Community effort gets Lee Adams mural back in public eye
By Susanna P. Barton
For many years, it lived in a coffin-like box. Once it hung behind a couch. And for many years, it was suspended within splashing distance of middle school cafeteria diners.
The historic mural, Ribault’s Landing, has had many homes since it was first painted in 1958 by renowned botanical artist, Lee Adams. But thanks to the diligence of several local residents, the mural now has a more suitable “forever home” in the downtown public library.
An installation ceremony for the mural was held in early May at its new location on the library’s fourth floor. The unveiling drew a host of neighborhood supporters including St. Nicholas resident Lynn Corley, Ortega resident Helen Lane and Riverside artist, Jim Draper.
Corley, married to Ortega Baptist Church pastor Ted Corley, has been working to save the mural for more than a decade.
“I began this campaign 10 years ago,” Corley said. “It was 10 years ago when there was no downtown public library.”
The mural certainly has come a long way since it was paint by Adams in 1958. But it hasn’t traveled too far from its roots. Originally commissioned by Sears Roebuck & Co. for its downtown flagship store, the 31-foot mural depicting Jean Ribault’s landing 450 years ago hung in the store’s dining room.
“When the store closed in 1981, the mural was very indelicately removed,” said Corley, who added plans for a $3,000 restoration and move to the city’s civic center, never were realized. Somehow or another, the mural ended up at Lee High School in Riverside — in a box, known as “the coffin.” A Lee teacher used to remove the mural from its casing once a year and share stories with the students about Northeast Florida’s first inhabitants, the Hugenots and the Timucua. Following a 1986 fire at Lee, the mural was salvaged and made its way to a new home with slightly more prestige: a wall behind a school administrator’s office couch.
That’s when Avondale resident Jim Overton — former District 14 City Councilman and current city property appraiser — caught wind of the mural’s existence and condition. Corley said he was able to get designated funds to have the mural restored. Some hoped the mural would be placed in the City Hall building, but alas the mural would not fit int the rotunda. The National Park Service also wanted the mural, but there was no room at the inn. La Villa School for the Arts, however, it had room — it made room. Corley said the school built a special wall for the mural in its cafeteria. And that’s where it sat for many years — behind trash cans, with mops leaning up against it, Corley lamented.
“This mural is the hidden history of our city and shows the history of the first Americans who were here 57 years before the pilgrims,” she said.
Momentum for the refurbishment and permanent placement of the mural really got going last year as plans for the 450th anniversary of Ribault’s landing approached. With help from the Jacksonville Historical Society and the Jacksonville Cultural Council, the mural later was released from the school board’s possession and made its way to the library — by way of Riverside artist Jim Draper who assisted in the $10,000 mural refurbishment.
The ribbon-cutting was a culmination of a long journey — and also a new beginning for the mural.
“This is a great opportunity to remind people that it’s there,” Corley said. “Two brides already have asked to have pictures for their bridal photos there. It’s becoming a real thing of interest for the library.”