. “I was really pleased that it has made such a turnaround.” 

Jeff Kelley, project manager at Danis, said people often would stop by during the renovation to share stories about their connection to the Brewster Hospital.

The association is creating a museum on the first floor to honor the hospital and nurses training school. The museum space will be available for the association’s meetings and events. 

“As time passes, we pass, too,” Putnam said, noting that only about 10 of the association’s members survive. “The timing is critical and we’re anxious to get moving.” 

The land trust has a dozen staff members and has outgrown its 1,300-square-foot office space in the Five Points area. 

Under its lease with the city of Jacksonville, the land trust is investing $541,000 in the building. It has added a 15-space parking lot behind the structure, refinished the wooden stairs and floors, and reconfigured space for conference and break rooms. 

It also built a locker room with a shower for staff who return to the office covered in mud and sweat from their trek in the swamps.  

Jacksonville spent $2.3 million on the historic landmark, moving it, restoring it and making it handicapped-accessible in 2007.  

The city is accepting the land trust’s investment in lieu of five years’ rent, McCarthy said.  

This first-floor room with a double hearth will be turned into a museum to honor Brewster Hospital and its nursing school.

Founded in 1999, the nonprofit works to protect environmentally significant land in an 11-county area to build flood protection and preserve waterways, recharge areas and wildlife. 

“We do not oppose development, we support conservation,” McCarthy said. Protecting flood plains reduces insurance and mortgage rates, he said, and protecting recharge areas provides water for residents and businesses. 

The land trust’s preservation projects include property on Big Talbot Island and the Keystone Lake area, River Branch Preserve, Pumpkin Hill and a cypress swamp along Six Mile Creek. 

Its interest in Brewster Hospital is not so unusual, McCarthy said. The trust has expanded its mission over the years to preserve historic resources, such as a Spanish-American War Fort, which it turned over to the National Park Service in 2018.

Funded largely by private and corporate contributions, the land trust works closely with private landowners, other public agencies, not-for-profit partners and foundations.

It continues to seek donations to cover the building’s renovations, McCarthy said.

The Delores Barr Weaver Fund at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida and another foundation, which is remaining anonymous, are providing matching grants.

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