Residents discuss need for historic district after demolition of historic home

Residents discuss need for historic district after demolition of historic home
Photo of 1922 River Road taken in 2005. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Wood)

For Leigh Burdett of Lakewood, the demolition of the 1927 Tudor Revival home at 1922 River Road in San Marco was akin to buying Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and tearing it into little pieces.

“I see these historic homes as pieces of art,” Burdett said. “You may buy the Mona Lisa, but that doesn’t give you the right to destroy it. It gives you the responsibility to preserve it and enhance it in a way that maintains the integrity of the historic neighborhood.”

The demolition of 1922 River Road in December 2016 was a wake-up call for many residents living in the residential core of San Marco. In December, Jon Singleton, a local realtor, raised a call of alarm on his Facebook page, which resulted in a flurry of more than 100 comments from concerned friends and local residents.

“San Marco is getting torn down,” Singleton wrote, highlighting 711 Alhambra South, 1922 River Road, 2743 Green Bay Lane, 3941 Alcazar, 1214 Morvenwood, 1515 Alexandria Place North, 3505 Sunnyside, 1930 River Road, and 1030 Maple Lane, all homes in San Marco and its adjacent neighborhoods, Colonial Manor and Granada.

“The buyers of 1018 Maple Lane and 2611 River Road, which is under contract now, reportedly want to demo, and another is about to come down on Sorrento,” he wrote. “Too bad no one cares enough to stop this. Soon we’ll be ‘San Marco Crossing’ without our beloved architecture and charm.”

More than 20 years ago, Jacksonville Architectural Historian Wayne Wood called for San Marco to pass an ordinance designating San Marco as a Historic District as a “way to protect the mindless remodeling and demolition” of its historic houses.

Calling the tear-downs a “cancer” sweeping through the neighborhood, Wood said more than 25 landmark houses have come under the wrecking ball in the last 20 years.

“San Marco is a very cohesive community. Most of its houses were built in the 1920s and 1930s and have nice architectural lineage,” he said, noting prominent architects have designed many of its structures.

“It’s not cohesive if these buildings get torn down, and modern houses are built in their place,” Wood continued. The materials and style of the modern homes often aren’t in “architectural sympathy” with the older homes in the neighborhood, he said. “Houses that are of unique architectural beauty should be preserved. A new house should not try to copy old historic homes, but be in sympathy with them.”

Also troublesome is the building of “McMansions” where much smaller homes once stood. “If you tear down one house, then you have an empty lot. Two houses might take its place, or one is put up that is too large for the character of the neighborhood,” Wood said. “First it is one house, then a whole block, and then you lose the whole neighborhood. This is not to say that San Marco will become a slum, but it is in danger of losing its character, the very character that attracted people to move there to begin with,” he said.

“Soon San Marco could become like any other gated community in Jacksonville,” he continued, adding he hopes San Marco will revisit the prospect of designating itself as a Historic District to further protect the community. “People should prize the beauty of older homes and step in and do something about this. I urge them to wake up before it’s too late. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

The remains of the historic Tudor Revival home at 1922 River Road after it was torn down. Owned by Michael Ward, president of CSX, who owns three consecutive lots on River Road, the now vacant home lot will be converted into a side-yard garden to go along with the traditional white-brick home he plans to build on an adjacent vacant lot at 1930 River Road.

The remains of the historic Tudor Revival home at 1922 River Road after it was torn down. Owned by Michael Ward, president of CSX, who owns three consecutive lots on River Road, the now vacant home lot will be converted into a side-yard garden to go along with the traditional white-brick home he plans to build on an adjacent vacant lot at 1930 River Road.

Advent of the Overlay

No laws or regulations are currently in place to slow down the process for demolition of historic structures in San Marco, Wood said. In the 1970s, when more than 60 percent of the residents in Riverside and Avondale elected to make their neighborhood a nationally designated Historic District to preserve its unique scenic, cultural, and historic atmosphere, San Marco had no interest in doing the same, said Wood.

In the 1990s, the San Marco Preservation Society hired a historical architectural research firm to survey the core San Marco neighborhood and identify all the properties that would qualify as “contributing structures” in case the residents decided to move forward in designating the area as an historic district, said Lori Boyer, president of the Jacksonville City Council. Structures had to be older than 50 years and meet other criteria, such as having no significant alterations, having been designed by a notable architect, or having been home to a famous person, she said.

“Not being a local or National Register district, any required review for demolition in San Marco would be limited to a few local landmark structures in the area (Chapter 307, Florida Master Site File), as well as the approximately 150 individual properties determined to be potentially eligible for individual listing on the National Register of Historic Places per the Florida Master Site File (Chapter 320),” said City Spokesperson Tia Ford in an email.

The proposal to make San Marco a nationally designated historic district was met with furious opposition by many homeowners who saw such a plan as an infringement on their property rights.

Because of resistance, the Preservation Society passed the list along to the Jacksonville Historic Commission and informed homeowners they would have a window of opportunity to opt out of the plan before their homes were automatically listed, said Boyer. If the homeowner chose to opt out and the Historic Commission did not oppose their request by a certain date, the home was automatically removed from the list, she said, noting this was the case with 1922 River Road.

The San Marco Overlay was instituted in 2005 after a rash of demolitions brought concern to neighborhood and city officials that the “rhythm and character” of the community would be destroyed without some form of zoning regulation, said Boyer. Instituting a concept first devised by then-District 5 Councilman Matt Carlucci of San Marco, the Overlay set standards for setbacks and height restrictions for new development in the area.

