A 1943 aerial of Pearl Court. (University of Florida)
Largely located in a triangle shaped area once defined by two Atlantic Coast Line railroad lines and Main Street, neighborhoods to the north and south predate the Pearl Court’s development. Straddling Pearl Street between Northshore and Brentwood, Pearl Court was an area that was largely used for agricultural purposes. During the 1930s, these uses gave way to the need for new housing to accommodate Jacksonville’s rapidly growing middle class and population influx due to guaranteed residential mortgages being offered by the Federal Housing Authority. At the time, its collection of modest brick bungalows were considered to be the latest design, adapted to Florida’s climate and built with a view on space economy and low maintenance cost. For the price of $3,995, a buyer could purchase a two bedroom brick veneer house with fireproof and lifetime “asbestos” roofs on foundations of solid concrete to protect against termites. As one of the first neighborhoods in the city coming to life after the removal of Jacksonville’s streetcar system, Pearl Court was designed to accommodate growth in automobile ownership. However, largely built-out before the age of the expressway, the neighborhood’s streets were platted with a grid network and sidewalks, along with a small centralized commercial district, making walkability a realistic option for its residents.
An article highlighting the 1950 opening to the Main Street Drive-In. (CinemaTreasures.org)
Following the end of World War II, the area’s remaining large undeveloped tracts, transformed Pearl Court into a major mid-century shopping and entertainment destination. This trend started with the September 1950 opening of the Main Street Drive-In at Main and 48th streets. Owned by Clark Film and operated by the Talgar Theatre Company chain, it had a capacity for 700 automobiles. This was followed by the opening of Jax Center, one of the city’s first strip shopping centers outside of downtown in 1954. A year later, Pearl Plaza opened on at 5.44-acre site located on the southwest corner of Pearl and West 44th Streets. Adding 45,000 square feet of retail space to the neighborhood, Pearl Plaza was anchored by A&P and Alread’s Pharmacy, which was home to a soda fountain counter where 5 cents could get you an iced coke. Closing its doors after 54 years at Pearl Plaza in 2014, Phil’s Shoes was one of the longest continuously operated businesses in the area.
Gateway Shopping Center, which became one of Jacksonville’s first enclosed malls a decade later, opened just west of Pearl Court at the intersection of West 44th Street and Norwood Avenue in 1959. With JCPenney and Montgomery Ward as its anchors the combined outdoor/indoor shopping center was largest in the city until the early 1980s expansion of Regency Square Mall. Also in 1961, J.M. Fields, a discount department store chain based in Salem, Massachusetts, opened a large store nearby at Main and 48th Streets.
Traveling north along Pearl Street through Pearl Court
Pearl Court’s prominence as a major retail destination for North Jacksonville eventually declined after the construction of the Jacksonville Expressway. Completed in 1960 and now a part of the I-95 system, the expressway diverted travelers from local thoroughfares such as Main and Pearl streets. Today, nearly nearly 80 years after it exploded on the scene, Pearl Court continues to survive as a quiet well maintained walkable Northside neighborhood.