A look inside Jacksonville's historic Laura Street Trio

April 30, 2017

A property containing a few of Florida's oldest abanonded skyscrapers is on its way to finally being brought back to life. With this in mind, Bullet of Abandoned Florida takes an inside look at Jacksonville's Laura Trio while Ennis Davis, AICP of Modern Cities provides the background narrative.

Inside the Bisbee Building

In 1908, Marble Bank would be joined by a new neighbor on Forsyth Street in the form of William Adolphus Bisbee's ten-story Bisbee Building.  A native of Jacksonville, Bisbee was born on December 13, 1861 as the tenth child of the twelve born to Cyrus and Virginia Bisbee.  At the age of seventeen, he was employed as a clerk in a merchantile house and soon after, as a prescription clerk in a drug store.  Desiring a career change, he shifted his focus to the real estate industry and by the age of twenty-seven he was elected to the office of City Treasurer.  

During the Cuban independence movement of the 1890s, he joined other citizens such as Napoleon Bonaparte Broward in sponsoring filibuster expeditions to the island.  In 1895, Bisbee purchased a steam tug called the Dauntless that made at least 13 successful gunrunning expeditions to Cuba.  Under Captain James Floyd and pilot "Dynamite" Jonny O' Brien, the Dauntless made national headlines as it successfully avoided U.S. revenue cutters and Spanish Men of War, and later went on to be chartered by the Associated Press to transport correspondents during the Spanish-American War in 1898.  In 1899, he relocated to Savannah and founded the Georgia Telephone & Telegraph Company.  At the time it was the only underground system south of the Mason and Dixon line.  Four months after the Great Fire of 1901, he purchased property from his family and constructed the “old” Bisbee Building at the northeast corner of West Bay and Laura Streets in downtown Jacksonville.  Designed by G. L. Norman, one of Altanta’s most prominent late 19th century architects, this building was designed with a German Renaissance architectural theme.  Still standing, this structure now houses a Region’s Bank branch.

With Jacksonville rapidly densifying in the first decade after the Great Fire, Bisbee saw greater opportunity in Jacksonville than Savannah.  In 1907, he sold his Georgia Telephone & Telegraph Company, which had grown to 3,000 telephones in operation, and relocated back to Jacksonville.  Soon Bisbee announced his intentions to develop a 25-foot-wide high-rise office building, next to the “Marble Bank,” and commissioned noted local architect Henry John Klutho for the design.  

Born in Breese, IL in 1873, Klutho attended Schenk's Drawing Academy in St. Louis, MO where he worked for several architectural firms.  After a tour of Europe in 1898, Klutho opened his own practice in New York City.  Reading about the Great Fire of 1901 in the New York Times, and recognizing the opportunity of a lifetime, he moved to Jacksonville a month after the fire.  During a business trip to New York City in 1905, Klutho met Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright and other Chicago-area architects had originated a new American style of design that became known as "Prairie School", which discarded traditional European standards, such as Roman arches and Greek columns.  The new style appealed to Klutho, and the Bisbee, and later the Florida Life building, became opportunities to apply Midwestern-oriented architectural styles in Jacksonville.

The building would be the first high-rise structure designed by Klutho.  The Bisbee became Florida's earliest example of the Chicago School style.  Some of the distinguishing features of the Chicago School were the use of steel-frame buildings with masonry cladding (usually terra cotta), and large three-part, plate-glass windows consisting of a large, fixed center panel flanked by two smaller, double-hung sash windows.  Frank Lloyd Wright got his start in the firm of Adler and Sullivan, which was noted for its Chicago School skyscrapers.  The Bisbee would also be the first reinforced concrete high-rise in Florida.  At the time, using concrete strengthened by reinforcing steel rods as a construction material was considered cutting-edge and revolutionary.  This structural system was so new that the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company would not provide a construction loan for the Bisbee until its own architect came to Jacksonville to review Klutho's plans with the building's contractor, Southern Ferro Concrete Company.

With the novelty of being Jacksonville's first skyscraper, all of the building's spaces were leased before construction was complete.  As a result, Bisbee doubled the size of the narrow tower by removing the new east wall and adding a second half, which was completed in March 1910.  Original tenants in the building included the Florida Life Insurance Company, Peninsular Casualty Company, Fletcher & Dodge, the Duval Trust Company, and the Anti-Saloon League of Florida.  The Anti-Saloon League was the leading organization lobbying for prohibition in the early 20th century. It was a key component of the Progressive Era, and was strongest in the South and rural North, drawing heavy support from pietistic Protestant ministers and their congregations, especially Methodists, Baptists, Disciples and Congregationalists. Its triumph was nationwide Prohibition locked into the Constitution with passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920. It was decisively defeated when the Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Excerpt from Reclaiming Jacksonville by Ennis Davis

Redevelopment plans for the majority of the Bisbee Building call for the 10-story structure to become a part of a new Courtyard by Marriott hotel that will be manageed by Winegardner & Hammons Hotel Group, LLC. (WHI).  WHI is a full-service hotel management company with a portfolio that includes resorts, all-suite, extended-stay, select service, full service and conference center hotels in many diverse markets across the United States. In addition, at street level, the Bisbee Building will include a small bodega grocery mart facing Forsyth Street.

Inside the Marble Bank Building

Inside the Florida Life Building

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