Community expresses opinions

The demolition of 1922 River Road and Singleton’s post promoted recent conversation within the community about how preserve the historic character and charm of San Marco and its surrounding neighborhoods.

San Marco resident Diane Martin said many San Marco neighbors were “shocked, saddened, and frustrated” to see 1922 River Road go down. “Some of us have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate our houses, and we would like to keep the character of the neighborhood,” she said.

On Singleton’s Facebook thread, many opinions were expressed.

“Why are we doing this. Why can’t this be stopped?” Pam Lloyd Ellis asked. “What makes this community special is being lost, and what’s going up in its place is not always even with the style or craftsmanship of the rest of our beloved neighborhood. (Note I said not always, as some are trying to stay within the style and that’s much appreciated.) We just preserved our home with a renovation that gave us a full update and insisted the contractor work to adapt to the style as much as we could. Please consider when buying or renovating what makes it special here. Builders, please don’t knock down one home and stick two in when it looks too tight. Build to blend with the neighborhood.”

“I want to cry every time I ride my bike by and see one gone,” said Burdett, who owns a bicycle touring company that rides through Jacksonville’s historic neighborhoods. “One of the biggest losses was Oriental Gardens. Even though all that was left was a pond and a little statue, it was a piece of now missing history,” she wrote.

A proponent of historic preservation, Karen Rinaman Barakat said the new construction was not all bad. “All these homes are part of the story of our neighborhood, and that story is going away when people tear down those homes. I would like to see people honor our historic neighborhoods. That said, San Marco proper does not have historic designation, and it has been a tough issue for many years,” she said. “Some of the neighborhoods are just turning over (especially Granada), so this is just a product of new families moving in and making their new home their own, and btw (by the way) making a major investment in the neighborhood. I’ve noticed some of the new construction is more in keeping with the Howard Company’s vision for Granada than the original homes they have replaced. In some cases, great effort has been made to honor the ‘pink curb’ history here. I am thankful for that.”

In the thread, Elizabeth Crabtree O’Steen, a realtor with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, took issue with Singleton’s calling out the demolished residences. She disputed the comments regarding 711 Alhambra Drive, where she knows the owner plans not to subdivide the lot but to replace the house with a “beautiful home, in line with the character and charm of the existing homes around it. There were foundation problems from trees on both sides that made renovation extremely difficult,” she wrote. “I think all information should be gathered prior to making public remarks regarding someone’s home and their intentions for it.”

In his posting, Singleton, who works for Watson Realty in Avondale said the solution is for the area to pass a Historic District ordinance. “The scale of the new demo is frightening. I think it really is time to have some protection, like Old Ortega enacted in 2004, to address demolition permits,” he wrote, noting by calling attention to the problem he may have committed professional suicide.

“To avoid the appearance (and counter accusations) of hypocrisy, I commit to never knowingly selling a property for demolition that conforms to the Jacksonville Historical Society or City guidelines,” Singleton wrote on Facebook and reiterated in a phone interview. “I believe in this, and although I am in business, I won’t help people destroy what I love for a buck.”

Petitioning for a historic district, starting a design-review committee with stricter standards for new construction, or pushing for protection either by amending the Overlay or writing a new local ordinance, were suggested as solutions, as was education. “The only way we can stop people (from demolishing homes) is by educating them and making them care,” said Barakat.

Historic registration encouraged

Aware of the community’s concerns, in early January the San Marco Preservation Society posted a letter on its website encouraging owners of the historic properties mentioned in the survey, but not listed among the approximately 150 registered local landmarks, to voluntarily list their property.

If too many potential landmarks get demolished, San Marco may not have enough left standing to have the option of becoming a historic district if it chooses to in the future, said Boyer.

LeAnna Cumber, president of the San Marco Preservation Society, said her organization has been “actively monitoring” its residents’ concerns.

“If the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission agrees that the site is appropriate for designation, it then recommends the site to the City Council for final approval. If a home is designated a Local Landmark the homeowner must obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) for any exterior work done to the home. For extensive work to a Local Landmark, such as demolition or new construction, a COA must be approved by the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission. For less extensive work, a COA can be issued by the Historic Preservation Section of the Jacksonville Planning and Development Department. A COA is required before a building permit will be issued for any designated Local Landmark,” was posted recently on the preservation society’s website.

“We see ourselves as a place, a resource for people,” said Cumber. “Our purpose in doing the survey is to allow people in the neighborhood to make choices. We paid for that survey, and we are offering for people to see it again to see if they are interested,” she said, noting SMPS is happy to provide any resident with “technical assistance” in registering their home.

Carlucci, who first conceptualized the idea of a zoning overlay, said he is in favor of reopening a conversation about designating San Marco as an historic district. “I would love to see my children and grandchildren grow up in the same San Marco I grew up in,” he said. “The key is that a historic district can be tailor-made. They are not all one-size-fits-all. What people don’t realize is we can tailor make it as strict or as flexible as we want,” he continued.

“I like to see progress, but if we ever lose the historic fabric of the core of San Marco, we will lose the sense of community that we all love and enjoy,” said Carlucci. “I don’t want to see that happen.”

Anyone interested in applying for a local landmark designation should contact SMPS at (904) 396-0081, or email or call Cumber at (202) 355-8760.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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