Society plans historic purchase

Florida Casket Co. buildling

Group seeks to replenish funds through membership, fund push

By Susanna P. Barton
Resident Community News

The Jacksonville Historical Society, which warehouses many archived collections from the city’s Historic District, is under contract to purchase two 19th century buildings near Everbank Field. The group’s acquisition of the old St. Luke’s Hospital and the Florida Casket Factory building is expected to close by mid-October, according to board member and Avondale resident Bill Leuthold.
JHS’s board of directors has been considering purchase of the buildings for the past two years but decided to move forward now because of favorable purchase circumstances.
“It’s exciting but it’s also a bold step,” said Emily Lisska, JHS executive director, of the board’s purchase-now-fundraise-later game plan. She said the seller is willing to give JHS a significant discount for the properties now. “It behooves them to sell and it means a great savings to us be getting things in order and closing. It is an opportunity in this unusual real estate market that we’d like to move on and take.”
The Florida Arthritis Foundation currently owns both the 15,000-square-foot Florida Casket Factory and the 5,000-square-foot St. Luke’s Hospital property. The buildings are located just down the way from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and the James E. Merrill House, both used by the society for various functions. JHS now occupies space in the hospital and casket buildings for exhibits, storage, research and archives, and pays the foundation all property expenses and repairs.
A $250,000 matching grant from the city of Jacksonville’s historic preservation trust fund will finance half of the property purchase. Lisska, however, does not think the entire amount will be necessary for the acquisition. The lower purchase price — likely $400,000 or so for both buildings, according to Leuthold — potentially means hefty cost savings for both the city trust fund and JHS, which will fund its half of the purchase through reserves. But JHS also is facing building rehabilitation costs for the Casket Factory building that could tack another $200,000 to $1 million on to the expenses costs.
Despite the savings, JHS’ investment will siphon off a significant amount of money from the organization’s pockets.
“It’s frightening because we’ve had some rough years lately where we’ve had to dip into reserves for routine things,” Lisska said. “As we do this, we would have enough to dip into reserves that would last about 1.5 years if things went poorly once the purchase is made.”
She said the historic group is jumping right into fund-building mode to “replace money we’d be using.” While JHS has not hosted any major fundraisers in the past, a significant event is planned in coming months, she said. The group also is making a push for new members and financial support.
Leuthold helped launch the group’s new focus on fundraising with a personal letter to friends and associates that helped net many new members for the JHS — including a $5,000-level membership.
“It’s a great organization that needed a little boost at the moment,” said Leuthold, who is helping raise awareness of the society’s financial needs. “The push has just started. With the downturn in the economy, things changed for us — trying to purchase the buildings is a bit of a strain, but it’s all going to a wonderful cause.”

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