Just as Victorian architecture in the U.S. was widely obliterated 50 years ago, outstanding architecture of the 1950s through early 1970s has become increasingly imperiled by redevelopment and an appetite for newer – but not necessarily better – buildings. Northeast Florida is home to exemplary works of modern architecture from the post-war era (sometimes referred to as “Mid-Century Modern”) by esteemed architects such as Welton Becket, FAIA, Paul Rudolph FAIA, Robert Broward, George Fisher, William Marshall AIA, William Morgan and Taylor Hardwick. Click here for premier local examples of this modern style.
The names of certain families loom large in Jacksonville history: The Browards, Harts, Hendricks, Hogans and Phillipses were city pioneers who left their marks all over Jacksonville’s founding documents (not to mention our streets and bridges). But, too often, the faces behind the names get forgotten. Today, we’d like to introduce you to one such family: the Cummers of Riverside.
The Cummer family already had significant lumber holdings in Michigan and Virginia when Wellington Cummer moved his family, including sons Arthur and Waldo, from Cadillac, Michigan to Florida in 1896. When the men of Cadillac queried why they were moving to Jacksonville, the answer they received was, “to turn boys into men.”
In truth, as the pine forests in Michigan became exhausted, the firm found a field for its energies in Florida. Here the business was carried on in the name of the Cummer Lumber Company. Cummer bought up vast tracts of cypress and long leaf pine forest, eventually becoming the largest landowner in the state.
To haul lumber and phosphate from Cummer operations in Georgia, the company constructed the Jacksonville & Southwestern Railway, a railroad nearly 100 miles long. Sons Waldo and Arthur formed the Cook-Cummer Steamship Line and built a mill and phosphate shipping facility north of the city that employed 1150 workers in 1906.
Michigan architect William Williamson designed this palatial home for Wellington and Ada Cummer, which was built in 1902 at a cost of $25,000. The white-and-yellow home featured four massive columns, highly detailed portico, and a one-story colonnade wrapping around the Georgian Revival Style structure. There were huge reception rooms and a vast wine cellar.
During the Great Fire of 1901, the Cummers opened the third floor of their home to some destitute families that had nowhere else to stay. Cummer died Christmas Day, 1909, and his subsequent funeral was said to have been one of the largest held in the city’s history.
Although sons Waldo and Arthur were able businessmen, it was Arthur’s wife, Ninah, who is responsible for the Cummer family’s most lasting legacy. Active in several charitable groups and a leading light of Riverside society, Ninah also was an avid gardener and knowledgeable collector of European treasures, from a sixteenth-century polyptich, to Meissen porcelain, Old Master portraits, Russian icons and snuff boxes of lapis lazuli. When she passed on, Ninah willed that her home, with its stunning gardens and cultural treasures, be turned into a museum.
(The Cummer Museum isn’t the only Cummer legacy still standing. Waldo Cummer’s first home, purchased from Riverside developer Edward Cheney, was moved to its present location in 1911. This charming, elegant and well-mannered home, now 140 years old, is all that remains of Riverside in its infacy.)
On February 4th, 1939, Rose Shepherd, a writer with the Federal Writer’s Project (an economic recovery program that paid writers to record oral histories during the Great Depression), sat down with Mrs. Thomas Ellington, a kindergarten teacher whose “considerable personal inheritance” had enabled her to purchase one of Jacksonville’s oldest residences, the Red Bank Plantation.
Today, Red Bank is one of a handful of pre-Civil War residences still standing in Jacksonville. The property is part of what was formerly a Spanish land grant first surveyed in 1793. From the 1820s until after the Civil War, the property was owned consecutively by three of Jacksonville’s most prominent men: Isaiah D. Hart; Isaac Hendricks, pioneer settler of South Jacksonville, for whom Hendricks Avenue is named; and Albert Gallatin Philips, Duval County’s sheriff from 1833-1839. (His son, Judge Henry B. Philips, is the namesake of today’s Philips Highway.) Philips built the imposing house in 1854 and operated a plantation on the 450-acre site.
Shepherd’s graceful writing and and Mrs. Ellington’s detailed reminiscences of Red Bank’s history paint a vivid picture of a time when “the principals of the Old South” were still very much a part of Jacksonville life. We’ve excerpted the first few pages here, and invite readers to review the full, richly detailed interview in the Library of Congress’s American Memory website.
