One morning in May 2011, Gary Sass led a group of about 10 visitors on a 90-minute walking tour of Downtown landmarks.
Sass, president of AdLib Luxury Tours, had the idea that people would enjoy discovering Downtown on foot and they might purchase a ticket for the experience.
A member of the Jacksonville Historical Society, he researched the neighborhood’s past and wrote a story line. He also selected some destinations that were off the beaten path for most Downtown visitors.
The final touch was his decision to lead the tour dressed as the city’s namesake, Andrew Jackson.
In the three years since the first Downtown “Top to Bottom” Walking Tour, the excursion has grown from a few tourists one day a week to groups that often number 40 or more and a twice-weekly schedule on Tuesday and Thursday.
“We also guide a lot of private tour groups on the other days of the week. More than 2,000 people took the tour in 2013,” said Sass.
Two versions of the tour are available. On Tuesday, the focus is on Downtown’s little-known history, including its contributions to the silent film era. The Thursday version is focused on the arts, with visits to some of Downtown’s galleries and a behind-the-scenes look at the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.
One of the stops on the tour that most impresses the groups, Sass said, is the “secret” tunnel beneath Forsyth Street between the concourse at the BB&T Building and 121 W. Forsyth St., the former Atlantic National Bank. The tunnel was built as a secure path for the transfer of money between the banks that were built along the street in the early 20th century after the Great Fire of 1901.
Decorated with historic photographs of Downtown’s earliest days, the north end end of the tunnel is the site of an ornate abandoned bank vault that Sass intends to have restored to its original grandeur.
During the One Spark festival, Sass registered as a creator and guided guests on an abbreviated walking tour of the tunnel.
“It was a five-minute tour and we took 20 people at a time. It started kind of slowly, but by Friday, they were coming in droves. As soon as we would finish with one group, there were at least 20 people waiting to take the next tour. We showed more than 4,000 people the tunnel during One Spark,” he said. “It’s not a secret anymore.”
The tunnel tour garnered enough interest that Sass placed 36th in the crowdfunding vote count, good enough to receive a check from the festival for $985, the start of a fund to restore the vault door, said Sass.
The tour route has constantly evolved in the past three years. The “top” was originally the roof of the Florida Theatre Building, but now it’s the 42nd floor of Bank of America Tower, the tallest building between Atlanta and Orlando.
Sass said the next planned addition to the Thursday tour will be the roof of the Greenleaf & Crosby Building along Laura Street.
“There’s a great view of ‘Wisdom,’ the owl sculpture at the Main Library, and you can really see Shaun Thurston’s mural at Chamblin’s Uptown,” he said.
For more information about discovering Downtown on foot, visit adlibtours.com.