By the 1930, Jacksonville’s population had increased to 130,000 residents. Discriminatory practices and policies, such as the city’s first Comprehensive plan, zoning map, and red lining maps not only identified the location of the city’s black neighborhoods, but established policies and regulations limiting and discouraging equitable investments in these neighborhoods, presenting economic challenges we still struggle to overcome today.
Although 80 years of local black development and growth have been summarized, up to this point not much has been said about the people who built these neighborhoods and literally the entire early city itself. There is a reason for this. There are multiple faces and stories of our past and history is generally presented from the perspective of those in position of leadership at the time. For a long period of time, people of color involved in architecture and construction could not attend certain schools, become a part of certain professional organizations or walk into a Jim Crow era city hall and pull permits on their own accord. Because of the color of their skin, other means had to be found. As such, those who built many of our historic buildings remain largely unknown today.
Nevertheless, Jacksonville’s forgotten and overlooked story of black architects is not unique to Northeast Florida. In fact, Paul Revere Williams of Los Angeles was the first black architect to officially join the American Institute of Architects (AIA). This took place in 1923, 58 years after the end of the Civil War.
While their ultimate influence and collection of work remain largely unknown to this day, black architects and builders have been an important part of the city’s building and development industry throughout its history. Here are five early African American architects/builders and a few examples of their work.
RICHARD LEWIS BROWN
Born into slavery in 1854 in Abbeville, SC, Richard Lewis Brown may be Jacksonville’s most well known African-American architect and builder. Regarded as the city’s first known African-American architect, Brown was also elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1881, serving two consecutive terms. Residing in the Eastside at 1727 Milnor Street, Brown was hired by the Duval County School Board to build and repair schools following the Great Fire of 1901. A member of the African Methodist Episcopal church, Brown is also credited with building Centennial Hall on the campus of Edward Waters College. Brown resided in the Eastside on an estate he designed to have a similar layout to the plantation he was born on. Brown died in 1948 at the ripe old age of 94. Following his death, the property was donated to the Duval County School Board, becoming the present day site of R.L. Brown Gifted and Talented Academy.
JOSEPH HAYGOOD BLODGETT
Born in 1858 in Augusta, GA, Joseph Haygood Blodgett moved to Jacksonville during the 1890s with one paper dollar and one thin dime. Initially working for the railroad for a dollar a day, Blodgett went on to start a drayage business, a woodyard, a farm and a restaurant before becoming a building contractor around 1898. Like Henry John Klutho, the Great Fire of 1901 changed the fortunes of Blodgett. With the city’s black population exploding in growth, Blodgett built 258 houses, keeping 199 to rent eventually becoming one of Jacksonville’s black millionaires. Blodgett Villa, his own residence in Sugar Hill (upper right image), was said to be one of the finest owned by an African-American anywhere. Famed guests at Blodgett Villa included Booker T. Washington.
Blodgett’s design trademark was the inclusion of a small upper porch above a large lower porch that often extended around the side of a house. Philadelphia merchant, John Wannamaker was astonished that a black man could accumulate such a fortune in the South without capital and a formal education. Most of Blodgett’s work was situated in the Sugar Hill neighborhood and largely lost to the incremental expansion of the present day campus of UF Health Jacksonville and the construction of Interstate 95. Although Blodgett died in 1934, a few examples of his work still survive in LaVilla and Durkeeville if you are willing to find them. The buildings illustrated here are four that have been identified as properties designed and built by Blodgett.
While the majority of Blodgett’s work has been razed, using the identified Blodgett structure at 1327 Steele Street reveals that many nearby structures in the Barnett’s subdivision in Durkeeville could have ties with the forgotten black architect. Using Google Streetview as a source, this and the following slide illustrate six additional structures in close proximity to the Steele Street house still stand. Common design characteristics include the roof pitch, building dimensions, porch design, column spacing and facade style.
For black Jacksonville, the works of Joseph H. Blodgett following the Great Fire of 1901 are just as significant to the development of Northwest Jacksonville as Henry John Klutho’s works were to Downtown, Riverside and Springfield by providing housing for the city’s working class black community, facilitating growth in Northwest Jacksonville that would eventually lead to a cluster of black economic prosperity culminating with the segregation era development of black middle class neighborhoods Sugar Hill and Durkeeville. Knowing that this is an unprotected area where older buildings are razed consistently without much fight or conversation, this potential Joseph H. Blodgett houses has been recently shared with the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office in hopes of confirming their story and preserving an important part of black Jacksonville’s historical story.
JOHN HENRY ROSEMOND
Born in 1879 in South Carolina, John Henry Rosemond arrived in Jacksonville around 1915. Rosemond was one of two African America builders before World War II, to refer to himself as an architect. Between 1918 and 1947, Rosemond resided at 1442 Florida Avenue with his wife Ida. There, the Eastside resident built a career that centered around his church designs. A few years after relocating to Moncrief, Rosemond died in 1958 while visiting South Carolina.