Former Riverside grammar school sold for taxes again

Former Riverside grammar school sold for taxes again
Paul Bremer, Patsy Bryant, Tim Kinnear, Keith Holt, Adrienne Burke, and Annie Lytle Elementary School alumna Susan Davis at the May 13 Centennial Recognition event for the former public school.

Once again, the Annie Lytle Elementary School on Gilmore and Chelsea Streets has been acquired in a tax certificate auction.

The building was purchased for $106,800 in back taxes, according to the Duval County Clerk of the Courts, who was not able to divulge the name of the buyer.

The historic school, which is surrounded by fencing and barbed wire, went up for auction on May 17. Often violated by vandals sneaking inside to undo the progress made by the Annie Lytle Preservation Group, on May 18 it was two well-dressed men who sought to scale the fence securing the property around the former Riverside school.

The Ida Mae Stevens Foundation has owned the property surrounding the building since 1980, and access across the grounds to the school requires permission from Attorney Douglas Milne, who represents the Foundation.

Milne indicated the “vandals” were likely related to the acquisition of the former school, but did not know for certain.

“A person we work with happened to see the men scaling the fence, and he said someone would get hurt. He tried to reach me and couldn’t, so he took it upon himself to cut the chain and open the gate for them,” said Milne. “Assuming they were who they appeared to be, why shouldn’t we help them?”

Indeed, Milne’s attitude about the new owner is one of cautious optimism. “My hope is they are reasonable and realistic people and we can see some type of cooperative effort with them,” he said.

The big unanswered question that always comes up with every wonderful idea is “how?” with a dollar sign, Milne said. “It’s incredibly, frighteningly expensive to consider how much it would cost to take an old building like that and make it new.” Milne said, adding Avondale architect Ted Pappas once told him it would cost about two-and-a-half times to renovate it as it would to build the same thing new.

Less than a week before the men were spotted on the fence, Riverside Avondale Preservation presented the Annie Lytle Preservation Group with a centennial medallion commemorating the former public school, Annie Lytle Elementary School, on Gilmore and Chelsea Streets.

The medallion, unfortunately, will not grace the front of the building because, as volunteer Patsy Bryant said, “If we affix the medallion to the building, it will be gone,” referring to vandalism.

Commemorating Historic Preservation Month last month, RAP staff and board members showed up on the May 13 work day to help continue the clearing out of 45 years of neglect.

“It’s in better shape now than it was when we first acquired it 35 years ago. The school board had ownership of it then and it was in a very distressed state,” said Milne. “For 50 years it’s been in a deteriorating mode, but the building is so substantial – the walls are 19 inches thick – the structure is sound and not penetrable. The question of what to do with it is one that has never gone away. There have been dozens of wonderful ideas.”

Ten years ago it was estimated it would take $6 million to restore the Neo-classical brick building with Doric columns, but the latest “napkin quote,” according to ALPG member Paul Bremer, is closer to $9 million.

When asked if the Foundation would ever consider selling the property around the old schoolhouse, Milne said “That’s not our intention, but it’s foolish to say anything is ‘never.’ We’ve been involved with it too long to have any considerations along those lines,” he said. “We want to protect the building as long as we can.”

The 44,000-square-foot school, Public School No. 4, was designed by architect Rutledge Holmes and constructed by the Florida Engineering and Construction Company out of concrete and steel in 1917, replacing a wood-frame school, which had been established on the site in 1891.

First known as Riverside Park Grammar School, the school was renamed after its principal, Annie Lytle Housh. The building ceased to function as an elementary school in 1960, then for 10 years served as administrative offices for the Duval County Public School system.

Vacant since 1970, it was condemned in 1971, but the Ida Mae Stevens Foundation bought it in 1980 for $168,000, with the intention of renovating the building for a senior citizens’ apartment complex, but federal funding programs for such projects were discontinued, making the project unfeasible.

In 2000, City Council approved a historic landmark designation, which included a freeze on property taxes for 10 years and, when the property is developed, the owner agrees to preserve the historic ambiance. In 2006, City Development Co. scrapped plans to buy the building, raze it and build a new 140-unit senior housing facility after City Council did not approve the developer’s request to tear it down.

As for the intentions of the newest owner of Public School No. 4, if they sought to demolish the building there are a number of hoops they would have to jump through.

“As a protected local historic landmark, anyone seeking to demolish the building would need to submit a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) application along with support documents for review by the Historic Preservation Section of the Planning and Development Department and Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission,” said Tia Ford, City of Jacksonville spokesperson. “The application would need to meet the criteria for demolition outlined in Chapter 307 of the Jacksonville Ordinance Code. It would only go to Land Use and Zoning and City Council if the COA application was denied and appealed to them.”

Since the newspaper was published, The Resident received information June 3 about the buyers of the property. According to Riverside resident and ALPG member Paul Bremer, a New Orleans-based company, FIG Capital Investments, LLC, purchased the property.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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