The Way We Were: Laurina “Sister” Holmes McIver Utsey

The Way We Were: Laurina “Sister” Holmes McIver Utsey
Dr. Robert McIver and his wife, Ida, and children, John and Sister, circa 1940.

Even though most of her years have been spent living on Timuquana Road in Venetia, deep family roots cause Laurina “Sister” Holmes McIver Utsey to regard the Palmer Terrace neighborhood in St. Nicholas as home.

A direct descendent of Francis Bagley’s widow, Donna Anna Hogan, who inherited his Spanish land grant of riverfront property extending from the Southbank to Millers Creek, Utsey is a member of one of the oldest families in Jacksonville. Another of her ancestors is David Palmer, a pioneer builder of Duval County, who moved to Florida from Connecticut in the early 1800s to enter the ship building business. After Palmer married Hogan’s daughter, Eliza Miller, he built a house at the end of what is now Palmer Terrace, which was named in his memory. Call Street, Holmesdale Road, and Laurina Street in Glynlea are several other streets in the St. Nicholas area named for members of Utsey’s illustrious family.

The McIver House circa 1960

The McIver House circa 1960

Since Palmer’s arrival, six generations of his family have called St. Nicholas home, including notable relatives George Olaf Holmes and his son, George Jr., both famous Jacksonville architects, Judge Thomas Olaf Holmes, justice of the peace for South Jacksonville for 24 years, and Utsey’s uncle, Jean Palmer Holmes, who as one of the youngest licensed pilots in Florida, used the area where Baptist Hospital and the Aetna Building now lie as his landing strip. Jean Palmer Holmes was a founder of National Airlines, which later transformed into Pan American Airlines. The Holmes family was at one time related to the reigning dynasty of Swedish Royal family, according to a History of Duval County, Florida.

Utsey said her generation was the first to move out of St. Nicholas into other Jacksonville neighborhoods and beyond. Currently, none of Utsey’s Holmes family relatives live in the neighborhood, she said.

Her father, Dr. Robert Boyd McIver, moved to Jacksonville in 1920 and became the first urologist to practice in Jacksonville, later founding the McIver Clinic and Jacksonville Blood Bank, which is now OneBlood. After marrying her mother, Ida Holmes, the couple set about building a Tudor mansion in 1930, on more than three acres of riverfront property deeded to Ida by her father, Edwin Palmer Holmes.

The house at 1108 Palmer Terrace, which is now owned by Mitchell Legler, was originally designed by Kenyon Drake. It has gone through several renovations since then and is now up for sale.  But Utsey still refers to it as “her house” because it is where she and her brother, Robert Kolb McIver, a well-known painter, grew up.

Compared to Avondale and Ortega, where most of her high school friends lived, St. Nicholas was remote, Utsey recalled. Her house sat on the banks of a working river, where commercial ships traveled daily, active shipyards buzzed on the Northbank and resounding cheers could often be heard from the Gator Bowl across the river from her home. Big Jim, the huge whistle which signaled the end of shifts at the Jacksonville Electric Authority’s Southside Generating Station, would sound, alerting Utsey and her childhood friends when it was time to return home for dinner, she recalled.

Utsey Family: Elizabeth Holmes Utsey, Sandra Gayle Utsey, George Utsey, George Christian Utsey, Robert McIver Utsey, Sister Utsey and Laura Holley Utsey at 1108 Palmer Terrace in the late 1960s.

Utsey Family: Elizabeth Holmes Utsey, Sandra Gayle Utsey, George Utsey, George Christian Utsey, Robert McIver Utsey, Sister Utsey and Laura Holley Utsey at 1108 Palmer Terrace in the late 1960s.

At that time, Palmer Terrace was a “family enclave” of four “original” houses surrounded by woods – the McIver House at 1108 Palmer Terrace; 1117 Palmer Terrace, a riverfront mansion built in 1886; the Judge Rhydon Call House at 1230 Palmer Terrace, and 1210 Palmer Terrace, which was built in 1888 – most of which were still inhabited by her relatives, she said, adding that her good friends, Louise, Kitty, Elliott and Lep Adams lived in the Rhydon Call house when she was growing up.

“Dr. Bob and Miss Ida were the king and queen,” said Utsey’s cousin, Michael Cagle, who also grew up in the neighborhood. “They lived in this Camelot house in St. Nicholas. It was a beautiful home. Miss Ida would hold parties, where she would line up Virginia hams on silver platters ready to give out to the doctors in his practice,” Cagle said. “Miss Ida supported Dr. Bob in his business. They were partners in every way. When he would go on business trips he started bringing her home jewelry, and she would say, ‘I don’t want that. You know I like furniture.’”

Utsey remembers her lavishly furnished childhood home as one full of antiques, with a large, highly polished tortoise shell under the stairs, a 200-year-old four poster bed handmade by South Carolina slaves in the guest room, and a sumptuous Oriental rug on the slate floor downstairs. The rug later found a home in the Governor’s mansion in Tallahassee after it was sold.

In the dining room was her mother’s pride and joy – a handcrafted table with a story behind it. “After she built the house, Ida’s dad gave her a sizeable check to buy furniture,” remembered Cagle. “She spent every penny on the one dining room table, saying she could wait to get the chairs at a later time.”

