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Photo by Tracy Jones - Emily Lisska stands in the library of the Old St. Luke's Hospital on Palmetto Street. The old hospital is one of four buildings occupied by the Jacksonville Historical Society.
Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Aug. 28, 201312:00 PM EST

Workspace: Emily Lisska, Jacksonville Historical Society

by: Tracy Jones

Ask Emily Lisska nearly anything about Jacksonville's history, and she'll not only answer you, but she'll likely add the details and anecdotes that make the city's past even richer.

It's part of Lisska's job as executive director of the Jacksonville Historical Society to be well-informed about the city's past. But another major component of her position is as the keeper of some of Jacksonville's most treasured items – from John Peyton's racing suit for a Born to Read event to turn-of-the-century medical equipment.

"There's not one person who has looked at everything we have - it is impossible," Lisska said, who has been leading the society since 1996. "The collection continues to grow and grow."

The historical society operates out of four locations: the Old St. Andrews Church on A. Philip Randolph Boulevard, the Merrill House, which neighbors the church, the Old St. Luke's Hospital and the

Florida Casket Factory, both on Palmetto Street.

Like the items they house, each facility serves an important role in the history of the city. St. Andrews, which also is used as a venue for events such as weddings, was dedicated on Easter Sunday of 1888.

"At the time, the city was unaware that they would soon be in the throws of a yellow fever epidemic," Lisska said about the church's beginnings. "By that summer, the city would be quarantined from the world and the world from the city."

The society took over maintaining the building exactly 110 years after its original dedication. St. Andrews and the Merrill House are owned by the City. The society is about three years into a 25-year lease.

"The church is an example of one of the buildings that was preserved," she said. "Jacksonville has lost so many to bulldozing and demolition, and this is one that got saved due to the efforts of many, many people."

Another building saved in part because of Lisska's efforts is the Merrill House, an interpretive home furnished as a family might have lived in 1903, when the city was recovering from the Great Fire of 1901. The inside is furnished with hand-carved wood furniture, antique paintings and a bear-skin rug.

However, many of Lisska's favorite items are housed in the Old St. Luke's Hospital and the neighboring Florida Casket Factory, which include photo collections, diaries, journals and mementos from some of Jacksonville's most important moments. The hospital has a room dedicated to the building's medical past and displays a nurse's journal and surgical equipment from the time. The society also acquired all of the old mortgage and deed books from the old courthouse, which are in the Florida Casket Factory building.

Although Lisska is eager to share the city's history with anyone, one request she won't grant is from television producers of ghost-hunter shows who want to see if any of the properties are haunted.

"I'm very protective of our archives," she said. "That's a little frightening for us from a standpoint of the preciousness of them."

Tracy Jones

(904) 356-2466

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