On the last street within the corporate limits of South Jacksonville stands “Red Bank” — an old plantation manor house formerly centering a land grant with a seven-mile frontage on the St. Johns River and a history of continuous ownership of over one hundred years by the Philips family, long identified with Duval County history and civic affairs.
The demand for estates with homes along the river, resulted in sales of parcels of land comprising the old grant from time to time, and finally an enterprising real estate company secured title to a large acreage nearest the city limits, developing it as a high class residential section under the name of “Colonial Manor” — a gesture of recognition of the importance of the old house in the picture.
Profiting by the experience acquired in marketing another development on the south side, the real estate company brought in dredging machinery, sand and silt was pumped up from the river bed, and the property line frontage was extended some hundred or more feet. So “Red Bank” which, in the early days, was only a stone’s throw from the mighty St. Johns, is now six blocks from the river bank.
“Colonial Manor” was popular from the beginning with those wishing to establish themselves as far as possible from the “madding crowd” and yet secure the city facilities of running water, electric light, and convenient access to local schools. A distance which in the old days was a three-hour journey from Jacksonville is now covered by bus or auto in twenty minutes.
New homes sprang up throughout the section, but nobody wanted the old house, until Mrs. T. H. Ellington three years ago realized its possibilities. Having spent her childhood in just such a home on a plantation near Dalton, Georgia, she longed to again live in a house with twelve foot ceilings, deep fireplaces, and spacious rooms, so the purchase was made, the deed recorded, and restoration commenced.
The old house has not had its “face lifted.” However, the modern platting of lots and streets necessitated making the west side the front entrance, with the number 1230 Greenridge Road. There is a new door with an old fashioned brass knocker, and new sash in the twelve-light windows which “four-square” the front, with narrow green shutters framing the sides.
A double track cement driveway leads to the east entrance and on into a two-car garage. This was formerly the front of the house which faced the sand trail of the private lane leading through the plantation from the main country road. Remnants of the old hitching post remained here until a few years ago, and weathered old liveoaks in the yard could tell many interesting tales of the plantation owners, their families and distinguished guests who in early days passed through this wide colonial door with its framing of small sections of glass to admit light into the spacious hall which marked the entrance to this hospitable southern home. . . .
“Judge H. B. Philips’ grandfather was the owner of the original grant,” said Mrs. Ellington, “which he received direct from the Spanish King in recognition of some meritorious service to the Crown, as was then the custom. He was a retired sea captain from Red Bank, New Jersey, hence he named his new possession “Red Bank” which designation continues to the present day. Judge Phillips’ widow in Large Place has the original deed to the land, written entirely in Spanish.
“The place was in such a wilderness, with the country then roamed far and wide by Indians, that Captain Philips was not much interested in his new property, and he never lived here. However, his son, who was Judge Philips’ father came down, and when he saw the place so beautifully located along the mighty St. Johns River, he built a log cabin right on the crest of the hill here, where he lived for some years. He acquired a large number of slaves, valued at $100,000, so I have been told. Large sections of the land were cleared and planted in cotton, sugarcane, corn, peas, and garden crops. . . .
“There was no road to San Jose, as is now, between here and the river. The main road came over Hendricks Avenue from the ferry, and the private lane to the house here led off from this road, and came past the house between the two big liveoaks to the east.
“On account of its spaciousness, the old house was always famous as a gathering place for social affairs, particularly dances. But it was such a journey to get here, that when there were evening parties and dances, the guests had to be accommodated over night. This was no trouble, however, the rooms were so big — extra beds were set up, and the girls were taken care of in one wing of the house, the boys in the other.
“In its heyday there were many different kinds of fruit raised on the place, but the only reminders now are two scrubby plum trees in the side yard and a few of the old orange trees in the back. There is also a crepe myrtle tree in the south yard, and the stump of a very large one where the tree was cut down nearby to make room for a new house.
“All of the old gardens and flowers have long since disappeared. Mrs. Tyler has cuttings from some of the old rosebushes and I am in hopes of getting some of these to bring back and start growing again in the home of their ancestors. . . .”
