Mayor Hans Tanzler, Lee Meredith and the “Bold New City” (you know the one)
Lou Egner, Jacksonville Journal, October 1968
If you’ve lived in Jacksonville for long, you’ve probably seen this photo. It’s by far the most famous image related to the Consolidation of the city of Jacksonville with Duval County, and it’s likely the best known in Jacksonville history. Not bad considering it originated with a fairly routine publicity stunt intended to draw people to see a road sign being installed, and was never even published at the time.
When it went into effect on October 1, 1968, the Jacksonville Consolidation transformed the city overnight. It merged the city and county governments into one and added all formerly unincorporated land in Duval County - everything except for Baldwin and the three Beaches cities - into Jacksonville’s municipal boundaries. Consolidation was the biggest change to Jacksonville’s government since its incorporation in the 19th century, and made the city the largest in the contiguous United States.
With Consolidation taking effect, Mayor Hans Tanzler and his team looked for ways to celebrate the accomplishment. As Tanzler told The Florida Times-Union in 2005, the idea behind the famous picture came from his public relations head, Jack Newsome. Newsome felt that the installation of new city limit signs at the county line would make a perfect photo op, and Tanzler agreed. Knowing the event would need a bit more than a road sign to draw in the media and public, Newsome arranged for some celebrity endorsement. Actor Lee Meredith, perhaps best known for playing Ulla the sexy Swedish receptionist in the 1967 Mel Brooks film The Producers, was in Jacksonville performing in the play Champagne Complex at the Alhambra Theatre. She agreed to participate.
The new city limit sign was to be installed on San Jose Boulevard by Julington Creek. Initially, Newsome wanted Meredith to put up the sign, with Tanzler holding the ladder, but Tanzler refused. “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck,” he told the Times-Union. “If I do that, it’s going to be immediately assumed I had advantages a lot of people would like to have. So I said, ‘I’ll get up there and she can hand it to me.’” The now-famous photo was only one of several shot by Jacksonville Journal photographer Lou Egner that day. Egner’s photo captures a particularly memorable mise-en-scène: Meredith kicking one leg out, Tanzler grinning, and down below, the ladder holder doing exactly what Tanzler had wanted to avoid: looking up. That last cheeky detail has only contributed to the picture’s enduring popularity.
The photo that Jacksonville Journal readers saw in 1968. Lou Egner, Jacksonville Journal, October 1968.
As well known as the photo is today, it’s not the one readers saw back in 1968. As Mark Woods of the Times-Union wrote, the Jacksonville Journal published three of Egner’s photos that day, including one of Tanzler and Meredith holding the sign. But in that shot Tanzler isn’t looking at the camera, Meredith isn’t kicking her leg out, and “Ladder Guy” is nowhere to be seen. It was only in 2000 that Times-Union photo editor Jack Luedke dug up the version that’s now famous while sorting through the joint Times-Union and Jacksonville Journal archives for a book commemorating the millennium. Since that time, the photo has been everywhere, to the point that most don’t realize it was never seen back in the ’60s.
Viewed in the 21st century, the photo is, to put it charitably, dated. A 2005 Cummer Museum exhibit on historic Jacksonville photography that prominently featured the shot drew some critical, even angry responses. But for others, it provides an unforgettable image that reflects not only an important historical moment, but the state of politics and American society in the 1960s. At any rate, the publicity stunt succeeded beyond all possible expectations, to the point that 30 years later it produced an image that has firmly lodged itself in the local imagination.
One interesting thing about Ladder Guy: no one knows who he is. Or rather, most who knew his identity had died by the time folks thought to look into it, including Tanzler and Newsome. In 2019, The Florida Times-Union asked Tanzler’s son Hans Tanzler III and Tyrie W. Boyer, son of the elder Tanlzer’s law partner Tyrie A. Boyer, if they knew his identity, but neither could solve the mystery. Boyer recalled that his father and Tanzler had once told him the man’s name, but he couldn’t recall it. Like so many others in Jacksonville history, Ladder Guy’s real name belongs to the ages.
