Robert Starrett knew the hotel at the top of the Adams Building well, thanks to his days as the head of City Police Vice Squad. In 1895, located at 521 West Bay Street, hotel was called “Prospect House,” when it opened in an era when LaVilla emerged as an attractive destination for cigar makers and immigrants. It served as a cheap brothel as “Vice Wars” between Jacksonville and LaVilla were underway.
LaVilla had become synonymous with “vice” for many folks, gaining a reputation for its brothels lining Houston (formerly Ward) Street. Incidentally, LaVilla’s infamous outlaw with the same surname (Samuel B. Houston) owned a popular “bistro” on this strip, which was known by most as simply “The Store.”
Although most of the bars and brothels were built to accommodate the nearly twenty thousand people that were now traveling to the city by the ever-growing railroad system, LaVilla’s mayor at the time, J.E.T. Bowden, tried his damnedest to shut these places down. He wanted to put an end to all the salacious behavior, despite a corrupted police force and city council.
The Prospect House was able to catch a moment of reprieve after The Great Fire of 1901—taking in 500 or so of the 10,000 plus residents of Jacksonville that would become homeless from the flames.
During the mid-20th century, ownership of the building changed every couple of years, until finally, it was purchased by Peter Lesnick, owner of “Fox Jewelry and Loan” and “Pete’s Jewelry and Loans,” in 1968.
Three generations later, owner Richard Lesnick hired a handyman named Hank Smith to rebuild the ground level facade. Impressed by Smith’s skill set and drive, Lesnick asked Smith to take over the very neglected hotel upstairs, known by the 1970s as “The James Inn.”
Smith, who happened to be a recovering addict, saw how he could use the space to help others who were struggling with addiction. He opened up the St. James Recovery Center, where he’s been helping people to get clean and “re-enter” society for the past sixteen years.
While much of what was the densest urban district in the city was bulldozed in the early 90’s as part of then-Mayor Ed Austin’s “urban renewal” campaign, the Adams Building is one of a few vestiges from the past that has managed to survive.
Visit Tim Gilmore’s Jax Psycho Geo for a more in depth story about this building and the people associated with its rich history.