As the lengthy interview concludes, Mrs. Ellington confesses to seeking “comfort from the old classics of song and story.” “Gone with the wind?” queried Mrs. Irvington to me – “No, I do not believe so. The principles of the old South are still with us, and the new Southerners of the old South have a heritage which will never die. You can acquire polish, poise, prosperity – but what is inherited is bred in the bone!”
Today, Red Bank remains a private residence.
In the 1920s, Addison Mizer was the best known and most-discussed architect in America. Perhaps more than any other architect of his day, Addison Cairns Mizner shaped the architectural flavor of South Florida. Although he lacked formal training as an architect, Mizner’s eclectic reinterpretations of Spanish architecture, as showcased in such famous buildings as the Boca Raton Resort Club and the Everglades Club, helped to popularize the Mediterranean Revival style that continues to inspire architects and developers to this day.
Rejecting modern architecture for its “characterless copybook effect,” Mizner sought to “make a building look traditional as though it had fought its way from a small, unimportant structure to a great, rambling house.” And, as anyone who’s been to Boca Raton or Palm Beach knows, Mizner built a great many of these rambling structures, for such deep-pocket clients as J.P. Morgan, the Vanderbilts and the Singers (of sewing machine fame).
So how is it that this extravagant “society architect,” a noted bon vivant who embodied the ebullient, gaudy, expansive spirit of 1920s Palm Beach, came to design one of our city’s beloved local landmarks, the Riverside Baptist Church?
According to an account in Riverside Remembered, George Hallam’s wonderful book on turn-of-the-century Riverside (now regrettably out of print), Mizner accepted the job out of guilt. He’d been approached in Palm Beach by the church’s building committee (then headed by Dr. H. Marshall Taylor), and reflexively cited “ill health” as his reason for turning down the prospective commission. However, the Jacksonville congregation responded to this setback with a “prayer in,” even sending a letter to Mizner stating that the parishioners were actively beseeching God for his recovery.
Mizner, seemingly aware that his excuses were up, reportedly exclaimed, “Now I’ll have to build it in self-defense.” (The more likely truth is that he simply decided to build the church in memory of his mother, Ella Watson Mizner; indeed, he refused to accept any payment for his services.)
Working out of an office on Hogan Street that he’d designed for himself, Mizner began supervising construction of the church in 1924. It was completed in 1925. The resulting structure, a marvelous fusion of Romanesque, Byzantine, and Spanish elements, is a one-and-a-half story octagonal dome set in a base shaped like a Greek cross, with a red tile roof and stucco-layered hollow clay walls designed to resemble limestone. Mizner’s first and only religious structure, the radical nature of its design caused quite a stir.
As George Hallam reports, “Reaction of the church members was mixed. A few thought it perfectly suitable for Catholics. A few thought that only a madcap could have designed it . . . . Miffed, some of the congregation left, never to return. . . . As if he had anticipated the flack, Mizner saw to it that carved monks on the north and south bays were winking, and the nun on the north bay had thoughts of sticking her tongue out.”
But clearly the structure was a real achievement. “I do not know in all Southland,’ said guest minister George W. Truett of Dallas at the time, ‘a church quite so remarkable as this gem of architecture.’”
It is in the church’s astonishing interior that Mizner’s formidable skills are most evident. Worshipers enter the church through one of three pecky-cypress doors, each of which is embellished with carved Greek crosses. The larger center doorway forms the lower half of a great stone archway above which three Romanesque windows are centered. On this doorway, inside the great arch, a carved tympanum in bas-relief depicts the baptism of Christ, even as symbolic scapegoats flank its doors. To provide a sense of spaciousness to the narrow Narthex, Mizner designed a Gothic style groin-vaulted ceiling, and—borrowing a Spanish motif—hung star-shaped lanterns representing the Star of Bethlehem from the ceiling.
It’s hard to overstate the pervading aura of antiquity in the church, no doubt fostered by Mizner’s careful selection (and artificial aging) of the materials used. Interior walls were rubbed with buttermllk and burnt umber to simulate centuries of age, while the stunning cypress-beamed ceiling is adorned with painted decorations meant to mimic 15th-century Italian Renaissance designs.
More armchair information about this amazing structure can be found here, but of course the best way to appreciate the church is to see it yourself. The church is located in Riverside at 2650 Park Street, at the corner of King.
This article first appeared on riverisideavondale.org.