by Mike Sharkey
Many blue moons ago, Jacksonville as most know it didn’t exist. It wasn’t until 1967 when Duval County voters approved an incorporated Jacksonville, creating, at 840 square miles, the largest land mass city in the United States.
Until 1967, Duval County was actually a conglomeration of neighborhoods and small, incorporated towns. Each legitimate township had its own form of government complete with elected and appointed officials and support staff, including law enforcement and public safety. Such was the case in Mayport, the beaches, Baldwin, Murray Hill and Fairfield in East Jacksonville. As Jacksonville proper began to sprawl —and much of that occurred after bridges over the St. Johns River were built — the cities slowly melded into simply being neighborhoods in a big city. And, much of the history of those former towns no longer exists.
South Jacksonville may be one of the few exceptions. At 1468 Hendricks Ave. a two-story building sits amid San Marco’s hodgepodge of architecture. Decades old houses, new restaurants and renovated offices combine to give the area its distinctive atmosphere. Today, the building is the home to the local firefighters union offices. Soon, the San Marco Preservation Society hopes to call it home.
“It” is one of the few buildings left from Jacksonville’s early 20th Century architecture and is the former City Hall for the consolidated town of South Jacksonville. Built in 1915, the building served as City Hall until 1932 when the City of South Jacksonville was dissolved. City Council member Matt Carlucci is in the process of helping the San Marco Preservation Society gain control of the building and ultimately move its offices into the heart of San Marco.
“The fireman’s union is moving to a new location in Riverside, to the old tower and another building that is being renovated,” said Carlucci. “The San Marco Preservation Society thinks it would be a great location for their offices.”
In order for the building to change hands, City Council must approve an ordinance that was read into the record on Aug. 13 and is in front of the Finance and Public Services, Technology & Utilities standing committees.
“It’s a win-win situation,” said Carlucci. “The firemen’s union came to me and I talked to them. They see it as they will now own their own building and they have put about $100,000 into it. The San Marco Preservation Society will have a place it can call home. They are one of the oldest preservation societies in town.”
In 1907, South Jacksonville had a population of 600. In 1913, 96 voters elected to take out a $65,000 bond for civic improvements, most of which was used to build the South Jacksonville City Hall. According to Joel McEachin of the Historic Preservation Commission, the opening of the old Acosta Bridge in 1921 was the beginning of the end for South Jacksonville.
“What probably happened was South Jacksonville had a lot of expenses,” said McEachin. “Once the old Acosta Bridge opened, the area really grew and there was a need for more services.”
McEachin said he isn’t sure what the building was used for over the next several decades. However, Karen Franklin has plans for its future. Franklin is the current president of the San Marco Preservation Society and she’s anxious for Council to pass the ordinance.
“Our main emphasis is on trying to preserve and enhance our neighborhood and community,” said Franklin. “San Marco is very unique in that it is one of the older neighborhoods in Jacksonville. There’s an interesting variety of architecture still standing. It’s part of Jacksonville’s history — and we lost so much of that during the fire — like Springfield and Avondale. Those three areas have the most history.”
These days, the Preservation Society is operating out of an old church on Atlantic Boulevard. With 700-800 members and a board of about 30, Franklin says the organization needs a larger facility to hold meetings and store what amounts to history. Franklin said the tentative plans are for the Preservation Society to sign the lease next summer — possibly Aug. 1, 2003 — and then start renovations.
“We want to return it to its original look inside and out,” said Franklin, who was elected president in June. “It could be a while before we move in, though. We have to raise money and get matching grants either through things like lumber or volunteer services. I have no idea how long it will take. We are looking at the construction, safety and how to make sure it’s handicap accessible.”
Franklin has one other reason for wanting the building so badly.
“The story goes that there’s a former jail cell in the building,” she said. “We are anxious to get our hands on it and find out.”