St. James Building, 1912, Jacksonville12

Reading a newspaper can be really worth it.

In 1910, Bertha Palmer read about Sarasota in an advertisement in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, visited the city and changed its history with her purchase of 80,000 acres.

Nine years earlier, architect Henry John Klutho was reading the New York Times when he heard a story about a devastating fire in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. It is now called the Great Fire of 1901.

Sensing the opportunity, he soon moved to Jacksonville and began socializing. A few weeks later he had his first assignment.

The city was desperate for architects, but Klutho’s appearance turned out to be a win-win situation for both the 28-year-old designer and the city. He went on to design a number of important buildings and became a leader in the architectural community. The city was reborn.

Klutho’s list of credits includes two of the three buildings – Bisbee and Florida Life – in the Laura Street Trio, which is an integral part of Jacksonville’s architectural tours. Adaptive use takes place there, as the buildings are being converted into a Marriott boutique hotel.

The ornate pilaster capitals of the St. James Building in Jacksonville.

But his main work is the St. James Building from 1912, which was built on the site of the St. James Hotel after the Civil War, a detailed wooden structure that was destroyed in a fire in 1901. Built for the Cohen Brothers department store, Klutho made the four-story building tall – it takes up an entire block – and adorned with lots of classically inspired details, including pilaster capitals that are beyond description.

It also has a 75 foot high dome inside, in the tradition of the great Parisian department stores. The dome had been removed in 1927, to Klutho’s disgust, but was restored in the 1990s.

The St. James Building by architect Henry John Klutho serves as Jacksonville's City Hall.

Klutho, who died in 1964 at the age of 91, designed St. James as a mixed-use building, but it has had a single use since 1997 – Jacksonville City Hall. The city bought it in 1993 after the department store known as May Cohens since 1958, closed in 1987.

Klutho was inspired by a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905 to use the Prairie School language in some of his work, including in his own home. There was once a cluster of such Wright-inspired buildings in the city, and Klutho’s friend, the architect Robert Broward, worked to salvage the remaining ones until his death in 2015.

Broward wrote in his 1984 book “The Architecture of Henry John Klutho: The Prairie School in Jacksonville” Klutho to have designed the first tall structures in the south with reinforced concrete. The 2003 revision of Browards’ book has the St. James Building on the cover and holds it as an example of the Prairie School in Jacksonville. It seems to me a lot more picky than Wright’s work from that time. A vintage photo of a Klutho Prairie style house is on the cover of the 1984 book.

Still, the St. James is a popular Jacksonville treasure and deserves a spot in this newspaper.

“Florida Buildings I Love” is Harold Bubils homage to the built environment of the Sunshine State. This article originally appeared on August 11, 2018.

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