Historic Preservation Commission votes against landmark status for Woman’s Club building

Historic Preservation Commission votes against landmark status for Woman’s Club building
The Woman’s Club of Jacksonville on the campus of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

Due to an infestation of a destructive species of subterranean insect known as the Formosan termite, the Woman’s Club building on the campus of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens has been granted a permit for demolition by the city.

On June 22, the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission (JHPC) voted on the Cummer Museum’s request to demolish the 89-year-old building, which was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

The approval was given after a JHPC staff report indicated the building only met three of seven criteria required for designation as a Jacksonville historic landmark which, had it been granted, would have saved the building from demolition. National Historic Places status does not prevent its demolition, noted Joel McEachin, principal planner, Jacksonville Historic Preservation. “Chapter 320 of the Ordinance Code requires that permits for demolition of buildings listed or eligible for listing on the National Register first be reviewed by the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission,” he said.

“The building is certainly an important one in our community and we are all disappointed to lose this historic structure,” said Hope McMath, executive director for the Cummer. “There were many memories made in the building and many good works implemented by the Woman’s Club of Jacksonville. Their work still lives on as the group is still active and granting to causes important to the community. It also lives on in the legacy of the many women who stepped into leadership positions in Jacksonville, including our founder Ninah Cummer.”

Thirty years after it was organized, the Woman’s Club had outgrown its old clubhouse on East Duval Street and purchased riverfront property in Riverside for $125,000. The club commissioned architect Mellen Greeley to design a new clubhouse in the Tudor Revival style so that it might blend harmoniously with the Cummer mansion next door. The structure cost $60,000 to build and was finished in 1927.

After the Cummer Museum purchased the building in 2005 for $1.3 million, it spent approximately $5 million beginning in March 2008 on extensive exterior renovation and interior demolition before the 2008 economic downturn resulted in suspension of work.

In March 2015, the museum resumed renovation work and in July discovered significant infestation of the termites. It was determined it would take $2-3 million to mitigate the current termite situation with no guarantee against further infestation. The museum had already spent more than $300,000 in research and mitigation efforts, before its board of trustees voted in March 2016 to halt renovation and apply for demolition.

Criteria for landmark status

After the JHPC deferred the Cummer’s request for demolition at its May 25 meeting, staff spent nearly a month preparing a report to determine if the Woman’s Club building could meet at least four of seven criteria necessary for landmark designation. The Commission has sixty days to make a determination whether to release the demolition permit or deny and forward a landmark application to the City Council, McEachin said. Based on its findings, the JHPC determined it did not meet enough criteria to keep the building from being demolished.

The three criteria it did meet included 1) value as a significant reminder of the cultural, historical, architectural, or archaeological heritage of the City, state or nation; 2) identification as a work of a master builder, designer, or architect whose individual work has influenced the development of the City, state or nation, and 3) its value as a building recognized for the quality of its architecture, and it retains sufficient elements showing its architectural significance.

The JHPC determined that the 1927 building did not meet the following four criteria: its location is the site of a significant local, state or national event; it is identified with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the development of the City, state or nation; it has distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style valuable for the study of a period, method of construction, or use of indigenous materials; and its suitability for preservation or restoration.

Due to the severe nature of the damage caused by the Formosan termite colony in the Woman’s Club building, the JHPC staff report indicated neither experts in entomology nor various pest control companies could guarantee a permanent solution to the problem, thus creating uncertainty of its suitability for preservation or restoration.

“We are currently working on a plan and timeline for demolition,” said McMath. “We will do all we can to diminish the spread of the Formosan activity, including only salvaging non-wood items from the building and properly hauling and incinerating all of the wood. The Museum continues to aggresively treat the entirety of the Cummer Campus following best practices established and endorsed by the experts we have been working with during the past year.”  

Woman’s Club legacy

While the building, which served as home base for a prolifically civic-oriented club, will soon fall prey to a wrecking ball, the legacy of the club lives on.

The Woman’s Club of Jacksonville organized in 1897 and promptly began a legacy of positively shaping the city of Jacksonville. From provision of home nursing care to hosting of the city’s first art show and first flower show at the end of the 19th century, the club was instrumental in health, education, recreation, public safety and the cultural arts for more than nine decades.

A brief review of its history shows many more “firsts” organized for the betterment of Jacksonville: first Mothers’ Clubs, now Parent-Teacher-Association (1903); first fresh air camp for tuberculosis patients (1904); first women’s restrooms in Jacksonville (1905); first city playground established in Dignan Park (1907); first associated charities, now Community Fund (1909); first school lunch and infant nurse programs (1911); first civic music concerts (1917); first traveler’s aid at Union Depot (1928), and the list continues to its last “first,” the 1st Annual Antique and Art Show in 1985.

In the decades between, the club was also instrumental in establishing an isolation ward at St. Luke’s Hospital (1913) and the Police Woman’s Bureau (1927), operating child hygiene clinics (1951), organizing a friendship club for senior citizens (1956), providing hospitality for foreign students (1958), and establishing the translators and interpreters bureau (1966), among many other accomplishments.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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