Downtown Jacksonville's most endangered buildings

In honor of National Historic Preservation Month, here's a brief list of overlooked buildings, structures and landmarks in Downtown Jacksonville that could end up becoming the next in the city's vast assortment of poorly-maintained surface parking lots or grass fields.

1. Brooklyn’s last post-Civil War cottage

328 Chelsea Street

Jacksonville during the Civil War was a hotbed of Union sentiment, with many white citizens and virtually all African-Americans supporting the U.S. cause. The Union occupied Jacksonville four times and held the town permanently after the last occupation in February 1864. A large portion of the Union’s soldiers were former enslaved who joined up to fight the Confederacy in order to secure freedom for their loved ones. After the end of the war, many veterans and their families stuck around and established Jacksonville’s earliest Black neighborhoods. One of these was located in the northwest portion of Brooklyn, which grew into a sizable Reconstruction-era Black community.

There’s no record of who built the house, but it predates the 1868 plat of the neighborhood – a fact that can be seen even today, as the front of the house juts out toward the street. This makes the house one of the few buildings providing a direct link with Jacksonville’s Reconstruction-era past. The house is sometimes known as the Buffalo Soldier House, although this is anachronistic, as it would predate the establishment of all-Black “buffalo soldier” regiments who served in the Indian Wars.

The historic home, like most of the older buildings still standing in Brooklyn, are in danger of demolition. Failing in its 2013 request to become recognized as a local historic district, much of the storied Gullah Geechee neighborhood has been erased from existence with the recent emergence of Brooklyn as a popular location for urban living. With gentrification in full effect, this boarded up and abandoned post-Civil War cottage is the last still standing.

2. 801 West Forsyth Street

120 years ago Houston Street, then named Ward Street, was the epicenter of Jacksonville’s bustling red light district. The district originated in early 1887 as a result of Jacksonville mayor John Q. Burbridge chasing most of Jacksonville’s prostitutes over the city line into the suburb of LaVilla. Burbridge’s efforts were thwarted when Jacksonville later annexed LaVilla a few months later on May 31, 1887. After the January 1897 opening of Henry Flagler’s Jacksonville Terminal Company passenger railroad depot, the red light district grew rapidly and ultimately became known as “The Line”.

By the early 20th century, the Line was home to more than 60 bordellos concentrated along four blocks of Ward Street between Lee and Bridge streets. Also home to a large number of saloons and gambling houses, the Line was recognized as a dangerous place where drunkenness, crime and harsh living were common. The Line existed until the criminalization of prostitution in early 20th century. Following several attempts to erase this colorful element of local history, most of the structures associated with the red light district were demolished during the previous 50 years. 801 West Forsyth Street may be the last surviving bordello in the district. Public directories and Sanborn maps indicate this building once housed a red light district saloon that was owned and operated by Black businessman and bordello owner George Stevens.

3. Fairfield Elementary School

515 Victoria Street

Fairfield, one of urban Jacksonville’s oldest communities, was largely located beneath the Mathews Bridge. Fairfield’s beginnings came in the late 1860s when New Yorker Jacob S. Parker acquired over 150 acres along the St. Johns River. Soon, Parker helped establish the second paved road and first toll facility in Duval County through the area. A few years later in 1876, Parker established Jacksonville’s first fairgrounds on the northernmost portion of his property, a situation made possible in part because Parker was the manager of the first Florida state fair.

The fair’s popularity sparked Parker’s further interest in real estate, which resulted in him naming the surrounding area “Fairfield”. In 1880, the community was incorporated as a town and Parker was elected as the first mayor. In 1887, with a population of 543 residents, the City of Fairfield was annexed into Jacksonville.

The old Fairfield Public School is one of the largest buildings from the neighborhood’s heyday that still survives. Completed in 1919 on a parcel now bounded by two expressways, the building is seldom used and underutilized.

4. Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows Hall

330 West State Street

The Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows is one of many currently unprotected buildings in downtown worthy of a local landmark designation. According to James Weldon Johnson, the Odd Fellows lodges were made up of white collar workers, in contrast to the local Masonic lodges which recruited largely from stevedores, hod carriers, lumber mill workers and brickyard hands. Located at the southeast corner of State and Cedar (now Pearl) streets, the Odd Fellows Hall was designed as a three-level building with retail on the ground floor.

Built right after the Great Fire of 1901, this is where the Cookman Institute held its graduation ceremony in 1907. A young A. Philip Randolph, the class valedictorian, gave a speech he called “The Man of the Hour.” Randolph would later organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African-American labor union, as well as the March on Washington in 1963. In March 1912, Booker T. Washington, co-founder of the National Negro Business League and key proponent of African-American businesses, visited Jacksonville as a part of his Florida tour. The Odd Fellows Hall hosted a banquet held for him after he arrived in town by special train. In later years, Zora Neale Hurston also performed at the Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows.

In later years, it was the location of a Green Book site, the Sunrise Restaurant. The restaurant was located inside George D. Wood’s Independent Furniture Company store on the ground floor of the Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows Hall. Wood was the president of the Mount Olive Cemetery Association and owner of the furniture store and the Durkeeville Apartments. Currently vacant, in recent years this building was occupied by River Region Human Services Inc. but is now in danger of demolition.

5. Genovar’s Hall

644 West Ashley Street

This building was constructed by Sebastian Genovar in 1895. It originally housed his grocery business. During the early 20th century, this three-story structure housed a variety of businesses during the formative years of ragtime, jazz and blues genres in LaVilla. In 1931, the Wynn Hotel opened in the building’s upper floors, while a jazz club called the Lenape Tavern and Bar opened on the first floor.

Operated by Jack D. Wynn, the hotel became a favorite spot of Louis Armstrong when visiting LaVilla. In addition to Armstrong, others who performed at the Lenape include Dizzie Gillespie, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Louis Jordan and Ray Charles, who briefly lived one block south on West Church Street. Since the 1990s River City Renaissance urban renewal program, the property has been owned by the City of Jacksonville, although past attempts to restore it haven’t found success.