A Locomotive Is Buried Below This Skyscraper

January 8, 2017

The incredible account of building what was once Florida's tallest skyscraper around an entombed steam locomotive.




Once Florida's tallest building, the structure still stands as one of the Southeast's most distinctive office towers.

Independent Life was founded in Downtown Jacksonville in 1920. As the company grew, it occupied various buildings throughout downtown before eventually moving into Independent Square. Hurricane Andrew would lead to the fall of Independent Life, which was eventually sold to Houston-based American General Corporation in 1995.



Downtown Jacksonville's riverfront prior to the construction of Independent Square and The Landing


The complex occupies the entire block where Independent Life's first company-owned building stood. The tower's design concept included a sloping base and larger corner frames to provide a distinctive image not only for the company, but also as an identifying landmark for the city of Jacksonville.



The building was also intended to become a "city under one roof." When completed, the first floor contained several retail spaces, restaurants, a bank, a 360 seat theater-style auditorium, and an indoor four story atrium of tropical vegetation.





The design of the building's exterior entryways and series of exterior plazas raised above street level was a result of a doomed and since abandoned attempt to revitalize downtown called the 1971 Downtown Jacksonville Master Plan. The consulting firm Rogers, Taliaferro, Kostritsky, and Lamb (RTKL) of Baltimore envisioned creating a mall-like environment stretching from present-day First Baptist Church and over to the riverfront.








Hemming Park would be renamed Hemming Plaza, paving over the lush greenspace with a series of cascading concrete elevations that would serve as a central plaza for a pedestrian mall that would bounded by Hogan and Laura Streets and stretch from Church Street to the riverfront. A series of elevated walkways would also be constructed that would stretch from the river to the Cathedral Apartments along Ocean Street. The elevated walkways throughout downtown never materialized, however remnants of what was hoped to become that system can be seen today by looking at the elevated plazas that exist at the Wells Fargo Building, the BB&T Building, the JEA Building and the complete removal of buildings along Main Street (which was to become part of a transit loop diverting vehicular traffic around the pedestrian mall along Laura and Hogan Streets).






Independent Square held the title of the tallest building in the state until 1981, when One Tampa City Center was completed. The nearby Bank of America Tower surpassed it in height to become the city's tallest building in 1990.


The tower's 34th and 35th floors are occupied by the River Club of Jacksonville. Purchased by Gate Petroleum in 2004, the private business club was established in 1954 and uses the space for a variety of meetings, parties and receptions.



Image Credit: River Club of Jacksonville


Cover image by Karl E. Holland courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.


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