Devan Stuart Lesley used to ride by the dilapidated structures along Arlington Road with a feeling.
The kind of feeling that “something very cool” happened in the group of buildings nestled in Old Arlington.
She knew the story behind Norman Studios. She followed it as a local journalist, but didn’t realize the five buildings a couple of blocks from her home were the famed studios that played a part in Jacksonville’s silent film history.
Frankly, she didn’t think they still existed — and for years it looked like they might not much longer.
“The buildings looked like they would blow down if you sneezed in their direction,” she said.
After leaving journalism in the early 2000s, Lesley — an admitted history buff — joined the effort others began more than a decade earlier to preserve the area’s silent film history.
The local movement led to the city purchasing the Norman Studios property, with the exception of one building owned by a church. The structural integrity and exterior were restored. An errant sneeze would no longer mean possible catastrophe.
And in 2007, the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum Inc. formed, solidifying the preservationists’ efforts solely on keeping and restoring the studio to its former glory.
Last week came positive news when state Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced the facility was added to the National Register of Historic Places. That allows the group to pursue grant opportunities, but the goal, Lesley said, is to eventually land a national historic landmark designation.
For much of his career, Norman, a white film producer, bucked the trend of stereotyping black actors to specific roles. Instead, he cast them in lead and more prominent roles. He settled in Arlington during the city’s time as an unofficial film capital before the industry moved west to Hollywood.
Unfortunately, the only film that has survived over the years is “The Flying Ace,” a tale of a former World War I pilot returning home to resume his job as a railroad detective. Other full-length films like ”The Green Eyed Monster,” “The Bull Dogger” and “The Crimson Skull” have disappeared or were destroyed by time.
“The Holy Grail would be finding some of them,” Lesley said.
But without them, Lesley and the organization’s mission still continues. She’s the group’s co-chair along with the communications committee director.
In the coming months, a fundraising campaign will be launched with funds sought for research projects, the possible purchase of the last building from the church and continuing to restore the piece of Jacksonville history.
Volunteers always are needed, she said, and a paid membership plan with different perks is being devised. Those details likely will be released this year to coincide with an “Old Hollywood Glam Party” being planned.
In the meantime, the popular “Silent Sunday” film screenings will continue every month or so and the group will continue garnering support and funds for its mission.
After all, Lesley and the organization want others to know about the history and help preserve it. History others may not realize is there — or as it was for Lesley, hidden around the corner.