Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Houses of St. Johns Quarter

As I wrap up my posts (for now, at least) on St. Johns Quarter in Jacksonville's historic Riverside, I wanted to break from my usual focus on multi-family buildings and highlight some of the beautiful single-family homes in this "neighborhood within a neighborhood."  I'll start with the one that captured my imagination years ago, and never let go. 

Leon Cheek residence, 2263 River Boulevard, St. Johns Quarter, Jacksonville, built 1928-1929, Roy Benjamin architect.  When I was sixteen years old, and got my drivers license and the freedom to explore by myself, one of my first destinations was Riverside.  My purpose was no more than to "drive around" and look at houses and buildings.  One day, I took a turn off Riverside Avenue onto Osceola Street toward the river, and discovered St. Johns Quarter and this remarkable house.

I called it the "castle house" when describing it later to my parents.  I wanted to know everything I could find out about it.  Who built houses like this?  Who lived in such places?  Why didn't we?  The last question was rhetorical; I already knew the answer.  The answer to the first two questions is Leon Cheek, the head of the Cheek-Neal Coffee Company.  The company later became the Maxwell House Coffee Company, which is still a prominent Jacksonville citizen, best known for the giant "good to the last drop" neon sign on the side of its plant near downtown, and the aroma of roasting coffee beans that surrounds the place.  When the wind is right, you can smell the coffee all over town.  I've never heard anyone complain.

Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage cites this house as the city's foremost example of the Jacobethan Revival style of architecture, an English derivative popular in the 1920's.  Its monumental appearance was well-suited for educational and ecclesiastical buildings, but it was popular for residential structures as well.  A contrast of dark brick and masonry trim frames every opening of this enormous (8 bedrooms, five bathrooms, 5929 square feet) house.  Other features include massive chimneys, a slate roof, leaded glass windows, and Tudor-style arches over windows and doors.  The most noteworthy feature of all, perhaps, is the 3-and-1/2-story tower with crenelated parapet.

Architect Roy Benjamin's name has cropped up often on my posts, most recently in my November 3rd entry on The Fenimore apartments, but also in my October 1st post on The Aberdeen apartments.  This is because Benjamin's work cannot be avoided in Jacksonville; it is everywhere, from The Florida Theatre downtown, to the San Juline apartments on Riverside Avenue across from Memorial Park (subject of a future post), to this riverfront gem, surrounded by its ornamental iron fence. 

Looking down the street from the front of the Cheek house, you can see another iconic Roy Benjamin design, the Park Lane Apartments, Riverside's first high-rise building (16 stories), which was built in 1926 as cooperative apartments, an idea the developer brought back from New York.  Co-ops are still more common than condominiums in New York, but not so in Florida.  The Park Lane is now a condominium building.

Just down the street from the Cheek residence is another beautiful home worth celebrating.  The house displays many of the Prairie-school themes that are so common in Jacksonville's historic neighborhoods.

2165 River Boulevard, built 1912, Wilbur B. Talley architect.  The original owner of this brick house was George F. Bensel, the president of Southern States Land & Timber Company.  The Prairie-school emphasis on the horizontal is evident in the house, both in the roof line and the porch.  Large brackets add support and decoration to the broad overhang of the eaves.  Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage notes that this gives the roof the appearance of floating above the brick walls.  Horizontal lines are even emphasized on the chimney.

A brick archway creates a showcase for the impressive entrance to the home; a central leaded-glass door is flanked by leaded-glass sidelights and brass lamps.  A reflection of the river across the street can be seen in the leaded glass on this sunny day.

The low wall of the porch on two sides of the house continues the horizontal line of the roof.  The porch piers are crowned by wooden crossbars, a Prairie school motif that suggests an oriental influence.

Here's a comfortable place to sit and enjoy the view of the St. Johns River across the street.

Wealthy families built these impressive homes to take advantage of the riverfront location, yet they are comfortably side-by-side with multi-family homes that were built as rental properties.  This is part of the mix that makes this neighborhood so interesting and livable.  Next post, a final look at St. Johns Quarter, and two more of its notable homes.

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