Today, Confederate Park and playground, H.J. Klutho Park, W.W. Schell Park, and McPherson Park combine to form 37 acres of green space forming the border between Downtown and Springfield. A look into the area’s history suggests that this was Jacksonville’s true, great urban park.

Historic markers and history books are quick to mention that it was the site of the 24th Annual National Reunion of the United Confederate Veterans, but this urban park’s history is much more culturally diverse and important to the development of the city than that limited mention.

The Sub-Tropical Exposition. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

What evolved into the city’s premier public grounds dates back to 1878, when 5.5 acres of land was acquired, establishing Waterworks Park. At the height of the Gilded Era, it was here where the Sub-Tropical Exposition was developed to lure tourists to Florida. When the enormous exhibition hall opened its doors to the public on January 12, 1888, guests included President Grover Cleveland, Frederick Douglass, and railroad magnate Henry Plant. A yellow fever outbreak hampered the hall’s ability to draw tourists, leading to a more functional use; the construction of waterworks pump house buildings that in 2003 were supposed to become the central features of a JEA Waterworks laboratory, museum and visitors center complex.

In 1898, with Jacksonville being a hotbed of support for Cuba’s freedom movement, what would become Jacksonville’s premier urban park served as a Camp Cuba Libre campsite for the 49th Regiment of Iowa Infantry during the Spanish-American War. That same year, the Springfield Development Company deeded to the city for public use an additional forty acres of land that stretched north to Tenth Street along Hogans Creek. This was a fortuitous expansion, as a few years later, it was this space that stopped the Great Fire of 1901 from being much more devastating that it could have been. An additional 20 acres was purchased in 1907 for the creation of Dignan Park.

Springfield Park shortly after the completion of the Hogans Creek Improvement Project. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

Comprised of Dignan, Waterworks, and Springfield Parks, the city’s premier urban park consisted of nearly 66 continuous acres, serving as an attractive border between Downtown, Springfield, and Sugar Hill.

In 1914, it was here where the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens got its start with a single red deer. In 1924, partially due to flooding and odor concerns, the zoo was relocated to its current site overlooking the Trout River.

A 1940s aerial of the Sugar Hill neighborhood (highlighted) that shows Springfield Park and the Hogans Creek Improvement Project forming the border between the former upscale black neighborhood and Springfield.

To overcome continued flooding problems, a $500,000 bond issue was approved in 1927 to finance the construction of the Hogans Creek Improvement Project. When completed in 1929, the H.J. Klutho-led design transformed the space into a scenic Venetian-style promenade featuring decorative balustrades, light fixtures, six vehicular bridges, three footbridges, and two lakes to serve as flood water reservoirs. The restoration of the Main Street bridge, part of this significant 1920s historic cultural landscape, received a Florida Trust for Historic Preservation award in the Restoration/Rehabilitation category just last month, June 2018, during the Florida Trust conference in Jacksonville.

Home to baseball fields, a municipal swimming pool, dog parks, playscapes, tennis and basketball courts, a paved bike trail, fountains, gazebos, public restrooms, monuments and more, what was Jacksonville’s premier urban park already features a layout that embraces flexibility and amenities for different groups of people using the space and destinations throughout its path. If marketed properly, its promenade and authentic history could easily be used to strengthen its image and identity; all are critical elements of every great public space.

Inside the Karpeles Manuscript Museum

Furthermore, adjacent historic buildings such as the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, State Board of Health, Waterworks, Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, Old Duval County Armory, and the Springfield residences lining the park are every bit as impressive as anything one can find in places like Savannah, Charleston, and St. Augustine. What it lacks, making management of the park a central concern, is a comprehensive, unified vision for uniting these buildings with the overall landscape, and funding sources for continued maintenance.

While Jacksonville may have one of the nation’s largest parks systems, it falls short when it comes to investing in the maintenance of these spaces. According to the Trust for Public Land’s 2017 ParkScore Index, the city’s park system ranked 90th when compared to the country’s 100 largest cities.

The decayed and forgotten state of Downtown’s original “Central Park” serves as a visual microcosm of this problem. As conversations advance regarding the need for additional public spaces within the urban core, serious thought should be given to shifting our focus to maintaining, reusing, and promoting the grand historic spaces and landscapes we already have.

TOUR OF SPRINGFIELD PARK

John N. McPherson Park

John N. McPherson Park is what is left of the original northern section of Springfield Park. Along with Warren Schell Park, it served as a border between Springfield and Sugar Hill, the upscale Segregation era black neighborhood. In 1972, the Duval County Health Department was constructed on park land at the intersection of West 6th Street and Boulevard Street.

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John N. McPherson Park is located in the West Springfield area of Jacksonville, at the intersection of Boulevard and Eighth Street. The property originally comprised part of Springfield Park, most of which the City created between 1899 and 1901 on land donated by the Springfield Company. The area around the park eventually became a thriving medical complex containing hospitals and a public health clinic. After the Historic Springfield Community Council initiated a project to develop the park, the City oversaw its creation in 1990. The new facility was named Gateway Park because it made a lovely entrance to Springfield, and later featured the Henry J. Klutho Memorial Gazebo (built in 1992). The City Council changed the name in 2004 to honor John McPherson (1928-2000), a 27-year Navy veteran of three wars, who was a community activist, volunteer, and supporter of neighborhood improvements, who often inspired others by example.

