Images of the Universal Marion building prior to JEA’s acquisition. (Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)

The same day the May Company inked a lease for the acquisition of Cohen Brothers in 1959, May announced plans for the construction of a seven-level parking garage as part of a joint venture with Robert H. Jacobs, president of Jacksonville-based S.S. Jacobs Company. The site of this project consisted of two large surface parking lots opposite the department store at the intersection of Laura and Church Streets.

Before the day was over, May and Jacobs announced that they were contemplating the erection of a twenty- to thirty-story office building at the northeast corner of Laura and Church Streets. By March 14, 1959, the project became known as Downtown Center. To be anchored by two major retailers, the mixed-use development that would complement May-Cohens, realized a dream of Cohen Brothers co-founder Jacob Cohen in 1912 when he envisioned his department store being the catalyst for major development on the surrounding blocks.

The first phase of Downtown Center was completed with the opening of a 25,000 square foot Purcell’s Women’s Store on the ground level of the parking garage proposed in 1959. In August 1962, the second phase of Downtown Center was completed with the opening of the six-story, 180,000-square-foot J.B. Ivey & Company. Anticipating future growth, the department store’s foundation was designed for the building to accommodate two additional floors as needed. It was said to be the first major department store to be constructed in a metropolitan United States downtown location in thirty years.

An interior photograph of the Embers Restaurant. The Embers was a revolving roof top restaurant located on the 18th floor of the Universal Marion building. (State Archives of Florida)

The crown jewel of Downtown Center, the Universal Marion Building, opened as the third phase in 1963. At the time, the 19-story tower was the tallest building on the Northbank and second tallest in the city. A five-floor Medical building was never constructed at the intersection of Main and Church Streets. It has been used as a “temporary” surface parking lot for 57 years.

For the next two decades, Downtown Center was a major retail destination and desired corporate address in Jacksonville. Between 1979 and 1984, the tower served as the headquarters of Jacksonville-based Fortune 500 company, The Charter Company. During the 1970s, in an effort to compete with the growth of malls in suburban Jacksonville, a plan was proposed to connect Downtown Center with May-Cohen in the form of a multi-level enclosed shopping mall above Laura Street. That plan ultimately failed to come to fruition.

By 1982, annual retail sales reported in downtown had declined to $92 million, slightly down from $94 million in 1963. On the other hand, retail sales had increased in Arlington alone due to Regency Square Mall, from $29.2 million in 1967 to $319 million in 1982. Downtown’s retail market suffered significantly with the closures of Levy-Wolf in 1984 and Furchgott’s in May 1985.

A sketch of the retail galleria mall once proposed for Downtown Center as a part of the 1971 Downtown Master Plan. (Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)

At the same time, Downtown Center suffered a major hit when The Charter Company filed for bankruptcy protection in 1984. By the summer of 1985, along with nearby JCPenney, Ivey’s announced plans to close its Downtown Center store. By this time, Ivey’s top three levels had already been mothballed. In a prepared release statement, Ivey’s president and chief executive officer, Stanley Zweck-Bronner, proclaimed, “As the growth of the downtown business community has developed south towards the river, the Laura and Church Street location has become less convenient. It is unfortunate that the era of our downtown store must end, but it is clear that the majority of customers prefer the convenience of our newer stores.”

Ivey’s ceased operations on July 13, 1985. Three years later, the entireDowntownCenter retail and office complex was sold to JEA. Much larger than what JEA needs today, plans to construct a significantly smaller headquarters near the Duval County Courthouse are moving forward. A contributing building to the National Register Downtown Historic District, the future of the former mixed-use property may be in doubt as a theme angling to the demolition of the property appears to be emerging from JEA leadership.

With the property being a part of the Downtown Jacksonville Historic District, demolition will require the approval of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission. The commission will judge the application based on a set of seven criteria defined by local law to determine whether to approve demolition. Alternately, the commission has the option of determining if the building is eligible for historic landmark status, which provides some protection from demolition and alteration.

The JEA Customer Service Center is located in the formers J.B. Ivey’s & Company department store. (JEA)

A building must meet at least two of the criteria to be landmarked, and must meet four to guarantee landmarking designation if the current property owner objects. The criteria are:

  1. It has value as a significant reminder of the cultural, historical, architectural, or archaeological heritage of the city, state or nation;

  2. Its location is the site of a significant local, state or national event;

  3. It is identified with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the development of the city, state or nation;

  4. It is identified as the work of a master builder, designer, or architect whose individual work has influenced the development of the city, state or nation;

  5. Its value as a building is recognized for the quality of architecture, and it retains sufficient elements showing its architectural significance;

  6. It has distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style valuable for the study of a period, method of construction, or use of indigenous materials;

  7. Its suitability for preservation or restoration.

The Universal Marion (JEA) building likely passes 6 of these 7 criteria, meaning it should receive landmark designation even if JEA disapproves.

Criteria 1: It has value as a significant reminder of the cultural, historical, architectural, or archaeological heritage of the city, state or nation

The former Purcell’s Women’s store on Laura Street. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

Until the completion of the Independent Life Building (Wells Fargo Center) in 1974, the Universal Marion Building was the tallest structure in downtown’s historic Northbank. A mixed-use development specifically designed as a major urban retail center, the entire Downtown Center site is a significant reminder of downtown’s era as Florida’s premier urban retail shopping district. Featuring a 19-story office building, six-story department store building, an underground parking garage, revolving rooftop restaurant and a mixed-use parking garage, the property may be the purest form of commercial mixed-use construction and urban retail development surviving in Northeast Florida.