Ida McIver loved to entertain and many prominent Jacksonville residents often dined at her table. Manual Quezon, the first president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, his family and secret service agents occasionally stayed at the house when he came to Jacksonville to visit her father at the McIver Clinic. “After his surgery, he recuperated at our beach house on Ponte Vedra Beach,” said Utsey, noting it was a “spec” house and the first home on Ponte Vedra Boulevard sold by developer Jim Stockton.

Dr. Robert McIver hosts a dinner party for the Florida Medical Board around the table that was a precious gift to his wife, Ida.

Dr. Robert McIver hosts a dinner party for the Florida Medical Board around the table that was a precious gift to his wife, Ida.

Another notable guest was Mary McArthur, sister-in-law to Douglas McArthur, and her niece, Muffin, who visited every year on their way to Palm Beach, said Utsey. Ida’s sister, Laurina, who was also called “Sister” and is Utsey’s namesake, had become good friends with Jawaharial Nehru, after she married diplomat Thomas Needham and lived two years in India. Twice Nehru visited the enclave in St. Nicholas and spoke before the city’s Meninak Club, while staying with the Needhams at their home on Elizabeth Place in Avondale, Utsey said. The Ambassador to India also stopped by when he visited Laurina’s Avondale home, Cagle said.

Growing up, the McIvers had two hired workers, Carrie the cook, who lived in the servant’s quarters above the garage, and Eddie Coleman, a handy man who lived off the property nearby. Both were treated like family, Utsey said.

“The house had central heat, but they didn’t use it,” Cagle recalled. “There was a fireplace in every room.” Cagle said. Coleman sometimes awakened him when he spent the night, stoking the fire with wood and coal in the early morning. “There were always people in the kitchen. Miss Ida and Carrie would cook together and share recipes,” he said.

“Mother and Father had two horses named Prince and Traveler,” Utsey recalled. “When I was growing up they would ride in the woods near the house. I had a pony and cart. We had chickens and turkeys, and at Thanksgiving and Christmas I would go down and sit by the river to watch Eddie Coleman prepare the turkeys for dinner.”

Ida and Dr. Robert McIver in Ponte Vedra Beach in 1954.

Ida and Dr. Robert McIver in Ponte Vedra Beach in 1954.

Some of the fowl came to the family as payment for Dr. McIver’s medical expertise, Utsey said. “When Dad made the rounds on Sundays at the hospital (St. Vincent’s, St. Luke’s and Brewster Hospital) he would take me with him,” she said. “On Saturdays, he would call on patients out in Live Oak and the countryside. He would barter his charge, and we were bombarded with chickens and turkeys. He would charge his patients by how much money they had,” she said, adding that at Christmas she would take it upon herself to give some of the birds away. “Carrie would help me sneak a few turkeys out of the group, and I would take them to our neighbors down the street that I knew needed food to feed their big families,” Utsey said. “My mother never knew the difference.

“It was so much fun at Christmas,” Utsey continued. “Mother would set up the tree in the reception hall, and my brother and I would sneak down the stairs to open just one present. Then we would try to wrap it back up so no one would know,” she said.

Utsey’s parents encouraged both her and her brother to make creative use of their time, which may be why they both entered artistic fields. When John graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and returned from a stint in the Navy, he surprised his dad by informing him that he wanted to learn to paint rather than enter a medical career.

“Instead of being mad, his parents said, ‘Fine. We’ll build you a studio,’” Cagle recalled. “They built it on the property and he began painting. He was self-taught. He just loved to do it.” The studio now serves the Legler family as a guest house, he said.

Utsey said she often watched her brother give art lessons to his “Thursday girls” – Maureen Riley, Alice Ulmer, Margaret Berg, Yula Ball and Christine Schmidt. Riley became an accomplished painter in her own right and later passed along John McIver’s techniques to her son, famed Jacksonville painter C. Ford Riley.

The girls who took Thursday art lessons from Sister Utsey’s brother, John McIver: Maureen Riley, Yula Bull, Margaret Berg, Christine Schmidt and Alice Ulmer.

The girls who took Thursday art lessons from Sister Utsey’s brother, John McIver: Maureen Riley, Yula Bull, Margaret Berg, Christine Schmidt and Alice Ulmer.

Growing up, Utsey attended Hendricks Avenue Elementary and Bartram School for Girls, where she attended middle and high school. During her spare time as a teenager, she worked as a model for several Jacksonville stores including Rosenblums, Jacobsons and Furchgotts.

Utsey spent two years at Pine Manor Junior College before heading to Parsons School of Design in New York, where she studied interior and fashion design. While in New York she often modeled at Lord and Taylor, she said.

In 1950, Utsey designed the dresses she wore at her debut at the Florida Yacht Club. “Dr. Bob owned the YMCA building in town and said he sold it just so Miss Ida could use the money to plan Sister’s debut,” Cagle said.

Utsey was dating a friend from Avondale when she was introduced to George Utsey of Fairfax, whose father owned Utsey Shoes in Avondale and San Marco. They married in 1953, built a house on Timuquana Road, and raised five children, Elizabeth, Sandra, George Christian, Robert and Laura. Her husband died in 2007. In addition to working as an interior designer for the past few years, Utsey spends her time keeping up with her brother, her children and three grandchildren: Margaret McMurrain Utsey, Alexander McIver Utsey and Melissa Holmes King.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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