Joel McEachin, the historic preservationist for the City of Jacksonville stands outside one of the LaVilla shotgun houses. He and his team saved the three houses from demolition and had them moved to their current location.
Three beat-up shotgun houses standing behind a chain-link fence just west of downtown Jacksonville are all that is left of the neighborhood once known as the Harlem of the South. The LaVilla neighborhood was home to a number of famed entertainment venues along Ashley Street. Black musicians and entertainers viewed the strip as a key market in a successful career. James Weldon Johnson described his childhood neighborhood as a vibrant and thriving place, teeming with both domestic and commercial stability. Even after the great Jacksonville fire of 1901, the LaVilla neighborhood continued as a center of African-American identity and cultural growth, showcasing the likes of Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Ma Rainey and Zora Neale Hurston.
Photo from 1995, an outreach group from the Good Samaritan Church in Springfield held an open air revival on a vacant lot along N. Lee Street in LaVilla.
“The homes are part of Jacksonville’s rich history in a neighborhood that has had a major impact on the nation as a whole,” says Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder, University of North Florida associate professor of sociology and funding director of the Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations.
In the century since its heyday, the LaVilla neighborhood has ebbed and flowed upon the city’s radar, as revitalization projects have come and gone with few results. Today, the three shotgun houses on the corner of Jefferson Street and Church Street lay in need of significant and immediate action from the City of Jacksonville or they may be lost forever, and with them the history of the once thriving heart of the area.
Photo from 1996, LaVilla residents sit on the steps of a row of old shotgun houses on Lee Street during a quiet Saturday night in the neighborhood.
“There are still some folks out there who don’t get the connection between the shotgun houses, our city and the nation. Restoring these homes is not about romanticizing the past, but rather sharing in the greater impact and helping our community to grow and move forward,” says Dr. Wilder.
Shotgun houses earned their name because with both the front and back door open, someone could fire a birdshot with a shotgun straight through the house and not hit a single wall. But the actual origin of the name is a bit more muddled. The Jacksonville Historical Society shares one explanation, which refers to the word “togun,” an African term for place of assembly. What most can agree on is that the homes were less an architectural movement and more so a complete form-to-function type of structure. Joel McEachin, City of Jacksonville’s planning supervisor and historic preservationist, says that the narrow homes were rarely more than 12-feet wide, and their singular long hallway served to provide good airflow to the entire house when both doors were open.
Shotgun houses originated in the West Indies and made their way to the United States through New Orleans, the first known U.S. city to have shotgun houses on record. The home model migrated throughout the South and made its way to Florida alongside freed slaves traveling for work. According to the Santa Monica Conservancy, a national organization dedicated to celebrating American architectural heritage, Florida currently has only 79 shotgun houses still standing.
McEachin, inside one of the three remaining boarded up shotgun houses.
Florida communities like Apalachicola, Sarasota, St. Augustine and Pensacola have succeeded in either restoring or rehabilitating the shotgun houses within their boundaries. Jacksonville, on the other hand, like a few others cities in the state, has stalled in the preservation of the historic homes.
McEachin has been on the frontline of preserving the three shotgun houses in the LaVilla neighborhood for more than two decades. Linda Mitchell Harper and her organization Saving Our Unique Landmarks (SOUL) spearheaded the campaign to save the LaVilla shotgun houses, and brought it to McEachin’s attention that while the City of Jacksonville may not see the historic value of preserving the rest of the LaVilla neighborhood, these houses needed to be saved and hopefully one day restored.
He points out that restoring or rehabilitating homes is never a quick process. “In 1999, these three houses were still at their original location on Lee Street in the LaVilla neighborhood. The city purchased the land they sat on from a developer who planned to raze the homes to the ground in the name of progress and growth.”
1999 aerial looking south over what remains of the LaVilla neighborhood on the edge of downtown Jacksonville.
Houston Street in the LaVilla neighborhood, 1915, photo courtesy of Wayne Wood.
Aerial view of the LaVilla neighborhood, taken during the 1940s, looks south, photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Historic Society.
When the city acquired the land, it acquired the houses on the land, but was still unsure about what to do with them. “I was there when bulldozers were on site ready to destroy the homes,” MacEachin says. “We [the City of Jacksonville Historical Preservation Office] mobilized quickly to move the three houses together to the location where they are today.” For MacEachin, it was important that all three homes be saved and moved together in order to preserve the context of the homes as well as the history of the neighborhood. “We were able to designate the homes as city landmarks, which offered some protection for the homes, but not complete immunity from the city’s revitalization plans, which may or may not include these homes in the future.”
Today the three remaining shotgun houses in the LaVilla neighborhood sit fenced in on a lot along North Jefferson Street and West Church Street.
Thanks to organizations like the Ritz Theatre, we have an inkling of the extraordinary cultural impact LaVilla had on America. History that includes the first time “the blues” was published in print as a genre of music, was in a review of a 1910 performance in LaVilla by the Indianapolis Freeman.
Dr. Wilder says that not taking action on preserving these homes is a lost opportunity. Cities like Memphis and New Orleans have invested in historic cultural tourism with major economic benefits. “We should be capitalizing on our history in order to move forward as a city. If there is no forward movement on preserving our story, we risk losing momentum as a community, a city and a nation.”
Dr. Wilder and TEDxJacksonville
Dr. JeffrieAnne Wilder is speaking at the 2016 TEDxJacksonville talks. For more information visit tedxjacksonville.com