Legislation would provide $2.02 million for Jacksonville history center

The features will include multimedia displays, revolving exhibits and a research center at the old Florida Casket Co. building Downtown.

  • By Ric Anderson
  • | 12:00 a.m. February 26, 2024
  • | 4 Free Articles Remaining!
The three-story brick Florida Casket Co. building Downtown at 318 Palmetto St.
The three-story brick Florida Casket Co. building Downtown at 318 Palmetto St.
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In discussing his enthusiasm for creating a Jacksonville history center, City Council member Matt Carlucci paints a picture of a museum as multicultural and ethnically diverse as the city itself.

“This is going to be a place to collect the identities of every side of town,” he said. 

“The southwest side of Jacksonville has its own traditions and cultures. The Eastside does, San Marco does, Oceanway does, Bayard does, and I could go on. We’ve got a lot of stories to tell about everybody who lives here, on every side of town. Every demographic has got a story to tell about their history.”

Jacksonville City Council member Matt Carlucci.

To bring those stories under one roof and help preserve Jacksonville’s past for current and future generations, Carlucci has spearheaded legislation that would provide $2.02 million of city funding to create a history center in the 104-year-old Florida Casket Co. building Downtown.

Ordinance 2024-0118, filed Feb. 13, would add to funding previously approved by the city to renovate the building, where the history center would be housed. 

The former casket factory is at 318 Palmetto St., next to the Jacksonville Historical Society’s offices and near VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena to the west. 

The museum, as outlined by Carlucci and in the legislation, would focus on the city’s civil rights history, its resurrection after the Great Fire of 1901, its music and cultural heritage, its founding and consolidation, its military background and shipbuilding industry, and much more. 

Carlucci said the center would feature multimedia displays and rotating exhibits to create a dynamic and vibrant visitor experience.

Diversity will be a key focus, both in cultures and in the city’s ethnic heritage.

“We’ve got probably the deepest history of any city when it comes to being the birthplace of some of the leading national African American figures in our country,” Carlucci said, citing A. Philip Randolph, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. 

The Florida Casket Co. building Downtown at 318 Palmetto St. is next to the Jacksonville Historical Society offices.

Plans call for the three-story building to include a music and general history museum on the first floor, a performance and event space on the second floor and an archive storage and research center on the top floor. 

In 2020, Council approved $50,000 in upfront funding for the project. In 2022, the city signed a grant agreement providing another $500,000. 

That same year, the Downtown Development Review Board gave final design approval to renovate the building and add three-story stucco structures to its east and west sides, expanding the original 13,500-square-foot structure to 15,200 square feet. 

The additions will house restrooms, a catering kitchen and stairwells that will bring the building up to modern building codes and public safety regulations.

In November 2021, Preston Haskell, founder of the Jacksonville-based global architecture, engineering and construction firm, pledged $400,000 to establish the Haskell Archive at the casket building. The gift will support the renovation of the second floor of the three-story structure. 

The nonprofit society also received a $50,000 gift from the Clifford and LaVonne Graese Foundation, also intended for the renovation of the Florida Casket Co. building.

The city’s grant agreement took effect in October 2022 and expired at the end of September 2023. 

According to the ordinance, the historical society encountered problems beyond its control in obtaining permits for the project. The costs of the renovation also increased substantially during that time, the ordinance states.

The new legislation extends the grant agreement while also providing new funding. Carlucci along with Council members Joe Carlucci, Ken Amaro, Chris Miller and Jimmy Peluso are backing the bill. 

The Florida Casket Co. building is west of VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

The ordinance would help fund the first two phases of the museum project, which would completely renovate the building. The third phase, which the historical society would fund through private donations, involves filling the museum with furnishings, exhibit technology, equipment and more.

Alan Bliss, CEO of the Jacksonville Historical Society, said work could begin within a few weeks on the first phase, which will involve installing a new electrical supply and building the stairwell additions. Crabtree Construction Co. of Jacksonville will serve as the lead contractor. 

Bliss said the cost of the first two phases would total an estimated $3.3 million. The historical society has raised about $630,000 for the project, he said. 

The cost of the third phase is being determined, but Bliss said he was using a preliminary figure of $2 million. 

Carlucci said the city funding would come from a fund balance. He said the $2 million is designed to fast-track the project, as opposed to the “partial” amounts of funding that have been provided in the past. 

“We’re doing the $2 million to finish the damn thing,” he said.

“I think that will make raising the money for finishing it out much easier to do. People don’t want to start donating money for the interior build-out unless they know the thing’s going to get built.”

In an interview with the Daily Record, Carlucci spoke passionately about the project. He said he hoped to see the history center come to life by the end of his term in 2027. 

“One of the things I’m most excited about is that I think it’s going to compel a lot of people to share their own interesting stories of the histories of their families, or perhaps the history of their neighborhoods,” he said.

“I think it’s going to compel citizens with interesting, valuable historic collections to offer items to display.”

Carlucci said it is time for Jacksonville to become a “big-boy city” and catch up to other large Florida communities that have invested millions of dollars into museums. 

Those include Tampa, where the Tampa Bay History Center operates in a contemporary glass-and-steel waterfront building; Orlando, where a 1927 courthouse has been converted into a museum; and Miami, home of the Smithsonian-affiliated HistoryMiami Museum.

Unlike Jacksonville’s Museum of Science & History, the history center would be fully devoted to Jacksonville’s past. 

The casket factory shares a parking lot with the former St. Luke’s Hospital building, which was built in 1878 and now houses the historical society’s offices.

Original plans called for the casket building to be devoted to music history. In 2023, the state Legislature approved $500,000 in state funding for the music history museum. Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the funding without comment.

Bliss said the historical society has again sought funding from the Legislature for the project.

Despite last year’s veto, he said, “we have reason to be hopeful and optimistic” that the state will come through for the project during the current legislative session.



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