Legacy of the River Rover: Coquina Gates and the extraordinary Jim Russell | First Coast Magazine
Legacy of the River Rover: Coquina Gates and the extraordinary Jim Russell

If you want to know how much coquina Jim Russell used to build Coquina Gates, forget weight or volume measurements. He’d brought back enough from quarries south of St. Augustine, he said, to burn out the engines of six or eight station wagons. Russell moved to Florida in the 1940s and had never seen this sedimentary rock comprised of millions of years of sea fossils before.

“Coquina brings you close to the sea,” Russell said in March of 1964, in a story the Florida Times-Union ran on the Coquina Gates community he designed and built. “See those washed out places?” He moved his hand across ripples and crags. “I like to look at them and imagine the slap of tides over the rocks, carving and shaping their own designs. That’s what I like about driftwood too.”

The entrance to Chinquapin, an 800 sq. foot cottage in the Coquina Gates complex.

The seven houses at Coquina Gates, which Russell built over the course of 24 years, he decorated with driftwood. He doored and beamed with pecky cypress — cypress pitted with fungal “pocket rot.” Coquina Gates sits on seven-and-a-half acres shrouded in trees in the midst of the Jacksonville neighborhood of Arlington. It feels like an indigenous outcropping of the earth. Russell fit forms to forces, combined the materials of the woods and swamps until he understood what things preferred.

“I worked for eight years with things I found in the woods to understand what goes together,” he said, but most of the houses at Coquina Gates took “about a year, maybe less” to build. But Russell didn’t build the houses. Sometimes he said he put them together. He assembled them the way he would montage sets as a child for his father’s Vaudeville theatre in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

The original cottage, the first of the structures built at Coquina Gates by Jim Russell. Russell began building the collection of cottages called Coquina Gates in the 1940s, hauling chunks of Coquina from a St. Augustine quarry. The eclectic collection of structures, many with additions and modifications added over the years sit tucked in a wooded lot South of Atlantic Blvd. on Jacksonville’s Southside, creating a retreat in the middle of more structured and conventional neighborhoods.

“Building implies a set of rules,” he explained, but “putting [houses] together means understanding the relationships of things and blending them. There’s quite a difference.”

But that wasn’t quite right either. His role in the putting together of houses was less active than that of the houses themselves.

“There’s a freedom in building houses,” he once told a reporter. “They just come to their own mood, like a story or a piece of music.” Russell was no more a composer than he was an architect. Perhaps he was a compriser. He comprised the houses in that he consisted of their building. “I’ve got seven and one half acres,” he said. “And more than enough ideas.”

The neighborhood is still here, and so are residents’ memories of Jim Russell and his wife Anna. When Anna fell a decade ago, Kristen Martini, now property manager of Coquina Gates but then resident, apologized for damaging the lovely house called Wild Cherry, then climbed through a high window and broke down a door to get to her. Anna was 92 years old then, and she’d broken her hip.

An eclectic mix of architectural details and ornamentation graces many of the residences in the Coquina Gates complex.

Anna had outlived her husband, the artist who built this mad garden village, by almost 20 years. She would have died in an assisted living facility if Kristen and fellow villagers hadn’t brought her back to Coquina Gates. It had been her home for half a lifetime.

Kristen was 21 when she moved to Jacksonville from Long Island, New York in 1991. She answered an ad in the paper promising “Country Living in the City” and found herself visiting this hidden inner-city wonderland that most lifelong city denizens never discover.

Seahorse was the house for rent, one of three Coquina Gates houses with a wide circular exterior window and the only house with a granite fireplace. Anna was asking $350 a month. When Kristen stepped out of her car, Anna stepped out of Wild Cherry to meet her and Kristen said, “I’ll take it.”

Anna was tough and tiny — maybe 5’1”. Though she grew up in rural Dawson, Georgia at a time when college and career were the last things expected even from urban women. She earned a master’s degree in social service administration in 1942 from the University of Chicago.

