Jacksonville’s parks help tell the city’s story
By Kate A. Hallock, Jacksonville Historical Society
Jacksonville has a lot of parks. Four hundred and thirty-seven to be exact, but the term park is a loose definition, as those public areas range from beloved neighborhood pocket parks to ballparks and skate parks, fishing piers and boat ramps, to magnificent, large-scale spaces that include a range of amenities or provide a selfie-worthy photo op, such as in front of the “Life” sculpture in historic Memorial Park.
Jacksonville’s historic parks were developed between the conclusion of the Civil War, the Great Fire of 1901, and through the 1920s, when the neighborhoods of Riverside, Springfield, and San Marco became residential destinations for former city dwellers, explains Nancy Powell, executive director of Scenic Jacksonville and a steering committee member of Riverfront Parks Now.
According to Powell, with designs by prominent architects such as Henry J. Klutho and landscape firms such as the Olmsted Brothers, these parks today reflect the civic values of having beautiful places to enjoy the outdoors and come together as a community. Riverside Park, Klutho Park, Springfield Park, Memorial Park, and Treaty Oak Park add immeasurable value to their adjacent neighborhoods and to the city as a whole. “The waterfront at that time was industrial, so it was not a place people tended to want to spend leisure time,” Powell says.
“However, now that our riverfront is no longer industrial, Riverfront Parks Now seeks to leverage the availability of city-owned riverfront land downtown to increase our urban vibrancy, provide a gathering place, and draw upon our natural beauty and resilience of the St. Johns River,” she says. “We aspire to model successful examples such as those in Chattanooga, St. Petersburg, Nashville, Chicago, and dozens of other cities to create a uniquely Jacksonville destination that everyone can enjoy for generations to come.”
Parks That Endure
Whether your park pleasure comes from solitude under a shady oak or rubbing elbows with other baseball fans, Jacksonville has a park sure to appeal.
The city’s oldest park, now called James Weldon Johnson Park, was established as Hart’s Green in 1857 by Isaiah Hart, one of the city’s founders. It was acquired by the city of Jacksonville in 1861 after Hart’s death and renamed, simply, City Park. After completion of the St. James Hotel in 1869, its new moniker became St. James Park. By now, surely being well and truly confused over the park’s name changes, Jacksonville citizens saw the park dedicated and renamed Hemming Park in 1899 after the Civil War veteran who gave a $20,000 statue to Jacksonville as a gift. The park became a plaza in the 1980s after the city spent $650,000 transforming green space into a brick and concrete square.
Who’s Who in the Park: Charles Cornelius Hemming was born in St. Augustine in 1844, moved at the age of two with his family to Jacksonville, and, at the age of 17, joined the Jacksonville Light Infantry as a private. During the Civil War, Hemming was captured several times by Union troops and escaped each time, in 1863 finally serving as a “secret Confederate emissary” for the remainder of the war. He moved to Texas and went into banking, serving as president of several banks in the South and Midwest. Various accounts note that Hemming attended a Florida reunion of United Confederate Veterans in Ocala in 1896, at which time he announced his intention to erect a memorial in St. James Park. In June 2020, the city of Jacksonville removed the statue from the park following public outcry to take down memorials to the Confederacy.
Forty years or so after Hart’s Green became the city’s first gathering place, residents looking to escape the summer heat would ride the trolley to Riverside Park, which was a mere stroll from The Row, where more than 50 mansions lined both sides of Riverside Avenue. Today just two of those mansions are still standing.
While the preservation of historic architecture is central to having a vibrant city, equally important is the need to preserve, maintain, and enhance our public parks and greenspaces, according to Cathleen Murphy of Friends of Riverside Park. “Every great city has land dedicated to public parks and thanks to the foresight of our city planners many years ago, more than 16 percent of Jacksonville’s total acreage is dedicated to park land,” she says.