When people think of Florida’s history, they probably think of things like the Spanish settling at Saint Augustine, Flagler’s railroad, the early days of the citrus industry spurring growth throughout the state, and those beautiful old-time citrus crate labels. But there was another industry that allowed late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Florida to flourish: the naval stores industry. Naval stores gained its name centuries before when wooden-hulled vessels sailed the globe—vessels that required turpentine and pitch for waterproofing and sealing them. In Europe, turpentine was produced from the terebinth tree’s sap, but it was discovered in colonial America that the pines of the American South were actually superior in their production of oleoresin that could be distilled into turpentine and related naval stores products.
Of course, at the time, the ability to waterproof wooden ships was essential, and as the decades went by, other crucial uses—from medicines to soaps—were found for turpentine as well. By the 1880’s, naval stores production was one of the leading industries for many Southern states: Savannah became the world’s busiest naval stores port, and New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, were close behind. In the 1920’s the United States—and that means mostly the South—exported some eleven million gallons of turpentine to the world.
This booming business logically encouraged growth in port cities of the South, and Jacksonville saw great benefit from that. While Savannah and New Orleans both were older and well established as ports, Jacksonville found in naval stores the reason for a more expansive role. Commodore Point, a stretch of land where the Saint Johns River flows around the northeastern cusp of downtown Jacksonville, became a leading port and business center for naval stores operations.
At first, barrels of refined turpentine and other pine products would arrive via rail and be stored here until loaded on ships taking them to customers around the world. Later, expansive tank farms were built for more pragmatic storage of the pine spirits, and labs, business offices, and a whole economy grew up around the industry. Soon, lumber and other goods were exported via Commodore Point, naval stores executives were building fine homes for their families in Jacksonville, and the Ford Motor Company selected a site in Commodore Point for one of its new factories built to diversify its manufacturing beyond Detroit.
In 1923, Ford selected Albert Kahn—the famed Detroit architect behind Ford’s River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan—to design the Jacksonville plant, bringing one of the greatest minds of industrial architecture at the time in to design a factory built at the site of a former shipyard. Had that shipyard not been developed first, however, Ford probably could not have been enticed to choose Jacksonville. Ford’s twin motivations in expanding their operations here were to have factories outside of Michigan and also place these factories in locations where shipping was easily facilitated. Jacksonville had the seaport and railroad facilities alike to make that happen. The construction of the massive plant began in November of 1924.
Over time, much of Jacksonville’s shipping business moved north of Commodore Point to Blount Island and other locations, but some maritime-related businesses do remain even today. In the same neighborhood in 1927 the city constructed Fairfield Stadium a bit inland from the shipping facilities of Commodore Point. The site made use of available land and yet was near the city’s downtown center. The stadium was designed for Landon, Jackson, and Lee High Schools—the city’s three of the time—however, the stadium later gained fame in college sports as the location of the Gator Bowl, a name which stuck with the stadium itself.
In 1994, with the arrival of NFL’s new Jacksonville Jaguar’s team, the stadium was basically torn down and completely rebuilt to house the crowds of NFL games. The result of the coming of the Jaguars, to say nothing of the other events—soccer matches, the infamous college games, and the addition of a baseball stadium and other facilities—has been that the western side of Commodore Point now is known as the “Sports Complex,” and Fairfield today is officially EverBank Field, though to many fans it will forever be the Gator Bowl.
Workers for the port, the factory, and the railroad which served these industries were not hard to find, and many were black. The LaVilla neighborhood of Jacksonville, which always has been predominantly black, was once actually a separate city until annexed into Jacksonville in 1887. Up until then, LaVilla had attracted free blacks during the Civil War, and then attracted many blacks from around Florida after the war as well since it was one of the most independent black-majority townships in the South. After its annexation (due to its proximity to the quickly-growing city center of Jacksonville), LaVilla continued to be a hub of black culture, as the railroad led to better middle-class jobs for blacks.
LaVilla also became home to the first hospital and school of nursing in Florida to attend specifically to the black community when Brewster Hospital was established in 1901. A fine former residence was opened as the hospital through benevolent donations, and in the same year, its doctors and nurses also made over one thousand house calls to local LaVilla residents. Given its affluent, urbane population, LaVilla brought in some of the greatest jazz and blues musicians of the early twentieth century to venues such as the Ritz Theatre, which opened in 1929, and became a center of black culture in the South of that era.
Much of Jacksonville was destroyed in a horrific fire in 1901, but LaVilla was largely spared, allowing for the neighborhood to continue to flourish as a residential and business center for decades. Had the fire consumed LaVilla, the history not only of the neighborhood and its contribution to culture but also the local economy would likely have been much different. While the LaVilla neighborhood predated the real boom years of development at Commodore Point, without LaVilla’s surviving the fire to provide workers plus the nexus of the railroad, Commodore Point would have lacked the advantages it had beyond its riverside address.
Despite that fire, Jacksonville bounded back very quickly, and by 1909 period photos showed a downtown once again filled with office buildings and churches. A young architect from New York, Henry John Klutho, led the vision of rebuilding the fire-devastated city. This was not by accident: the newly-educated architect had read of the fire and promptly moved to Jacksonville, establishing his office there and offering his services to the many businesses that needed new commercial buildings. In these boom years, Klutho had to compete in New York City with well-established architects, but in Jacksonville he saw an opportunity to become the city’s leading architect at a time when the city was in great need of new architecture.
Klutho’s legacy is lasting, and architects in Jacksonville have largely followed in his footsteps in terms of style and approach. He was inspired by the prevailing Chicago Style of commercial architecture of the time, but he was also highly influenced by the Prairie Style, which is aesthetically evident in Jacksonville. Later, the Jacksonville-based KBJ Architects became known for their skyscrapers in the city, designing many of the tall buildings composing the city’s current skyline.
Today Jacksonville remains a leader in shipping and logistics and also in banking, insurance, and health care. The city has grown to a point that neighboring Clay County sports bedroom communities and construction seems omnipresent. However, despite this broad success, many of the early twentieth century buildings downtown are vacant and in need of renovation—which is thankfully on the horizon. It is easy to go to a football game or downtown and not realize how complex and varied a history led to all Jacksonville offers now, but that history is there in terms of the architecture and material culture of one of the South’s greatest—yet too-often forgotten—cities.
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