City of Jacksonville Park, Recreation and Community Services

Warren Schell, Jr Memorial Park

Located just south of John McPherson Park, Warren Schell, Jr Memorial Park formed the southern border between the neighborhoods of Springfield and Sugar Hill. A pond for flood control, constructed as a part of the Hogans Creek Improvement Project and later filled, was located at the south end of this park, adjacent to Boulevard Street.

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The park was originally part of Springfield Park, which opened in 1901. After its founding in 1904, the Springfield Improvement Association sponsored beautification projects and weekly concerts at the park, in addition to the Hogans Creek Improvement Project that was completed in 1930. Designed by Henry J. Klutho and engineered by Charles V. Imeson, the project greatly beautified the park, which was further enhanced by the new Springfield Park Pool that opened in 1939. The City changed the name of Springfield Park to Henry J. Klutho Park in 1984, and renamed a portion of Klutho Park in 1992 to honor Warren Schell (1916-1992), a local African-American physician, civil rights advocate, and prominent community leader, who served as chairman of the Jacksonville Urban League for twenty years

City of Jacksonville Park, Recreation and Community Services

State Board of Health

Henry J. Klutho Park

Henry J. Klutho Park is located on both sides of Pearl Street as it crossing Hogans Creek between Downtown and Springfield. This section of Springfield Park was the location of the original Jacksonville Zoo.

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Henry J. Klutho Park (formerly known as Springfield Park) is located in the Springfield section of north Jacksonville. Most of the park and adjacent Boulevard were created along Hogans Creek between 1899 and 1901, on land donated by a developer, the Springfield Company. The City’s first zoo opened at the park in 1914, followed by the first municipal swimming pool in 1922. Founded in 1904, the Springfield Improvement Association & Woman’s Club has steadfastly worked for the beautification of the park. The Hogans Creek Improvement Project of 1929-30, designed by architect Henry Klutho (1873-1964) and engineered by Charles Imeson, turned much of the park grounds into a lovely Venetian-style promenade. The City renamed a portion of Springfield Park in 1984 to honor Mr. Klutho, a Springfield resident whose high-rise buildings in downtown and Prairie School of architecture transformed Jacksonville after the Great Fire of 1901.

City of Jacksonville Park, Recreation and Community Services

Klutho Park (East of Pearl Street)

Klutho Park (West of Pearl Street)

Karpeles Manuscript Museum

This building was constructed in 1921 and is located on the corner of 1st and Laura Streets, overlooking Hogans Creek and Klutho Park. Today it houses the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. The Karpeles Library is the world’s largest private holding of important original manuscripts and documents. Archives include Literature, Science, Religion, History, and Art. Among the treasures are: The original draft of the Bill of Rights of the United States, the original manuscript of Felix Mendelssohn’s “The Wedding March,” Einstein’s description of his “Theory of Relativity,” the “Thanksgiving Proclamation” signed by George Washington, Roget’s “Thesaurus,” Webster’s “Dictionary,” and over one million more items.

Waterworks Park

The JEA Waterworks Pumphouse is located on what was once known as Waterworks Park. The building’s exterior is recognized as one of Jacksonville’s finest pre-World War I industrial facades. When the structure was constructed in 1915, it also had a large water tower and tall smokestacks. Before its creation, the site also served as the home of the Sub-Tropical Exposition.

The Sub-Tropical Exposition was a large elaborate facility constructed to lure tourist to Jacksonville. It featured an electrically-lit fountain of stone and coral, filled with rare fish, a Seminole Indian Camp, displays of Florida products, an art gallery, artificial lakes, and a zoo. It opened to much fanfare in 1888, but was torn down in 1897 to make way for a new water reservoir. This section of original Jacksonville park space is currently inaccessible to the public.

Claude Nolan Cadillac

Confederate Park

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Confederate Park is located near downtown, in the Springfield area of north Jacksonville. First named Dignan Park, for a chairman of the Board of Public Works. It opened in 1907 and contained the City’s first supervised playground. The United Confederate Veterans chose Jacksonville as the site for their annual reunion in 1914, and the park as the site for a monument honoring the Women of the Southland. Five months after the reunion of an estimated 8,000 former Confederate soldiers, the City renamed the park, and the monument was erected the next year. During the early decades, citizens came from all over Jacksonville to attend cultural events at the park or to see the beautiful Rose Arbor. Visitors strolled along the lovely Hogans Creek Promenade that opened in 1930, and in more recent years attend events sponsored by the Springfield Improvement Association & Woman’s Club.

City of Jacksonville Park, Recreation and Community Services

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple

Confederate Playground

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Confederate Playground is located near downtown, in the Springfield section of north Jacksonville. First named Dignan Park, for a chairman of the Board of Public Works, it opened in 1907 and contained the City’s first supervised playground. The United Confederate Veterans chose Jacksonville as the site for their twenty-fourth annual reunion in 1914, which was attended by an estimated 48,000 former Confederate soldiers. Many of the activities took place in the park, and five months later it was renamed Confederate Park. Troops, many from the nearby Armory, used the playground portion of the park for drill grounds and tent/hut encampments during both World Wars. The playground was permanently established as a separate facility from Confederate Park in the 1950’s, and today provides open space and recreational facilities for residents of the Springfield and downtown communities.

City of Jacksonville Park, Recreation and Community Services

Duval County Armory

Editorial by Ennis Davis, AICP. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of ModernCities.com and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com