Memorial Park: “Life in the River”
Mark Krancer, “Life in the River”, September 11, 2017.
On September 11, 2017, Jacksonville faced down Hurricane Irma, the most damaging storm in city history. With the St. Johns River system already swollen with rain from a powerful nor’easter, Jacksonville saw brutal, historic storm surges as Irma made its way from the southwest. Record floodwaters swallowed whole blocks, winds toppled trees and structures, and thousands were pushed out of their homes.
That day, photographer Mark Krancer, a resident of Riverside, got a text from his pastor telling him of the flooding in his neighborhood. Memorial Park was under four feet of water, he said, and Mark had better evacuate. Krancer replied, “I’m going to go take pictures.” He grabbed his camera and headed to the flooded Memorial Park.
The park, a memorial to the 1,200 Floridians who died in World War I, was designed by the Olmstead Brothers, who had previously designed Manhattan’s Central Park. Its central feature is the 1924 sculpture “Life,” created by St. Augustine sculptor Charles Adrian Pillars. With this sculpture, Pillars took a more abstract approach than most war memorials. His work features a globe of swirling waters on which human figures struggle for freedom, while the winged figure of Youth rises triumphantly above, holding an olive branch. Pillars intended the piece to represent the victory of the human spirit over the war’s devastation. Since its installation, “Life” has been one of Jacksonville’s most beloved pieces of public art.
Krancer had a special connection to the Memorial Park. He came to Jacksonville in 2014, looking for a new start. Visiting Riverside on his first day in town, he came across Memorial Park and the “Life” sculpture, and he knew Riverside was where he wanted to be. He took a job at The Florida Times-Union, where he did everything from shipping and receiving to scheduling and arranging ads. His seven minute bike rides to work every day took him past the park, and also inspired his interest in photography. “I would just catch sunrises on the way and take photos on my cell phone,” he said. When someone gifted him a camera, Memorial Park became his favorite place to hone his skills. Before long, he had started his own business, Kram Kran Photo. The park has remained special to Krancer; he even had his first date with his wife there.
But when he got closer to the river that day, he saw that his familiar and well loved route had been transformed by the floodwaters. “It was very intense,” he said, “seeing my everyday scene turned into this… otherworld of water.” He realized he would not be able to reach the park by car, but he encountered a few friends, and together they decided to brave the flooded streets on foot. When they arrived, they found that Memorial Park was totally inundated. Krancer waded into knee-deep water, but he didn’t have lenses he needed to take the pictures he wanted from that distance. “I said okay, I’ve got to take the plunge,” said Krancer. Holding his phone in one hand and his camera in the other, he waded further until he was close to the “Life” statue - and standing in waist-deep in water. He shot around 300 photos in the park, but one in particular stood out. This image, which Krancer titled “Life in the River,” catches the “Life” sculpture just as waves dramatically crash around it, the waters so high that it’s impossible to tell the flooded park from the St. Johns.
Krancer shared his image with friends on Facebook, and then went out to take more pictures of flood-wracked Riverside and San Marco. Before he knew it, his friends were sharing his picture, as were their friends - by the thousands. Krancer estimates that around a million people saw his viral photo in the first few days. “Life in the River” quickly became the defining image of Hurricane Irma’s destruction in Jacksonville, and it’s easy to see why. The imagery of waters surrounding a classically-inspired sculpture give the picture a distinctly Atlantean aspect, befitting a photographic record of the threat that extreme weather and climate change pose to a rapidly growing river city. At the same time, the image is hopeful. The victorious figure that Pillars intended to represent the triumph of life over war here appears to be rising, still victorious, over natural cataclysm.
Poetically, Krancer used the image to help restore Memorial Park after Irma, selling prints to raise funds for the Memorial Park Association to repair the badly damaged park. Prints of this and other works, as well as Krancer’s book about his life before and after “Life in the River,” His Grace Through Life’s Storms, are available on his website. Today, years after the hurricane, “Life in the River” continues to circulate and inspire, and no doubt will continue to do so for a long time.
Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.