The Laura Street Trio & Old Barnett National Bank Building
On May 3, 1901, Downtown Jacksonville burned to a crisp. In the third largest metropolitan fire in U.S. history, flames consumed a swath two miles long and one mile wide. On that one Friday afternoon, 146 blocks containing 2,368 buildings were destroyed.
At about 8:30 p.m. that evening, exhausted firefighters brought the blaze under control on Laura Street between Adams and Forsyth Streets. Over the next quarter century, this termination point of the Great Fire of 1901 would become the nexus where four of this city’s great buildings would rise. And in more recent years, these four buildings would become the focal point of whether Downtown Jacksonville’s revitalization succeeds or falters.
As cruel as the fire was to Jacksonville’s citizens, it was also the city’s catalyst in becoming a modern metropolis. Gone was the languorous wooden town. A new city rose from the ashes, fashioned with brick and stone and concrete, resplendent with the latest architectural styles. Within two years after the conflagration, more buildings had been built in Downtown than had existed before the fire. Architects, builders, and entrepreneurs from far and wide made their way to Jacksonville to get a piece of the action in rebuilding Florida’s largest city.
The Marble Bank
Opened in 1902, the Mercantile Exchange Bank was one of the first commercial buildings completed after the Great Fire. It was situated at the corner of Forsyth and Laura Streets, at the heart of what quickly became “Bankers’ Row.” Clad in Tennessee white limestone and with elegant Ionic columns, its neoclassical façade embodied the most fashionable architectural style of the day for buildings of commerce. Within three years, Florida Bank Trust, the forerunner of the Florida National Bank chain, purchased the bank. The building’s façade was then doubled in size to its present width, and its marble sheathing was expanded to include six stately marble columns. Twelve years later, its interior was remodeled and a grand banking room was created, complete with a spectacular skylight, a coffered ceiling, and classical plaster detailing.
The bank embodied the stylish sophistication of the big city financial institutions of the Northeast, and locals have revered it for over a century as simply “The Marble Bank.” ￼ ￼
The Bisbee Building
Among the most talented and enterprising outsiders drawn to Jacksonville after the Great Fire was a twenty-eight-year-old New York architect, Henry John Klutho. Vowing to make his mark on the rising skyline of the devastated city, he quickly gained commissions for many prominent civic and commercial buildings, including the public library, the city hall, and the city’s largest commercial buildings. His initial designs celebrated the traditional classical style, which was in vogue at the time. But after meeting the revolutionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905 during a trip to New York, Klutho returned to Jacksonville brimming with ideas that would lead to his becoming a champion of the architectural avant-garde.
He designed an ultra-modern house for himself on Main Street in Springfield in 1908, a building that was the first residence in Florida representing a style that later would be deemed the “Prairie style.” That same year he was also working on two of Downtown’s largest commercial buildings – the Seminole Hotel and the Bisbee Building.
For months the Bisbee Building was the talk of the town, as it slowly rose above the city’s skyline. Located immediately to the east of the Marble Bank on Forsyth Street, it rose to the unthinkable height of ten stories tall. It was not only Jacksonville’s first true skyscraper, but it was also the first reinforced-concrete-frame high-rise building in the South. Using revolutionary materials and construction techniques, the Bisbee was a thin, soaring pinnacle that paid homage to the modern urban towers of Chicago and other major cities. As the building was nearing completion, its office space had been totally rented, causing its owner, William A. Bisbee, to instruct Klutho to double the building in size. The result was a skyscraper that was twice its original width. The Bisbee remains today, not just as a prominent landmark on Forsyth Street, but also as the significant harbinger of Florida’s high-rise architecture.