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The Great American Neighborhood

by Wayne W. Wood

Visitors who pass through Jacksonville on Interstate 10 and Interstate 95 may form an impression of the city as a sprawling, nearly modern place.  The broad arc cut by the St. Johns River through the city is scenic, almost majestic, yet Jacksonville leaves the speeding motorist with the sense that this place is neither futuristic nor very historic, a town whose character blends in with the sameness of dozens of other rank-and-file American towns along the miles of interstate.

Hidden away from the highway traveler lies an extraordinary neighborhood that exudes charm and scenery, art and history, just a few blocks from the interstate traffic.  In many ways this community embodies what all of Jacksonville once was but no longer is.  It is Riverside-Avondale, one of American's great historic neighborhoods.

Once this land was a series of unspectacular plantations, but after the Civil War a couple of Boston Yankees saw its real-estate potential and began selling off parcels for residential purposes.  They named it "Riverside," appropriately enough for a long swath of property overlooking the St. Johns.   It was then on the outskirts of Jacksonville, just far enough out of town for many of the city's well-to-do citizens to decide to build large riverfront homes there.  It caught on.  By the turn of the century, it had become annexed into the city of Jacksonville, and a street railway was built connecting the suburb with Downtown.

The development of Riverside accelerated soon after a great fire destroyed most of Downtown Jacksonville in 1901, as more and more prominent families migrated to this tranquil setting. With oak-canopied streets and a row of great mansions, Riverside Avenue was admired as the entire city's most elegant residential street.

During the peak years of Riverside's development from 1895 to 1929, a profusion of residential building styles gained popularity across the nation.  With the influx of building tradesmen who came to the city after the Great Fire, Riverside became a laboratory for aspiring architects and competing residential fashions.  The richness and variety of homes built during this period was remarkable.  Colonial Revival, Georgian, Shingle Style, Queen Anne/Victorian, Bungalow and Tudor styles were in abundance.  Riverside Avenue boasted having more houses designed in the Prairie Style of architecture than any other street outside the Midwest, where Frank Lloyd Wright popularized it.

The Bryan W. Blount residence, 1636 King Street, was built in 1911.

With the success of Riverside as a suburb, several wealthy investors assembled a large undeveloped tract of land immediately to the south in the summer of 1920. They set about building a new exclusive subdivision that would overshadow all of the other developments around it.  They called it "Avondale" and advertised it as "Riverside's Residential Ideal," where only the "correct" and "well to do" people would live.  The Avondale Company sold 402 of the total 720 lots and completed nearly two hundred homes in its first two years.

As the most elaborately planned development in Jacksonville at that time, Avondale lived up to its publicity.  Gently curving roadways and sixteen parks were laid out by William Pitkin,a well known landscape architect from Ohio.  Adopting the architectural style that would saturate Florida during the booming years of the 1920's, a large proportion of the early Avondale residences were built in the Mediterranean Revival style.  Would-be Italian and Spanish villas sprang up beneath the moss-draped oak trees.

Today the two neighborhoods of Riverside and Avondale have blended together into a three-mile-long picturesque community, showcasing the largest variety of architectural styles in Florida. The riverfront setting, the ample parks, and the tree-canopied streets are interwoven with the varied architecture to produce a pleasing tapestry.  In recognition of these qualities,  Riverside and Avondale are listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District, one of the largest in the Southeast.

In addition to the scenic qualities, Riverside-Avondale is enriched by the neighborhood's energetic citizens and cultural institutions.  Small antique shops, quaint restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and artists' galleries abound, intermixed with one of the state's leading medical centers, a community college, and the nationally recognized Cummer Art Museum and Gardens.  Historic churches and Renaissance-style school buildings compliment Riverside-Avondale's residential district.  Three village-style shopping centers provide colorful retail attractions.

One of the South's largest neighborhood preservation groups, Riverside Avondale Preservation, Inc. rides watch over this mix of architecture and culture.  Annual home tours, concerts, house restorations, art festivals and a spectacular Christmas Luminaria Festival are part of its jobs.  It also organizes battles against bad zoning and other incursions that are perceived as unsympathetic to its constituency's quality of life and scenery.

Riverside-Avondale is not on any of the tourist maps, and the neighbors like it that way, quietly hidden off the interstate, preserved for future generations of families to enjoy. It is one of America's unique neighborhoods, a place for living.

In 2010, Riverside Avondale was selected as one of the Top  Ten Neighborhoods in America
by the American Planning Association.


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