Article by Ennis Davis, AICP
History of Old Ortega
Located six miles southwest of downtown Jacksonville, the Old Ortega Historic District is a Jacksonville neighborhood that represents an early manifestation of the City Beautiful Movement. Popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the City Beautiful Movement was a progressive architectural and urban planning movement centered around the intent of introducing beautification and monumental grandeur in cities across the country.
However, the modern development of Ortega dates as far back as 1770 when Abraham Jones began to cultivate 50 of 2,000 acres granted by King George III on then what was called Maxton’s Creek Island.
Within a decade, the island became the headquarters of Daniel McGirtt. Court marshaled and publicly whipped, McGirtt escaped South Carolina for Florida with his horse Grey Goose in 1776. By 1783, McGirtt had become a notorious pirate, leading a gang called the Florida Banditti. Imprisoned several times in St. Augustine and Havana, Cuba, he had become a household name and legend by the time of his death in 1789.
Two years later, a plantation named San Juan Nepomuceno was established by Don Juan McQueen on the site of McGirtt’s former headquarters and hideout. Using enslaved labor to cultivate sea island cotton, sugar cane, and corn, it was named Ortega, in honor of Josef de Ortega, after being acquired by John H. McIntosh of St. Mary’s, Georgia in 1804. Ortega was the judge advocate for East Florida, who approved the sale of the property to McIntosh. After McIntosh’s death in 1836, son-in-law Henry Sadler developed the property into a thriving plantation where crops cultivated included sea island cotton, sugar cane, and corn.
Ortega was acquired by John P. Sanderson in 1857 and had largely become a vacant and heavily wooded peninsula by the turn of the 20th century. With $50,000 borrowed from Gilded Age financier J.P. Morgan, U.S. Senator Wilkinson Call’s Ortega Town Company acquired the former plantation in 1902. Struggling with his health, Call sold the fledging development to the Ortega Company in 1906.
By 1908, the Ortega Company had completed a wooden bridge across the Ortega River, connecting the tract to Avondale, Riverside, Brooklyn, and Downtown. Founded by John N. C. Stockton and Charles C. Bettes, in 1909 the Ortega Company began development of Ortega as a streetcar suburb designed by prominent local architect Henry J. Klutho. Considered to represent an early manifestation of the City Beautiful Movement, Klutho’s design incorporated four circular parks named after New World explorers with radiating streets that ran to the peninsula’s waterfronts. Situated on a heavily wooded peninsula at the confluence of the St. Johns and Ortega rivers, Klutho created housing tracts that took advantage of the unusual terrain and land shapes. As an incentive to purchase home sites, the Ortega Company promised no taxes and free water for a certain time period.
With the streetcar line running down Park Avenue (present day Baltic Street) between Grand and Corinthian Avenues, Ortega’s original boundaries were largely defined by the Ortega River, St. Johns River, Verona Avenue, and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (present day CSX). Street names consisted of a mix of Native American tribes, Ivy League schools, and architectural columns.
In 1918, the streetcar line was extended from Cortez Park to Black Point, the site of the US Army’s World War I Camp Johnston. Headways to and from the camp ran nonstop from downtown for a .25 cent fare. During the height of the 1920s Florida Land Boom, Ortega emerged as a popular residential destination, largely expanding south of Verona Avenue and into Venetia, a major real estate development built in 1925 south of present day Yacht Club Road. Residences constructed around this time were largely built in the Tudor and Mediterranean Revival styles. This decade also resulted in the development of a small mixed-use commercial district known as Ortega Village.
Unlike the majority of the city’s early neighborhoods, more than 95 percent of all buildings in the Old Ortega Historic District were originally constructed as single-family dwellings. It contains a wide variety of residential architectural styles including Frame and Masonry Vernacular, Mission, Craftsman Bungalow, Mediterranean Revival, Colonial Revival, Minimal Traditional, Tudor Revival, and Prairie. With 601 contributing and 237 noncontributing sites, Old Ortega was designated as a historic district and added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 14, 2004.