4. Hotel George Washington
The Beatles giving a press conference at the George Washington Hotel in 1964. The band did not book rooms at the George Washington Hotel in protest of the hotel’s segregation policy. Furthermore, they had refused to perform at the Gator Bowl until they were assured that the audience would not be segregated by race at the concert. L-R: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr. (Florida State Archives)
Designed by local architectural firm Marsh & Saxelbye, Robert Kloeppel’s $1.5 million Hotel George Washington opened its doors on December 15, 1926 with Mayor John Alsop, Governor John W. Martin, and former Governor Cary Hardee in attendance. Standing 13 stories tall at the intersection of Adams and Julia Street, the 350-room tower was built to be the largest and most magnificent hotel in Jacksonville at the time.
In addition, the George Washington was the nation’s first 100% air-conditioned hotel and its rooftop “Hotel George Washington” sign was the first neon sign in the city. In 1927, at a George Washington Hotel dinner-dance party, Kloeppel announced a $1,000 prize for the first flier to conquer the Atlantic. His hope was that the winner would come to Jacksonville to collect. His wish came true, when Charles Lindbergh accomplished the feat less than a month later, coming to the Hotel George Washington to collect the pot on May 16, 1927.
David Sholtz and friends at a banquet in the Hotel George Washington. Sholtz served as the Governor of Florida between 1933 and 1937. (Florida State Archives)
In 1963, the hotel was acquired by William H. (Big Bill) Johnston. Johnston, owner of Jacksonville’s dog tracks and Chicagoland’s Sportsman’s Park, had ties with the Al Capone mob. Johnston had taken over the tracks after the former mobster owner of the tracks, Edward J. O’Hare, was murdered in 1939.
During Johnston’s tenure as the owner of the Hotel George Washington, it was downtown Jacksonville’s only five star hotel. In September 1964, on the heals of Hurricane Dora, the Beatles appeared at the Hotel George Washington for a press conference. In town for perform at the Gator Bowl, they had refused to accept the Jacksonville booking until they received assurance that the audience would not be segregated by race. Big Bill Johnston sold the hotel in 1969 and it closed for good in 1971. Despite the internationally known figures associated with the hotel and the decades of impressive events that took place at the hotel, it was torn down in 1973 for a surface parking lot that still sits underutilized today.
A view of the George Washington Hotel at Adams and Julia Streets in 1933. (Florida State Archives)
3. Knights of Pythias Building
The Knights of Pythias Building at 727 West Ashley Street. (Library of Congress)
Ashley Street was the epicenter of African-American entertainment before desegregation. Some have referred to the district as the Harlem of the South, although we’d suggest Harlem may be the LaVilla of the North. After all, early 20th century LaVilla regulars such as James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Philip Randolph, and Ma Rainey were key figures in the 1920s renaissance in Harlem. Furthermore, the first published account of blues singing on a public stage occurred in a LaVilla performance at Ashley Street’s Airdome on April 16, 1910.
This West Ashley Street Sanborn Map illustrates the location of the Knights of Pythias Building (727 West Ashley Street), just west of the Strand Theatre.
This four block stretch of Ashley street featured a lively cluster of major entertainment venues, theaters, bars, and restaurants including the Strand, Frolic, Roosevelt and Globe Theatres, Lenape Tavern, Manuel’s Taproom, Hollywood Music Store, The Boston Chop House, and Mama’s Restaurant. Through the decades, LaVilla’s Ashley Street served as a popular performance spot for nationally known African-American figures such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles.
The Knights of Pythias Building included 18 upper-level apartment units. (Library of Congress)
Anchoring what was known as the “Great Black Way,” the Knights of Pythias Building (727 W Ashley Street) was a major “Chitlin Circuit” venue, hosting numerous performers through the years. In addition, the five-story Prairie-School building contained 18 upper-level apartments and several businesses, including Weaver’s Tavern, a hotel, Sentinel Publishing, White Front Pool Parlor, Peoples Dressmaking Ship and the Paramount Barbershop. In 1957, the Knights of Pythias Building and its 4th floor dance hall where nationally-known entertainers performed, were demolished for a project that never came to fruition. During the 1990s, much of this section of LaVilla was redeveloped into the LaVilla School of the Arts.