1. Manuel’s Tap Room

Manuel’s Tap Room was located at 626 W. Ashley Street. Manuel’s was described in the January 1942 issue of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, as “the finest of its kind in the South.”

Courtesy of The Crisis, January 1942

Owned by Manuel Rivera, the lounge and grill was a popular place for drinking, dining and dancing. Manuel’s was open 24 hours a day, something that’s hard to find anywhere in downtown today.

Inside Hayes Luncheonette in 1938.

Manuel’s was just one of several popular establishments where one could grab a meal on Ashley Street. Hayes Luncheonette was located next door at at 634 West Ashley Street. After a failed attempt to revitalize LaVilla during the 1990s, not much is left of the once vibrant Ashley Street strip. In 2015, there are no meals being served up by restaurants on this history block of black entertainment. Instead, the foundations and floor tiles of restaurants, like Manuel’s and Hayes Luncheonette, are being used for parking cars and fostering weeds.

What’s left of Manuel’s Tap Room in 2015.

The foundations of Manuel’s Tap Room and Hayes Luncheonette. The ghostly walls of Genovar’s Hall stand behind them. In the 1920’s, this building became the Wynn Hotel. When in town, Louis Armstrong preferred to stay at the Wynn, because it was “on the street” where the action was. The first floor of this building was occupied by the Lenape Tavern, one of Ashley Street’s most popular nightspots.

In front of the Lenape were two metal horse hitching rails, which still remain. In the early 1940’s this spot was known as “the rail of hope,” where waiters and musicians would hang out, waiting for a job. One of the frequent occupants of the rail was R.C. Robinson, a blind piano player who had attended the Deaf and Blind School in St. Augustine before coming to live with a relative at 633 Church Street, one block away. He developed his talents playing as side-man for some of the well known performers and later rose to stardom himself under the name of Ray Charles.</i>

Stories Behind the Concrete Slabs of Jax: Part I

Stories Behind the Concrete Slabs of Jax: Part II

2. Cunningham Furniture Company

Established as a small bicycle shop by John A. Cunningham in 1889, the Cunningham Furniture Company eventually grew to become Florida’s oldest furniture company and one of the Southeast’s largest home furnishing businesses. Up until 1957, Cunningham’s store anchored downtown Jacksonville’s furniture district in a beautiful 4.5-floor brick structure at the NE corner of West Forsyth and Broad Streets.

The demolition of the former Sears Roebuck and Company Department Store (later Cunningham Furniture) at Broad and Forsyth Streets in 1987. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville.

When Sears, Roebuck & Company relocated from their department store across the street, Cunningham moved in, making it one of the largest furniture stores in the South. While many refer to the 1980s as the “Billion Dollar Decade” in downtown, that decade was more like the plague of death for longtime downtown retailers. After 95 years of operation, the plague found its way to Cunningham, with the furniture institution closing its doors for good in 1984.

Cunningham Furniture building being demolished. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.

A walk to this corner today won’t reveal much about its storied past. Both buildings Cunningham occupied were demolished decades ago. The original Cunningham site lives on as a foundation for a surface parking lot, while the the former Sears store building, was torn down and replaced by a parking garage. Completed in 1988, that garage still stands today.

What became Cunningham Furniture’s first large location was originally a 19th century masonic lodge. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department.

Stories Behind the Concrete Slabs of Jax: Part I

Stories Behind the Concrete Slabs of Jax: Part II

3. Hotel George Washington

The George Washington Hotel during the 1920s. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/31356

On November 11, 1925, Robert Kloeppel announced his intentions to construct the largest and most magnificent hotel in Jacksonville. Designed by local architectural firm Marsh & Saxelbye, Kloeppel’s $1.5 million Hotel George Washington</b></b> opened its doors on December 15, 1926. Standing 13 stories tall, the George Washington was the nation’s first 100% air-conditioned hotel and each of its 350 rooms featured a radio loudspeaker and headphones. The “Hotel George Washington” sign, built on the rooftop, was the first neon sign in the city. With its opening, Jacksonville had arrived on the scene as a rapidly growing cosmopolitan city and hub for conventions and large meetings. Street level retail uses in the massive structure included a steak house, cocktail lounge, a Rexall drugstore and a barber shop.

In 1927, at a George Washington Hotel dinner-dance party, Kloeppel announced a $1,000 prize for the first flier to conquer the Atlantic. His hope was that the winner would come to Jacksonville to collect. His wish came true, when Charles Lindbergh accomplished the feat less than a month later, coming to the George Washington to collect the pot on May 16, 1927.

After Kloeppel’s death, his son sold the hotel to William H. (Big Bill) Johnston in 1963. Johnston, owner of Jacksonville’s dog tracks and Chicagoland’s Sportsman’s Park, had ties with the Al Capone mob. Johnston had taken control over the tracks after the former owner, Edward J. O’Hare, was murdered in a Chicago gangland shooting 1939. O’Hare was the father of Medal of Honor recipient Butch O’Hare, for whom Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is named.

