Atlanta-based Columbia Ventures, LLC. recent purchase of the former Union Terminal Warehouse Building could become a huge economic coup for the Eastside. Columbia plans to invest as much as $30 million on the historic renovation of the 106-year-old property back to its original warehouse appearance. This would not be Columbia’s first adventure into the world of adaptive reuse of historic industrial properties. In Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, the development firm is a partner in a mixed-use project known as Studioplex adjacent to the BeltLine and Krog Street Market. With a focus on the creative class and workforce housing, Columbia intends to retrofit the Union Terminal’s top three floors into residential and introduce a mix of commercial, retail and dining space on the ground floor. Construction could start in a year. With this in mind, here’s a look at the history of the site and a peak inside of the building.

The Story Behind The Union Terminal Warehouse Company

One can’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia when traveling through some of Jacksonville’s older neighborhoods. Down many streets, you’ll find the quiet and deserted ruins of industrial sites that once buzzed. One of these industrial sites is the old Union Terminal Warehouse Company. Still in use by a variety of tenants seeking cheap warehouse space, the Union Terminal Warehouse Company covers approximately 366,946 square-feet, over seven acres, and stands four stories tall.

The building was the brainchild of C.B. Gay. After his syrup manufacturing plant was destroyed by fire, Gay decided to organize the terminal company instead of rebuilding his plant. Intending to cater to wholesale grocery firms in town, Gay envisioned a facility that would save its tenants money by reducing their insurance rates, drayage bills, and transportation costs. James Laseter, president of the Jacksonville Wholesale Grocers Association, claimed the Union Terminal Warehouse was “the finest and most practical form of Christmas present any city could receive.”

1913 Sanborn map of the Union Terminal Warehouse Company.

Soon, a large tract of land was purchased on Union Street, surrounded by the Seaboard Air Line Railway, the Georgia Southern and Florida Railway, and Hogans Creek. Gay hired New York-based Turner Construction Company to design and build his industrial complex. Founded by Henry Chandlee Turner in 1902, Turner was known for constructing the Gair Manufacturing Company, the largest reinforced concrete building in the United States, in 1904. In 1905, Turner constructed many of Brooklyn’s Bush Terminal warehouses, the largest multi-tenant complex in the country.

Like most large industrial structures built before the 1920s, Turner’s design for the Jacksonville complex was a reinforced concrete and steel, multi-floor structure. Featuring two subways, the five story design included over 3,000 feet of railway sidings, a sprinkler system, high power elevators, an interior phone system, and a restaurant called the Union Terminal Lunch Room for the building’s workers.

In addition, the terminal included a literage system on Hogans Creek that carried freight to and from the Merchants and Miners Transportation Company, the Clyde line, and other warehouses along downtown’s St. Johns Riverfront. 1/3rd of the available space had already been leased by the time construction started on the $1 million structure in August 1912.

Photograph of Union Terminal Warehouse on July 8, 1949. State Archives of Florida, [url=]Florida Memory[/url]

Gay’s belief that the Union Terminal Warehouse Company would be attractive to Jacksonville’s 32 wholesale grocery companies turned out to be true. Early food-based tenants in the building included AM Grocery Company, Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company, and Whiddon’s Cash Stores.

With stores in Jacksonville and the Tampa Bay area, Whiddon’s was an early Jacksonville-based grocery chain owned by George C. Blume. Blume was a popular Jacksonville resident who had gained favor in the community for donating food baskets to the unemployed during the Great Depression. His company picnics were major community social events. Blume’s Whiddon’s opened shortly after the completion of the Union Terminal Warehouse Company, introducing the cash-and-carry concept of food sales in Florida.

In 1937, Blume made Jacksonville headlines by coming from behind to beat out John T. Alsop to become the Mayor of Jacksonville. Blume overcame a 900-vote deficit over a two week period to beat the six-term mayor by more than 2,500 votes. Blume served as Jacksonville’s mayor until 1941, but his grocery chain filed for bankruptcy in 1938.

Another early food-related tenant was the Chicago-based company Libby, McNeill & Libby. The company, founded by Archibald McNeill, and brothers Arthur and Charles Libby, started as a canned meat, beef brine, and corned beef production company. The Libby, McNeill & Libby Company grew swiftly, and expanded their production to include canned fruits and vegetables as well. Libby, McNeill & Libby company ran successfully into the 1960s, ranking as 154th in US Corporations. Nestle bought out Libby, McNeill & Libby in 1976.

In its glory days, the Union Terminal Warehouse Company originally offered a plethora of amenities to railway users. For one, the Union Warehouse had a Pool Car Distribution system. Put simply, a Pool Car Distribution system allowed for a “pool,” or like-group, of shippers to have a group of cars that were inspected and dedicated to a particular operation. Furthermore, a pool car could be stored until needed and any member of a “pool” could use it.

City Directories indicate that several tire and rubber companies took advantage of the Pool Car Distribution system. These companies included the Dunlap Tire & Rubber Company, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, Mason Tire & Rubber Company, Independent Tire & Rubber Company, Miller Rubber Company, Penna Rubber Company, and Joseph H. Walsh wholesale tires company.

Another feature offered was general merchandising. That meant that non-food, retail, and consumer goods were all acceptable. Additionally, the Warehouse was Customs Bonded. This allowed for the storage and security of exported goods. The Union Terminal Warehouse also had “field warehousing,” which is a mortgage agreement that allows a lender to secure loans with a business. The amount of the loan depended on the amount of items stored in the warehouse.

Other tenants included the Florida School Book Depository, Virginia Paper Company, Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, and Knight Brothers Paper Company. The Knight Brothers Paper Company was created by brothers J.W. and H.T. Knight in 1921. The company was responsible for transforming huge rolls of paper into finished paper products, such as: notebook paper, typing paper, watermark paper, legal pads, construction paper, poster paper, and envelopes. Before Jim Walter Corporation acquired the company in 1968, it had grown to include 36 plants in 19 states.

The Ballard and Ballard Company warehouse. Photograph courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, [url=]Florida Memory[/url]

Today, the Union Terminal Warehouse quietly towers over the elevated ramps leading to the Mathews Bridge. The railroads that made this site so attractive to C.B. Gray 100 years ago were abandoned decades ago. Built before the invention of the tractor trailer, much of the building is also obsolete for many of today’s logistical needs and manufacturing requirements. Nevertheless, the building is finding a second life by housing several small companies and unique businesses. One currently popular tenant is JaxHax. Located in an 8,000 square-foot office in the Warehouse, JaxHax is a community-operated place where people can meet, collaborate, and work on a variety of innovative and creative projects.

The old Union Terminal Warehouse Company building is a throwback to a time in America’s industrial history before Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. While multi-floor industrial buildings of this type still dominate the landscape in older Midwestern and Northeastern cities, the Union Terminal Warehouse Company is unique to Jacksonville and the State of Florida.

1. 100 year-old ruins of sidings on the west side of the building that connected to the St. Johns River Terminal Company Railroad and Georgia Southern and Florida Railway lines. These lines once ran south to the St. Johns Riverfront where they served the Clyde Steamship Company - New York Pier, St. Johns River Terminal Co - Pier 1, the Georgia Southern & Florida Railway & Southern Railway freight house, T Murphy Iron Works, J.G. Christopher Company, Merrill Stevens Company, Wiesenfield Store House, Naval Store Steam Boat Company, and the Suwannee Fruit & Steamship Company.