Creative Activism

Chris Flagg’s award-winning watercolors shape a vision for our city

Chris Flagg is the AE Group Operations Principal at Haskell and an artist member of Jacksonville’s Southlight Gallery. Flagg serves on the Board of Trustees at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville and is a talented designer, community visionary, and urban planner. His diverse forty-year career has seen him contribute to numerous improvements within the City of Jacksonville. As an illustrator and award-winning watercolorist, Flagg has been recognized on a national level by the American Society of Landscape Architects as a 2013 Council of Fellows member, one of the highest honors awarded within the field of landscape architecture. Flagg says he loves the spontaneity of plein air painting – its expressive qualities and its usual unknown outcome as a finished product. His work provides him the opportunity to blend art and physical form offering the unbridled opportunity to cultivate a creative activism. Through overlaying a host of complex issues and mediating them with design solutions, Flagg’s broad vision has helped make significant contributions to our local quality of life.  

What are your thoughts about the importance of trying to save historic buildings like the Riverside fire station and others in Jacksonville?

Basically, preservation is just that and an opportunity to pay reverence to the past! The ability to retain a city’s architectural fabric is part of what makes cities great. The fire station, in particular, represented a place of security, strength, and protectionism. Architecturally, they are little jewels, much like places of worship, post offices, old city halls. They were built with a character and proportion to their structure helping to define the personality of the communities they protect. They are a type of architectural “punctuation mark.” Communities without those entities lose bits of their personality. Once architectural heritage disappears, the quality of the neighborhood fabric is diminished. Wonderful spaces blended with the pride of our architectural past is representative of who we are as a livable, proud community.

Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about other historic buildings that have already been demolished (for example, city hall annex, former Duval County courthouse, and Jacksonville Landing)?

I don’t think that there was enough thorough distillation for potential reuse. Again, other cities have done remarkable jobs at creating a renewed energy with outdated  buildings. If something is to be torn down, do it for great reasons, not good reasons. Strive for greatness through vision and creativity. Give good reasons to tear something down, and then the pain of complete demolition would be relieved. All of these buildings had potential reuse opportunities. Imagine the Landing as a repurposed food market, a naval museum, or mixed use destination. Baltimore did just that, and look at what their harbor is today! Repurpose should be the first line of thinking; then if all else fails, demolition should be the last resort. When it comes to demolition, stop, think, envision, explore, and discover. The results could be surprising…

 Are there any particularly good examples of historic buildings in Jacksonville that have been saved from demolition that you are aware of and think could be used as good arguments against demolition of such buildings?

The best one that comes to mind is the Cowford Chophouse, formerly the Bostwick Building. I campaigned hard to keep that building in lieu of the former owner wanting to tear it down. At the time, my office was downtown, and I was adamant about the value of preservation, especially within our downtown. When I was a member of the Downtown Development Review Board, I lobbied for its preservation knowing full well that someone with vision would inherit that structure and keep the integrity of our downtown architectural fabric intact by creating something special there. Yes, it was difficult and expensive, but look at what was preserved. It’s too easy to take the easy way out to demolish and start over. Imagine if it was a vacant lot today….

 What do you think is the best way to mobilize the Jacksonville community to join in on the effort to save its historic buildings?

Keep comparing to other great cities, and keep citing examples of how they handle their repurposing. There are so many great examples, but just look at those who have, and why they become desired destinations. Dr. Wayne Wood has been an excellent advocate for our city’s historical heritage and for the values of preservation. He constantly makes the case for preservation. We must continue to highlight the successes of preservation within our community and in other great cities. It all boils down to leadership and their ability to recognize its value, whether through professional organizations, or through the voice of the community. It takes dedication and passion to make it happen combined with vision. Then, we start to make progress to becoming a great city. 

 Are there any other thoughts or observations about architecture and development (historic or not) in Jacksonville you’d like to share?

My thoughts related to architecture and development in general are related to their ability to achieve excellence, not necessarily perfection, but excellence in functionality and aesthetics. Let’s not settle for mediocrity but strive for excellence in design, creative thought, reverence for who we are as a city, and vision for what we should be. There are many checks and balances currently in place, but needed, I believe, are strong guidelines to ensure that innovation and creativity becomes the framework for the final solution.

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