Criteria 3: It is identified with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the development of the city

The Park South building was the first completed at Downtown Center. Opening in 1960, it originally served as a six-level 400-space joint parking facility for Downtown Center and May-Cohens (now city hall). Originally a 25,000 square foot Purcell’s Women’s store occupied the ground level. After the closure of Purcell’s this space was converted into a mall with several small shops and retailers. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

The building is associated with several prominent figures that have significantly contributed to the development of the city. The Universal-Marion Company was the tower’s largest original tenant. Universal-Marion owned the Miami Beach Sun and Jacksonville Chronicle newspapers. It also made movies, including co-financing the production of Mel Brooks’ first movie, The Producers.

The Universal-Marion Company was founded by Wall Street financier Louis Wolfson. A self-made millionaire raised in Jacksonville, Wolfson became nationally known as one of the first modern corporate raiders with his unsuccessful hostile takeover attempt of Montgomery Ward and Company in 1955. In addition, his Capital Transit Company held the streetcar and bus service franchise for Washington, D.C. and after his takeover of Merritt-Chapman & Scott, the company built the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, the Unites States Navy Supercarrier Kitty Hawk, and Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge. Wolfson and his family were known for their local philanthropy. For 35 years, he held the position as the chairman of the Wolfson Family Foundation. Local gifts associated with the Wolfson Family Foundation include the Louis E. Wolfson Wellness Center and Wolfson Children’s Hospital at Baptist Medical Center Downtown, Wolfson Student Center at Jacksonville University, and Samuel W. Wolfson High School.

The building later became known as The Charter Company Building. Dating back to 1949, it can be argued that the Charter Company played a major role in putting Jacksonville on the map. Founded by Raymond Knight Mason, Charter quickly grew to become a conglomerate with more than 180 subsidiaries. Between 1974 and its filing of bankruptcy protection in 1984, Charter was ranked in the Fortune 500. Charter once owned the Florida National Bank Group, American women’s magazine Redbook, Carey Energy Corporation, Commonwealth Oil Refining Company, and an 82% stake in Spelling Entertainment. Founded by Aaron Spelling in 1965, this company produced popular shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Dynasty, Charmed, The Love Boat, and 7th Heaven.

After Charter relocated its headquarters to Cincinnati, the complex was sold to JEA in 1988. Downtown’s third tallest building, the TIAA Bank Center was originally built to serve as the new headquarters for The Charter Company and the Southern Bell Telephone Company’s regional headquarters.

Criteria 4: It is identified as the work of a master builder, designer, or architect whose individual work has influenced the development of the city, state or nation?

The three buildings at Downtown Center. The Park South building (center) opened in 1960. J.B. Ivey & Company opened its department store (right) in 1962. The 19-story Universal Marion building was completed in 1963. Connected by a series of open courtyards, the development contains pedestrian mall like characteristics that architect Morris Ketchum, Jr. was known for. (Ennis Davis, AICP).

Robert H. Jacobs and the S.S. Jacobs Company

The Universal Marion Building was developed by Jacksonville-based S.S. Jacobs Company. Led by Robert H. Jacobs, S.S Jacobs was one of Jacksonville’s most prominent mid-century retail developers. In addition to Downtown Center, S.S. Jacobs is known for its development of Roosevelt Mall.

Roosevelt Mall opened as an open air shopping center in Lake Shore in 1961. It featured pools at either end of the walkways, both containing a pair of swans, and a forty-five-foot abstract sculpture created by Andre Bloc of Paris at the mall’s center court. In 1968, the shopping center was converted into an enclosed mall with J.B. Ivey’s & Company, Furchgott’s, Levy-Wolf, Purcell’s, and F.W. Woolworth as anchors. Atlanta-based Dewberry Capital Corporation purchased the mall in 1997 and converted back into an open air strip shopping center. Today, some of the original mall’s buildings are being reconfigured as Dewberry Capital transitions the center into a mixed-use development called Ortega Park.

Morris Ketchum, Jr. and Ketchum, Gina & Sharp

Downtown Center and the Universal Marion building was designed by New York-based architectural firm Ketchum & Sharp. Would anyone in Jacksonville seriously argue that the suburban shopping mall has not influenced the development of the city, state, or nation?

Founded by Morris Ketchum, Jr., Ketchum & Sharp was one of the country’s most prominent retail architecture firms following the end of World War II. During the 1930s, Ketchum and then partner, Victor Gruen, began by designing a few retail stores on Fifth Avenue in New York. This work would launch a successful career in retail architecture for both men.

An early advocate for pedestrian malls, Ketchum’s Shoppers World complex outside of Boston, MA held historical significance as one of the first suburban malls in the country when it opened in 1951. At the time, it was billed as the largest retail shopping center in the world, attracting fifty thousand consumers on opening day. Ketchum’s suburban retail projects served as a precursor to the world’s first all-weather, fully enclosed shopping mall. Completed in Edina, MN in 1956, Southland Center was designed by Victor Gruen, Ketchum’s former partner, who is credited as the inventor of the enclosed suburban shopping mall. Also a former president of the American Institute of Architects, Ketchum is associated with Francis X. Gina and Stanley Sharp. Once called Ketchum, Gina & Sharp, the firm specialized in designing retail centers, department stores, educational facilities, and even a Middle Eastern embassy.