Riverside resident serves community for love of history

Riverside resident serves community for love of history

Not a lot of people can say they’ve spent their entire career in one specific industry or at one place of business, but for Joel McEachin his career could truly be called a labor of love. 

Armed with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology, archaeology, education and history, McEachin spent 30 years with the City of Jacksonville digging into and preserving history. Overall, his career spanned more than 40 years, beginning as assistant director of the Tallahassee Junior Museum (Tallahassee Museum of Science and History) in 1977.

He moved to Jacksonville in 1984 to take a position as executive director of the Jacksonville Historic Landmarks Commission and served as a research assistant for Wayne Wood on “Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage, Landmark for the Future,” which was published in 1989.

Still in college when Wood formed Riverside Avondale Preservation in 1974, not long after McEachin moved to Riverside, he became the nonprofit’s eighth executive director (1986-1988), then continued to work closely with the next five directors until his retirement in May shortly before RAP’s 14th executive director was hired.

“Joel has such a knack for research and really dives into learning everything he can about a particular subject,” said Carmen Godwin, RAP executive director, 2008-2016. “I love to read his reports on a building or historic area because they capture not only the structures but the history of those who brought those buildings to life, the history of everyday people who lived and worked and made up our diverse City. He has an encyclopedia in his head and he is always available to talk or help with some question.”   

In 1988, McEachin joined the City of Jacksonville’s Planning and Development Department, specifically to supervise the historic planning section, which grew from a staff of one to five historic preservation planners, a secretary and a historic preservation code enforcement officer. One of those early hires was Lisa Sheppard, who joined McEachin 20 years ago in the newly established section.

“I feel very fortunate to have worked with Joel McEachin in the City’s Historic Preservation Section for 20 years. He was the type of supervisor that identified the individual strengths and interests of his staff and accordingly assigned us activities that motivated us professionally,” said Sheppard. “Everyone who worked with him gained something of value, whether it was learning how to research a subject, a passion for the neighborhoods who he served, or just a deeper appreciation of local history.” 

Much of McEachin’s time was spent with his nose buried in paperwork – including reviewing and processing thousands of applications for Certificates of Appropriateness for alterations, additions, new construction, relocation and demolition which would impact landmarks and properties in the historic districts.

He also researched, drafted and administered the establishment of three local historic districts – Riverside/Avondale, Springfield and the St. Johns Quarter – as well as 150 or so individual landmarks or landmark sites, all of which put more than 8,000 properties under the protection of the design review process.

“I spent many years on the Historic Preservation Commission providing oversight on construction in the city’s historic districts,” said Angela Schifanella, who now sits on the Riverside Avondale Preservation board. “The meetings could be long and tedious, but the highlight was always the opportunity to hear Joel report to the Commission on potential historic landmark properties. Joel was able to unearth the history, the stories and the connections between our historic structures and the people that inhabited them.”

Schifanella said she learned much from McEachin during those presentations and developed a much fuller understanding of the value of Jacksonville history. “I was amazed at how he could bring a seemingly modest structure to life by telling the story of its inhabitants and its times. I learned from Joel that history is all around us and sharing it enriches us all.”

During McEachin’s last few months working for the City of Jacksonville, he was honored twice. Riverside Avondale Preservation acknowledged his service with the Neighborhood Advocate Award in February at its annual meeting, and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation presented him with the Individual Distinguished Service Award in May.

“The breadth of his knowledge of our city is immense and I hope he will continue to share his research with our community for many years to come,” said Schifanella. Sheppard echoed those sentiments. “His knowledge and ability to connect all the miscellaneous puzzle pieces together to provide a historic basis for why a site or structure is important and how it relates to the greater context of our City’s history is irreplaceable.”

Although McEachin officially retired May 4, the Historic Preservation Commission can’t quite let go of McEachin; he is working part-time on special projects.

“There are few days that go by that a citizen or colleague doesn’t ask about him or a topic comes up that would not benefit from his expertise and institutional knowledge,” said Sheppard.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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