The 1895 post office and courthouse (left) was located at the intersection of Forsyth and Hogan Streets. 311 West Monroe Street (right) was completed during the 1930s as a replacement for the late 19th century building. (State Archives of Florida)
Dating back to 1933, 311 West Monroe Street was one of two buildings to replace the city’s original post office. That towering structure at Forsyth and Hogan streets, housed the city’s post office and most of its federal office space. At the time of its 1895 completion, Jacksonville had less than 30,000 residents and was significantly smaller than both Savannah and Charleston. By 1930, the city had grown to 130,000, becoming the Low County’s largest. With the original post office building being too small to accommodate the city’s rapid growth, plans were developed for two new post office facilities as a replacement.
The long demolished U.S. Post Office West Bay Annex once processed 80 percent of the state’s mail. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.
In 1931, the U.S. Post Office West Bay Annex opened at the Jacksonville Terminal in LaVilla. One of the last large commissions by architect Henry J. Klutho, it processed 80 percent of the state’s mail during its heyday. Two years later, 311 West Monroe Street opened. Designed by architects Marsh & Saxelbye, Paul Cret of Philadelphia and James Wetmore of Washington, DC, the five-story building consumed a full city block that was once occupied by an automobile dealership, two boarding houses and nine single family residences. Incorporating elements of second renaissance revival and art deco styles, the limestone, granite and marble building contained multiple levels of federal offices located above the large U.S. Post Office facility.
1928 Sanborn Map of the original U.S. Post Office building. (Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)
1928 Sanborn Map of 300 block of West Monroe Street. (Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)
Sanborn Map showing the footprint of 311 West Monroe Street. (Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)
Over the years, its two fifth floor courtrooms were an important part of many events involving individuals that played a significant role in the country’s history. On June 9, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. testified in Judge Bryan Simpson’s courtroom. Here, in the case of Young v. Davis, King appealed that the judge overturn a racist ban against night time civil rights marches in St. Augustine. Judge Simpson honored the request, paving the path for the events that took place in St. Augustine on June 11, 1964, which garnered enough media attention to help push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into existence. After being arrested with several demonstrators in St. Augustine, King was moved to the Jacksonville jail for safety. On June 13, 1964 he attended a hearing at the federal courthouse where he made a brief testimony on the stand about how he had been treated in jail.
“I’ve been treated all right, but I don’t like solitary confinement. I’m in a lonely dark and desolate cell here, cut off from everybody. The light is so dim, I can hardly see.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Following the hearing, King posted bond and flew to New York where he received an honorary doctor of law degree from Yale University. 17 days later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
A 2009 view of the courtroom where the 1964 King hearing took place. (State Attorney’s Office)
Another prominent example involved famed Colombian drug lord Carlos “Crazy Charlie” Lehder Rivas. Leader of Colombia’s Medellin cartel, Lehder was called the Henry Ford of drug trafficking for pioneering mass shipments of cocaine by air from Colombia to the United States. Captured after a February 1987 fire fight with 13 of his bodyguards by the Colombian army, Lehder was immediately extradited to Florida. Believed to be responsible for 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the country, his trial was believed to be the biggest involving a foreign drug smuggler in U.S. history. Threatening to have a judge killed each day, when Lehder was first transported to the federal courthouse, an army of police and snipers armed with automatic weapons surrounding the building. Despite being held in town while awaiting trial, Lehder continued to facilitate cocaine transactions from his jail cell.
A 2019 view of the courtroom where the 1964 King hearing took place. (Ennis Davis, AICP)
His seven-month trial included an appearance by former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite. In May 1988, Lehder was found guilty on 11 counts of a 1981 indictment involving 3.3 tons of cocaine flown into Florida. Evidence in the case linked his organization to as much as 18 tons smuggled into the country over an eight-year period. Upon conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison plus 135 years. His holding cell is now a women’s restroom featuring the only windows in the building with bars.
The former Carlos “Crazy Charlie” Lehder Rivas holding cell. (Ennis Davis, AICP)
Like the building it replaced in 1933, by the 1990s 311 West Monroe Street had become too small and inadequate for needs of the Middle District of Florida. In addition, the building became plagued with indoor air quality problems. In 1999, construction began on a $86.1 million, 14 floor courthouse tower across the street. Viewed as an anchor to the revitalization of Downtown and Hemming Plaza, the 492,000 square foot tower opened in January 2003. It was named in honor John Milton Bryan Simpson and officially dedicated in 2008. Nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida by President Harry S. Truman in 1950, Simpson was noted for his legal decisions involving the Martin Luther King, Jr. civil rights demonstrations in St. Augustine, that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Inside the 5th floor courthouse lobby area in 2009 (State Attorney’s Office)
At the time of the new courthouse’s opening, more than 200 people, including judges, clerks, federal law enforcement agents and postal employees, were employed inside 311 West Monroe. Following the relocation of federal offices, in June 2003, the post office ceased ground floor operations for good after 69 years of service. Following its closure, the building was considered as a location for a new public library and as a law school for the Florida Coastal School of Law. Eventually it was determined that it would become the new location of the State Attorney’s Office. When the city took over the building later in 2003, it was believed that renovating the 247,000 square foot building would save $8.6 million over building a new structure. With designs beginning under the Mayor John Peyton administration, it was also believed that the renovation project would be completed in 2005. However, the $32 million conversion began in 2013 under the Mayor Alvin Brown administration. Renovations were completed in late 2014 with the building officially opening as the Ed Austin State Attorney’s Office in February 2015.
Inside the 5th floor courthouse lobby area in 2019 (Linzee Ott)
Photographs: Inside 311 West Monroe Street in 2009
Photographs: Inside 311 West Monroe Street in 2019