Condemned, this old boarding house, called the Avon Apartments from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s, inhabits its triangle of ground, corner of Edison Avenue and Magnolia Street, a world unto itself. Its windows look out upon this neighborhood that throve and lived fully, even vibrantly declined, then disappeared. But for this old house.
For Amal Al Hasan, the sagging woodframe structure will always be an international hotel, a corner home in the wide world, the rambling quarters in which so much of her family converged from Palestine.
“It was my grandfather’s hotel,” she says, “and it was the place generations of my family found home in Jacksonville.”
Amal recalls her grandfather fondly and, though he bought the property in the early 1970s, she considers the 111 year old boarding house an embodiment of Sam Al Hasan. “There’s so much happiness in that house,” she says. “There’s so much laughter and family togetherness and joy.”
She calls her grandfather “a very wise man,” who used the apartment house and then the grocery he adjoined to help his family “get their feet on the ground” and “learn the language and the currency.” She was next in line to inherit the grocery, which her parents had run as a sandwich shop, but decided on a medical career instead.
Officially, the sandwich shop, which opened as “Sam’s Grocery” in the mid-’70s, was called “Sam and Son’s,” but the transposed apostrophe really referred not just to one son but to Amal’s grandfather’s eight children, four sons and four daughters.
It makes sense historically that the old hotel became home to an extended Palestinian family, since the building was always positioned obliquely in the neighborhood around it.
The house had always “stood out,” a neighborhood centerpiece, partly because its triangular parcel of land never fit the grid lines of the streets. It stood askew, for it was built to fit neighborhoods replaced, in the very same space, by later neighborhoods. The land had been fitted to a pre-1900 plan for an expansion of Riverside, just southwest. In 1906, the grand vernacular house was built, then resold immediately and again.
In 1908, the new neighborhood called the Forest and Date Street Addition incorporated the house as part of Riverside. Date Street became Edison Avenue. Much later, this part of Riverside was understood to be an extension of Brooklyn, immediately to the north, since the interstate juncture of 95 and 10, just to the south, offered a newly clear and bold line between Riverside and Brooklyn.
I stand and face the house. Most of its two-story porches, front and back, have been enclosed. Its pilasters still stand exposed. Overhead, dentils run the wooden cornice.
I step onto the porch and ring the doorbell. I expect no sound but hope for some ghostly response, perhaps Gertrude or Mildred, who lived here in 1932, when the house was known as the Homelike Apartments.
Perhaps the Avon’s apartment manager, listed in city directories as Ula in 1953 and “Eula” in 1972, could give me her name’s correct spelling and tell me about her life. The 1940 census identifies her as “Eula,” her husband Papé as “head of household,” and their 30 year old son Fred still living at home, almost unheard of at the time for an able-bodied and mentally-sound adult son.
I’m dying to ask the operator to connect me to ELgin 4-5014. I’m always failing these long-distance time-travel phone calls.
Eula won’t tell me her story. She will not answer the phone. The operator won’t connect us. The operator quit her job in 1975. I’ll never now speak with Eula of her life. The directory tells me, in no uncertain terms, “Magnolia ends,” and then: “No return.”
Amal so loved the stairs, the balcony, the porch. When she was small, she helped her parents, Hala and George, work the shop. “My mom made the food and my dad ran the register. They did so much business when the corporate headquarters opened around the corner. Blue Cross Blue Shield. The corporations had their lunch breaks. I don’t know how my parents kept up. Longtime customers called them Mom and Dad. After the rush, when the afternoon calmed down, I loved to sit on the porch or upstairs on the balcony. It was my space for a while, my place and my time. The breezes came off the river, and I’d have my own world, in my grandfather’s old building, all to myself.”