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 Florida Life Building

In 1912, the Marble Bank and Bisbee Buildings would be joined by the Florida Life Building.  At the time, the eleven-story building was Florida's tallest. Also designed by Klutho, this building has been described as being "Jacksonville's purest statement of a skyscraper, and the most beautiful high-rise building in Jacksonville.”  Like the Bisbee's, Klutho's design for this tower embodied the Chicago School style.  However, it also included additional decorative detailing relating to Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style, which had become influential at the time of the building's construction.

This skyscraper was constructed for the Florida Life Insurance Company, which had quickly outgrown its space in the adjacent Bisbee Building.  Upon completion, Florida Life and its sister company, the Peninsular Casualty Company, occupied nearly thirty percent of the building.  Two years after its completion, a three-room penthouse was added and the roof was landscaped with grass and shrubbery.  This twelve floor structure was built as the residence of C.E. Clark, the secretary of the Peninsular Casualty Company. The Florida Life Insurance Company would go bankrupt in 1915.

Next door at the Marble Bank, the Florida National Bank of Jacksonville continued to grow.  In 1916, at the cost of $135,000, New York-based architects Mowbrary & Uffinger redesigned the Marble Bank building's interior by creating a grand banking room, complete with a skylight, coffered ceiling, and classical plaster detailing.  Needing additional space, Florida National would acquire the Florida Life Building in 1919, then the Bisbee in 1925, officially making the trio its corporate offices.

By 1927, the bank had $27 million in deposits, and after the Great Depression struck in 1929, millionaire Alfred I. du Pont acquired controlling interest in the bank. When du Pont died in 1935, the du Pont Trust, managed by du Pont's brother-in-law Ed Ball, continued to control the bank. Growth continued with the acquisition of many more Florida banks over the next two decades, and financial institution became known as the Florida National Group, one of the strongest banks in the state. With $12.4 million deposits in 1933, the bank's deposits had increased to $177,761,242 by 1956.  In the need of more corporate office space then, a new 11-story office building was constructed one block west of the trio by Ed Ball in 1961.  Now known as the Ed Ball Building, it was constructed using materials which would appreciate in value, such as marble floors and granite exteriors, yet excluded items like hot water and executive washrooms because Ball considered them frills.

Once Florida National Bank relocated to 214 Hogan Street, the Jacksonville National Bank took over the Laura Trio.  In 1978, the bank renovated the Marble Bank, exposing the glass skylight that had been covered with a dropped ceiling decades earlier.  In 1984, the bank was taken over by NCNB National Bank of Florida. In 1992, NCNB merged the C&S/Sovran Corporation, creating the nation's fourth largest bank at the time, and second largest bank in Florida behind Barnett Banks, Inc. NationsBank, the new company had $118 billion in assets and nineteen thousand branches in nine states.  The $4.3-billion merger deal meant nine thousand banking jobs would be lost over the next three years in Florida.  In 1992, the NCNB branch in the Laura Trio closed after its operations were relocated to North Carolina.

In 1993, the original elaborate design of the Florida Life Building was greatly compromised when its broad, overhanging, copper cornice and terra cotta capitals were removed due to public safety concerns for pedestrians.

Excerpt from Reclaiming Jacksonville by Ennis Davis

Redevelopment plans for the majority of the Florida Life Building call for the 11-story structure to become a part of a new Courtyard by Marriott hotel that will be manageed by Winegardner & Hammons Hotel Group, LLC. (WHI).  Specifically, the ground floor of the Florida Life Building will serve as the hotel's grand lobby, while the floors above will become hotel rooms overlooking the Northbank skyline.  Furthermore, a new multi-floor building will be constructed along the north side of the Florida Life Building to house additional hotel rooms, a rooftop bar, 5,000 square feet of meeting space and a restaurant called The Bistro.  Facing Adams Street, The Bistro offers a menu ranging from hot breakfast and coffee to dinner and drinks for business travelers staying at hotels operating under the Courtyard by Marriott brand.

Inside the Marble Bank Building

Inside the Bisbee Building

Photographs courtesy of Bullet at Abandoned Florida

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Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com

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