Embers Restaurant, Universal Marion Building, JEA Tower

It’s too bad, says the tall man who won’t tell us his name, that you can no longer go into the floor underneath. The view from the top floor is beautiful, but on the 18th floor, you could see the great gears that once rotated the top of the building.

It’s also too bad, says his shorter friend who won’t tell us his name either, that the company no longer lets employees bring their families up to the top to watch fireworks on the Fourth of the July and New Year’s Eve.

Hurley and I took the elevator from the ground floor to the open dining area on the first floor, not knowing how or if we could get to the top, but our two anonymous new friends walked us to the world’s nicest security guard, who told us she was from Montana and there was nothing as beautiful as driving through the mountains in Glacier National Park along Going-to-the-Sun Road, but, she said, the view from the top of this building was also pretty spectacular. She said we’d love it.

The tower that now houses the Jacksonville Electric Authority at 21 West Church Street was built as the Universal Marion Building in 1963 and designed by New York modernist architectural firm Ketchum and Sharp. Universal Marion owned newspapers in Jacksonville and Miami and co-financed Mel Brooks’s The Producers in 1968.

But the building was best known for its revolving restaurant called The Embers, Jacksonville’s answer to the ultra-fenestrated revolving rooftop restaurant trend that began with began with Honolulu’s La Ronde, designed by Seattle architect John Graham in 1961, but centered on the revolving restaurant at the top of his most famous building, Seattle’s Space Needle, built for the World’s Fair in 1962.

photo by Hurley Winkler

Revolving rooftop restaurants appeared in Atlanta, Toronto, New York, Chicago, and Disney World. In 1966, a year after The Embers opened, Florida Times-Union journalist Sandy Gould compared The Embers to a “sleek glassed-in spaceship, slowly spinning.”

If the idea of a spinning restaurant makes you feel dizzy, maybe “spinning” implies a speed The Embers never reached. It couldn’t be worse than having a few drinks at the famous 1949 Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans.

And if imitation is, as the aphorism claims, the sincerest form of flattery, then the scores of revolving restaurants built in the next several decades helped further establish the iconism of the Space Needle, especially when its sleek elegant streamlined design compared to boxy buildings like the Universal Marion.

The iconic Seattle Space Needle