Kristen Martini, the property manager at Coquina Gates lived there for a number of years. The tile work “shutters” on the Nor’east residence were her handiwork from 10 years ago, made up of pieces she collected herself and from friends and family members.

Once, in the earlier years of her friendship with Anna Russell, Kristen Martini wanted to transplant some Cast Iron plant. The plant is well named for its toughness. Its 20-inch glossy, dark green leaves spread by rhizome across the deeply shaded grounds of Coquina Gates.

“Anna brought me to a random patch,” Kristen says. “She saw that I was a little over-enthusiastic in my digging. She taught me always to leave some to grow back for the next person.”

Anna told Kristen that getting old wasn’t bad, as long as you didn’t have too much pain, and she remained healthy and spry until her very last years and days. The two women remained close and Kristen cared for her as she passed away in her home, the house her husband built called Wild Cherry. Just before Anna died on April Fool’s Day, 2009, she would gaze out the window of Wild Cherry, lost in another kind of time, a different species of vision. Jim Russell had died in the same house in 1991.

She would point at the depths of shade beneath the camellias and magnolias, extending her frail arm, and ask Kristen, “Don’t you see him?”

When Kristen looked through the window, she saw no one, but Anna saw her husband walking the path by that upright one-ton coquina ring, or working industriously at some indecipherable puzzle in wood and stone.

Besides Wild Cherry, there is another house in Coquina Gates that is named for a tree: Chinquapin. Inside, the hearth girds itself up massively, its coquina broken and fitted to place. In the arched doorways that lead to the kitchen and two bedrooms, patches of stone remain exposed from surrounding stucco. Chinquapin doesn’t just welcome you in. It harbors you.

Phelix Deamon, 4 sits on the couch in the main living area of Wild Cherry, the largest of the houses in the Coquina Gates compound where he and his family now live.

Inside the house called Nor’east, across from Seahorse, shards of fieldstone fitted gracefully together form the floors beneath coquina walls in places wainscoted with pecky cypress. Behind the monumental fireplace and hearth stands the legendary door. It swings on hinges Russell salvaged from a barn somewhere in New England. Three inches thick, nearly five feet wide, the door swings easy and has ever leveled true. It’s been said the door weighs 350 pounds.

By a corner dining table in back of the house, Jim Russell’s own tall map of Florida hangs on the wall, scribbled over with his notes about his many journeys across the state by water. He earned the name “River Rover,” and would travel the St. Johns River and camp in order to prepare for longer voyages in faraway lands.

In the 1970s, Russell set off down the Amazon into Colombia, wandering through jungle for six hours to approach the strange ancient rock paintings he’d read about in Alain Gheerbrant’s 1954 book Journey to the Far Amazon. Throughout his 60s and 70s, Russell claimed more than 10,000 South American river miles, hitchhiking from the Peruvian Andes to Tierra del Fuego, and said the greatest struggle he’d ever borne was loneliness.

A seahorse weather vane on top of one of the residences at Coquina Gates is believed to date to Jim Russell, the creator of the compound.

Russell’s obituaries read that he was both an “architect adventurer” and a “theatrical and commercial artist.” His work included portraits of George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. In the 1930s, he was the publicist for the traveling vaudeville show “Punjab, the Very Essence of Hindu Mystic Powers.” He built theatrical sets and art across America throughout his career. In the 1940s, he moved to Northeast Florida, and down a dirt road he began building Coquina Gates, imagining one house at a time.

“No man,” Russell said in that article from years ago, “is equal to his art. I don’t feel that any man is ever equal to what he creates.”

While Jim Russell is not here to share stories of his Amazon adventures, seven of the original homes he created are still standing, nestled in lush Florida greenery. They serve as a refuge to their inhabitants, and will for many years to come.

One of the plant shrouded residences at Coquina Gates.

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Photography by Bob Self and Times-Union Media