Homes that Made a Statement
Mellen Greeley was born in 1880 in Brooklyn. Not the Brooklyn of New York hustle and bustle, but the quiet rural suburb just south of Jacksonville. He lived with his widowed father, brother, and sister in a pleasant two-story cottage on Commercial Boulevard (which would later be renamed Riverside Avenue.) He grew up watching paddle wheelers and schooners plying the St. Johns River from his second-story porch. He loved this house, which his father had named Benvenito, the Italian word for welcome.
When he was twelve years old, young Mellen went off to boarding school in New Jersey for a year. Upon his return, he was flabbergasted to see that his father had remodeled his beloved Benvenito. No longer a small country home, it had been turned into the largest, most bodacious house in the environs of Jacksonville. Not only was his house now six stories tall instead of two, it was decorated with a three-story gingerbread balcony so elaborate that it defied description. His father had hired a bunch of ship carpenters to create this phantasmagoric wooden tower of Babel, a scroll-sawn and lathe-turned monstrosity.
“Why?” the boy asked his father, as tears welled in his eyes.
His father, Jonathan C. Greeley, had once served as Jacksonville’s mayor and was also elected state senator. He was president of the Florida Savings Bank and owned vast tracts of land on the Indian River. He was a self-made man who had accumulated great wealth. He was now running for lieutenant-governor of the State of Florida.
Mr. Greeley replied to his son’s question: “There is nothing like success. We now have the grandest home in Florida, and I want people to take notice.”
Indeed, the house was the talk of the town. There was a frequent parade of visitors from Jacksonville on weekends to take in the panoramic view of the river and skyline from the top of the home’s tower. It was the tallest home ever built in Jacksonville, before or since. Mellen Greeley went on to become one of Jacksonville’s most respected architects. His choice of professions was influenced, no doubt, by his chagrin over the outrageous home in which he spent the rest of his childhood. The house was demolished in 1916 for the Chrysler and Royal Motors automobile dealership. Today, the YMCA building occupies the site.
Benvenito was more than a house – it was a symbol. Nearly every city and town across America has at least one large mansion, prominent because of its size and ostentatiousness. Throughout history wealthy citizens have erected showy manors to assert their status in the community. Having the “biggest home in town” is not just to enable a luxurious lifestyle; it is intended to make a statement. Like the Greeley home, these prominent residences often become local attractions and a source of pride for the rest of the town’s citizens.
Jacksonville has had its share of grand mansions, and nearly every generation has produced at least one preeminent home that has stood out as the city’s showplace. Most of these are gone now, having fallen to the vagaries of fire, changing fashions, and real estate development. But these grand homes of yesteryear still linger in our collective conscience.
The most imposing residence that followed Benvenito was that of Wellington W. Cummer. Whereas the Greeley house was extraordinarily tall and gussied up with Victorian frillwork, the Cummer mansion was elegant and palatial. Cummer was a wealthy lumberman from Cadillac, Michigan, who had invested heavily in Florida timberland for over a decade, buying up vast tracts of cypress and long leaf pine forest and eventually becoming the largest landowner in the state. He later constructed his own hundred-mile-long railroad, the Jacksonville & Southwestern Railway, to haul lumber from his various operations in Florida and Georgia to his lumber mill in Jacksonville.
In 1896 he purchased a large chunk of riverfront property on Riverside Avenue between Post and Fisk streets, on which he built the grandest mansion in the city. Cummer’s home evoked the mien of a Greek temple, a Neo-Classical edifice that exemplified the latest architectural vogue, made popular by the White City in Chicago’s World’s Fair three years earlier. Designed by Michigan architect William Williamson, the house cost a whopping $25,000. Its prominent portico was supported by four massive Corinthian columns. With a huge reception room and a vast wine cellar, it met Cummer’s stated desire to have “a fitting mansion for one of Florida’s industrial leaders.”
His sons Arthur and Waldo joined him in the Cummer Lumber Company, and they built elegant homes on either side of the big house. The three homes together were known simply as the Cummer Compound, which later made way for today’s Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. Wellington Cummer died on Christmas Day 1909, and his funeral was said to have been one of the largest in the city’s history.
Jacksonville’s first true mansion was built before the Civil War. At a time when the city’s
population was barely two-thousand, Col. John P. Sanderson built a three-story brick residence that would have been called grandiose, even if it had been in a much larger metropolis. Located on the northeast corner of Ocean and Forsyth streets, the home featured a two-story veranda and a distinctive cupola. Sanderson was an attorney and state legislator who served in the government of the Confederate States of America. During the war as Union gunboats approached Jacksonville in 1862, Sanderson bowed to the inevitable occupation of the city by Federal troops. He strolled through his rose gardens one final time, made sure that a fine stock of wines was available, and instructed his house servants to seek out the Union commander when the troops arrived and invite him to enjoy the comforts of the home. Then he quickly fled the city. The Sanderson mansion served as the residence of every Union commander during four Federal occupations of the city.
The invasion of Federal troops during the Civil War presaged a wave of northerners that would move to Jacksonville after the war’s end. Many of them were extremely affluent, and their homes reflected their prosperity. One of the first was Harrison Reed, a Milwaukee newspaper publisher who came to Florida at the behest of President Lincoln during the Civil War to serve as tax commissioner. In 1868 he was elected Governor of Florida and built a home on the south bank of the St. Johns River. His home was larger than most, but could not compare with that of his younger sibling that would soon surpass it.
By Wayne W. Wood