The Brook’s Fashion Show, sponsored by Levy’s and Brook’s Motors, Inc., featuring fine clothes and cars, packed the George Washington’s auditorium in 1960. Courtesy of http://www.imperialclub.com/Yr/1960/1960News/02a-reg.jpg

During Johnston’s reign, the George Washington was downtown’s only five star hotel. In September 1964 on the heals of Hurricane Dora, the Beatles appeared at the George Washington for a press conference. In town for perform at the Gator Bowl, they had refused to accept the Jacksonville booking until they received assurance that the audience would not be segregated by race.

John Lennon of the Beatles during a press conference at the George Washington Hotel in Jacksonville. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/269427

Big Bill Johnston sold the hotel in 1969. After Johnston’s departure, one by one, the businesses inside the ground floor went out of business. The hotel was closed in 1971 and quickly torn down in 1973 for a surface parking lot. At the time, surface parking was considered a higher and best use of older downtown properties than the buildings constructed on them. 42 years later, the site of what was once “The Wonder Hotel of the South” still sits underutilized and virtually abandoned in ruin. If you look hard enough, you can still identify the floors where the likes of Charles Lindbergh and the Beatles once roamed.

The structural remains to the hotel’s parking garage and auditorium. The Brook’s Fashion Show was one of several popular events that took place in the George Washington’s auditorium.

Stories Behind the Concrete Slabs of Jax: Part I

Stories Behind the Concrete Slabs of Jax: Part II

4. E.C. Newsome Furniture Company

What became the long time home of E.C. Newsom Furniture Company dates back to LaVilla’s era as a

Jewish district. Completed before the Great Fire of 1901, the three story brick building’s original tenants included a dry goods store owned and operated by David and Jos Moscovitz. However, the building was mostly known for housing Edward Clarence Newsom’s furniture store. Born in Georgia in 1881, Newsom, who resided at 1850 Liberty Street in Springfield, was also the president of the Florida Furniture and Storage Association. By the 1950s, the store was being operated by Walter and Julian Newsom. As downtown declined in the 1980s, so did the several shops operating in downtown’s furniture district along Broad and West Forsyth Streets.

Newsom Furniture’s storefront in 1951. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/51202 - See more at: https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/51202#sthash.jLrMoJGV.dpuf

In the early 2000s, Newsom’s fell victim to the “downtown gamechanger” syndrome. That “gamechanger” was supposed to be the new Duval County Courthouse. In preparation, several structurally sound buildings that had survived fires, the Great Depression, Hurricane Dora and LaVilla’s 1990s destruction, came rumbling down in hopes of new development being attracted to the new courthouse. According to a Jax Daily Record article at the time, Jacksonville Economic Development Commission Deputy Director Paul Crawford claimed his office issued the demolition permit because the building was condemned and had no significant historical value. He was also quoted in the article stating, “I imagine there’ll be a development plan coming forward in the next couple of years as we get closer to construction of the courthouse”.

Looking at the intersection of Broad and Houston Streets in 1987. Newsom Furniture can be seen in the distance. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville.

After a decade of delays, the courthouse finally opened in 2012. However, other than being a dirt parking lot, the last time 139 Broad Street saw an influx of visitors, it happened to be residents combing through demolition ruble in search of choice bricks.

Stories Behind the Concrete Slabs of Jax: Part I

Stories Behind the Concrete Slabs of Jax: Part II

5. Southern Express Company Stables

Late 19th century routes of the Southern Express Company. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Southern Express Company was established by Henry B. Plant in 1861. By 1900, Southern was one of four principal parcel express companies: Southern Express Company, Adams Express Company, American Express Company, and Wells Fargo. At the time, virtually all express delivery was done via horse, either by stagecoach or by riders.

With local offices in the nearby Jacksonville Terminal, in 1907, Southern Express built an 8,000 square-foot brick structure, at 1269 West Adams Street, to house its horse-drawn wagons and livestock being utilized to carry passengers and freight to and from the train station.

The REA (yellow) and REA garage (red) during the 1950s. The REA garage was originally stables for the Southern Express Company. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/166846

During World War I, the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) consolidated the country’s largest express companies to form the Railway Express Agency (REA). Taking advantage of the city’s rail infrastructure, the REA opened a large pacakging facility on Myrtle Avenue in 1925. With capacity for 250 railcars, it was believed to be the largest REA yard in the country.

Southern’s old stables on West Adams Street became a garage for the nearby REA facility. By 1950, the building was being utilized by the REA for truck repair, welding and spray painting. The REA maintained this structure until shrinking rail traffic forced it into bankruptcy during the mid-170s.

Since the closing of the REA’s Myrtle Avenue hub and the nearby Jacksonville Terminal, this once vibrant industrial section of LaVilla has reverting back to nature. While this historic structure has been spared the wrecking ball that consumed most of the neighborhood in the 1990s, half of it no longer exists.

Stories Behind the Concrete Slabs of Jax: Part I

Stories Behind the Concrete Slabs of Jax: Part II

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