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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Sep. 11, 200112:00 PM EST

State: save historic buildings

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by: Bill Johnson

The State has weighed in on the issue of historic buildings versus Jacksonville’s new library, and that considerable poundage seems to have come down on the side of history.

In a letter to Director of Planning and Development Jeannie Fewell, state historic preservation officers in the Florida Department of State said they “strongly encourage the City to use this opportunity to make a statement about Jacksonville’s unique sense of place and role in Florida history by incorporating a part of its heritage into a library building that will well serve its citizens.”

The letter is dated Aug. 24 and was stamped “received” in the mayor’s office Sept. 4, more than two weeks after Mayor John Delaney had already directed architects bidding for the library job to include just the facades of the old Rhodes furniture building and two LaRose buildings into their proposed designs.

In their original reply about incorporating the buildings into the design, the architects seemed mostly skeptical of total incorporation, although one said it could be done but at a considerable cost. One estimated that cost at more than $10 million.

The cost of incorporating the structures would likely come out of the $95 million designated for the new library, effectively detracting from what Delaney hopes will be world-class facility. The State, however, worded its response to suggest incorporating the whole structures into the library.

The State letter — written for State Historic Preservation Officer Janet Snyder Matthews by her deputy, Fred Gaske — said it was “unfortunate that the design competitors did not have the benefit of the Division’s comments going into the project. The agency suggests that the selection be based on an architectural plan that best incorporates all three of the historic buildings and meets the requirements of the library program.”

And, while none of the letter’s language implied that the City is obliged to follow the state’s suggestions, it did attribute its involvement to the “Programmatic Agreement (PA) for the Northside East Downtown Development of Regional Impact (DRI), signed May 1991 between the City of Jacksonville and the Division of Historical Resources ...” Gaske added, “Although there is no state agency monetary assistance, according to the PA, this agency has a mandate to review rehabilitation, demolition, or new construction activities related to the proposed library project.”

Gaske noted the historic relevance of the three structures. The LaRose buildings — individually called the South Atlantic Investment building and the Buckman and Ulmer building — have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places, he said.

“The Programmatic Agreement states in stipulation IV.1.c. that the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings ... shall apply to the interior alterations to significant historic resources when there is state involvement,” Gaske wrote. “We, therefore, strongly recommend that the historic interior features discussed in the National Register nominations for the Buckman and Ulmer and South Atlantic Investment Corporation buildings be retained as much as possible.”

But, according to Delaney’s directive to the architects, “the back (sides, roof and structural systems) of the buildings are to be demolished.” Only the facades would remain.

The Rhodes building does not hold any formal historic designation only because its owners (right now, that’s the City) haven’t sought it. It has, however, been cited by Historic Preservation Planner Joel McEachin as being eligible for listing in the National Register and as being one of the few remaining examples of Chicago-style high-rise architecture left in Jacksonville. And, all three have been designated potential local landmarks by the Historic Preservation Commission.

Part of the Rhodes building’s historical significance can’t be seen from the street. It is in the inner workings of the structure itself.

“The massive interior structural columns of the Rhodes Building are highly significant aspects of the building’s unique structural system and should be retained,” Gaske wrote.

The mayor’s directive, however, tells the architects to save only the facade, remove the other three walls, and “Utilize as much of the entire remaining concrete slab and column system (structural system) as deemed appropriate and practical.”

Gaske wrote that incompatibility between the existing structures and a library trying to incorporate them “seems to be a non-issue.”

To the architects vying for the design contract, not to mention the City’s Library Board, it is a very real issue, especially if more than $10 million has to come out of library money in order to save three buildings that developer Preston Haskell has said are “of marginal historic value.”

The four architects finished their second set of workshops with City officials last week, although the meetings were closed to the public and the media and none of the architects’ responses to Delaney’s facade directive were released.

McEachin said the City will likely respond to the Gaske/Matthews letter and not just ignore the state’s recommendations, but he said he did not know when that would occur.

The architects are to present their final proposed designs in late October.

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