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Henry John Klutho
An Architect for a New Century

by Wayne Wood

Buffeted by gale-force winds, Henry Klutho drove his new 1908-model car down the deserted streets of Jacksonville at 3:00 am in the morning.  A fierce hurricane had just hit the city, and the young architect could not stand the suspense. 

Only a few days earlier, workers had topped out his latest building at a soaring ten stories. TEN STORIES!  Although Klutho had assured city fathers that a building of such extraordinary height would be safe, even he must have had enough uncertainties that he was risking his shiny new car in the midst of the storm to see if it was still standing. 

For months the town had been talking about the Bisbee Building as it slowly rose above the city's skyline.   Not only was it Jacksonville's first skyscraper, but it was also the first reinforced-concrete frame high rise office building in the South, using revolutionary materials and construction techniques.   As he stared upward through the driving rain that night, Klutho rejoiced to see that it was still there.

Seven  years earlier, the 28-year old architect had read about the destruction of downtown Jacksonville in the headlines of The New York Times.  The "Great Fire of  1901" had wiped out thousands of buildings in a single day, creating an empty slate for talented young architect to help design a new city.

Klutho's fine artistic sense was matched by his sharp business acumen.  Two months after the Great Fire Klutho moved to Jacksonville from New York.  He quickly made contacts with the town's movers and shakers, and within one month he was designing the city's largest building, the Dyal-Upchurch Building on Bay Street.  Two months later he had designed the new City Hall and the stately home of one of the governors of the Jacksonville Board of Trade.

By the time the Bisbee skyscraper was completed in 1909, Klutho had already shaped the Jacksonville skyline more than any other person.  And his best was yet to come.

During a trip to New York around 1905 Klutho had met Frank Lloyd Wright, generally recognized now as America's greatest architect.  From the turn of the century to the first World War, Wright and a small group of gifted architects in and around Chicago championed a new philosophy of architecture that became known as the "Prairie" style.  This new architecture eschewed the classical columns and Roman arches of antiquity, but instead embraced strong horizontal lines, flowing spaces, natural materials, broad expanses of windows, and a close relationship between a building and its environment.

This bold architectural aesthetic, which sought to establish a truly American style rather than borrow from older European traditions, greatly appealed to Henry John Klutho's creative mind.  In the years that followed his meeting Wright, Klutho began to depart from the more traditional, classical style buildings he had first designed in Jacksonville, and by 1908 he was fully committed to this modern architectural movement.  By the close of World War One, the were more Prairie-style buildings in Jacksonville than in any other city outside the Midwest.
In an incredibly productive 6-year period starting in 1907, Klutho not only garnered a large percentage of the major architectural commissions in downtown Jacksonville, but he also convinced his clients to go along with his radically modern designs.  

First was the 7-story YMCA Building at the corner of Laura and Duval Streets, framed entirely of reinforced concrete and featuring a indoor running track suspended over the gymnasium by cantilevered concrete beams.  Then came the Seminole Hotel and the Morocco Temple and the Florida Life buildings, all full-fledged statements of the Prairie style.  He also embraced this style in the design of his own residence on Main Street, along with the Florence Court Apartments, the Claude Nolan Cadillac Building, and the Klutho Apartments, all in the Springfield neighborhood adjacent to downtown.

But the grandest point in Klutho's career -- and the zenith of this city's architecture -- was marked by the completion of the St. James Building on October 21, 1912.  Designed for Jacob and Morris Cohen as a department store and office building, this four-story structure covers the entire city block overlooking Hemming Park. It was the largest building in Jacksonville at that time and was the ninth-largest department store in the U.S.

The building was Klutho's Prairie School masterpiece, richly decorated with abstract terra-cotta ornamentation and featuring a tour de force interior highlighted by a seventy-five foot octagonal glass dome and ornate open-cage elevators.  Although badly remodeled and then vacant in later years, the St. James Building was beautifully renovated in 1997-98 to become Jacksonville's City Hall.  The St. James is one of this city's most monumental works of art.

The legacy of Henry John Klutho lies not only in the buildings he left behind.  He was a nationally recognized visionary and an artist who chose to exercise his gifts in this sleepy Southern town.  He was an urban planner, a major force in Jacksonville's movie industry, an inventor, a philosopher whose voice often went unheard.  His architectural work remains as a brilliant part of one of America's greatest architectural movements.

When he died in 1964 at the age of 91, he was in near-poverty and was not widely recognized for his extraordinary contributions to his adopted city. In the years since Klutho's death, over a dozen of his finest buildings have been demolished or mutilated beyond recognition.  It was obvious to him during his lifetime that Jacksonville often had difficulty in recognizing its own potential for greatness.  As Klutho once told a gathering of his colleagues, "In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king."  And he had no doubt who was the king.

  • To read more about Klutho's "Lost Treasures," go to the Prairie School Traveler.
  • To see images of buildings by Klutho and other Prairie School architects, click here.
  • To learn more about the book, The Architecture of Henry John Klutho: The Prairie School in Jacksonville by Robert C. Broward, click here.
  • To buy the book - click here!


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