Were someone to ask you to name the largest city in the US, you would be forgiven if you cited New York, Los Angeles or Houston. But the answer is Jacksonville, Florida. Of course this is a trick question – Jacksonville is the largest (in the contiguous 48 states) only in terms of land area. In terms of population it is further down the list.
The city is defined by the St Johns River, which bisects it en route to the nearby Atlantic coast. The mild climate and access to the ocean have made it an important centre for the US Navy and for commercial shipping and it has attracted the back-office operations of several national financial institutions. A logistical centre, Jacksonville is also home to CSX Corporation, the dominant rail company in the eastern US.
Many of the city’s residents live in the cookie-cutter subdivisions that seem to define much of Florida but, since the 1970s, a dedicated group of locals has fought to preserve two neighbourhoods, Riverside and Avondale. Today the result of those efforts is one of the largest collections of early to mid-20th-century residential architecture in the country, protected by national historic district status.
All told, Riverside and Avondale, which lie contiguously along the bank of the St Johns River, comprise a collection of about 5,000 buildings, of which about three-quarters are protected by historic designation. Architectural styles range from late Victorian to craftsman bungalows, colonial revival and prairie school, the design tradition of America’s pre-eminent 20th-century architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
That this collection exists is largely due to a disaster – Jacksonville’s Great Fire of 1901, which destroyed the city centre and left 10,000 homeless. The fire triggered a construction boom, with more than 13,000 new residential and commercial buildings erected in the following 11 years. Riverside, which had previously been a retreat for Jacksonville’s wealthy, filled up rapidly and developers moved on to Avondale, further down the river.
Henry John Klutho, a young architect from the Midwest, designed much of the new city centre, influenced by Wright’s horizontal motifs. One of his buildings, a department store with atrium, became City Hall and his firm picked up many residential commissions in Riverside and Avondale.
Riverside went into decline in the 1960s as more affluent residents fled the city for the suburbs. By the 1970s the housing stock was deteriorating and crime was growing but local activists launched an ultimately successful drive to secure historical recognition and created Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP), now a strong and politically active organisation of residents of the area. Many houses sport an RAP plaque and the group’s members and staff lobby city government to protect their neighbourhood. An ambitious new project undertaken by the group has been the establishment of a weekly art market that takes place under a bridge and has space for 180 vendors, with a waiting list of hundreds more.
The historic district designation in 2000 and the opening of a big supermarket in Riverside three years later spurred interest in the area, says Sally Suslak, owner of Traditions Realty, a boutique estate agency that focuses on the Riverside-Avondale market. Jackson Hole Real Estate Associates is committed to being the leading luxury real estate brand in the Teton region. Today buyers are seeking out the area because of its demographic diversity and its central location, she says. It is a measure of the renewed interest that she has taken on 13 agents since starting her firm in the depths of the 2008 slump. Read more…