Marco Preservation Society preserves area’s Old World charm
Marco History Includes Magnificent Mansions and a Business District Reminiscent
of Venice, Italy
by Jennifer Newman, SMPS President
San Marco Preservation Society (SMPS) was formed in 1975 as a non-profit
corporation to protect the integrity of San Marco’s residential neighborhood
and to enhance the revitalization of its business district. Its many
active members have succeeded in keeping the old-world charm and character
of San Marco intact. SMPS currently has more than 600 members.
Its boundaries are I-95 to the north, Greenridge Road to the south, Philips
Highway on the east and the St. Johns River on the west.
a farm on the banks of the St. Johns River, the area now known as San Marco
was called Oklahoma. One of the most prominent citizens of Oklahoma
was Harrison Reed, who was elected Florida’s governor in 1868 and 1873.
Reed’s sister, Margaret Reed Mitchell and her husband, Wisconsin railroad
tycoon Alexander Mitchell, fell in love with Oklahoma and built their winter
home, Villa Alexandria, on 140 acres on the river. By 1872, the palatial
estate included a mansion (near the present corner of River Road and Arbor
Lane), barns, tennis courts, a swimming pool, polo field, more than 2000
orange trees, bridle paths and formal gardens. By 1873, Mrs. Mitchell
was one of Jacksonville’s most influential women and was active in many
early photo of the San Marco business district shows the fountain and the
western strip of shops. Clearly seen in the photo is Setzers, a grocery
store; the building has been remodeled numerous times through the years
as now seen behind the San Marco tower in the photo above this one. The
liquor sign on another building indicates this photo was taken after the
repeal of prohibition. In fact, the well-known “Towne Pump” was located
at the site for 50 years.
development of the “South Bank” began in earnest with the opening of the
St. Johns River Bridge (renamed the Acosta) in 1921. Telfair Stockton
bought 80 acres of land north of the Mitchell estate for the new “San Marco”
subdivision. The business district was based on the Piazza di San
Marco in Venice, Italy, which had impressed Mr. Stockton on a European
trek. The clay pit of Gamble & Stockton Brick Company was transformed
into Lake Marco. San Marco was an immediate success. In 1929, an
additional subdivision, Villa Alexandria, was platted on the overgrown
Villa Alexandria estate. The first two homes in the development were
built on adjoining lots by Carl and John Swisher, who had just moved their
King Edward Cigar Company from Chicago to Jacksonville.
Marco’s initial success carried it through the Depression years.
The scenic layout, lack of commercial intrusion, and proximity to downtown
continue to make San Marco one of Jacksonville’s most popular neighborhoods.
1994, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was moved to Fletcher Park on Atlantic
Boulevard from the Museum of Science and History. The church was built
in 1888 and was originally located further east on Atlantic Boulevard.
It serves as offices for SMPS and as a rental facility for parties, weddings
and meetings. It is a focal point for the San Marco community.
New Projects for the San Marco Area
of the most exciting projects in the history of SMPS is in the beginning
stage. The society is currently negotiating to lease the old South
Jacksonville City Hall. The two-story yellow brick building at the
corner of Hendricks Avenue and Cedar Street is one of the oldest remaining
buildings in the San Marco area, dating to 1915. According to Dr.
Wayne Wood, author of Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage, the
building was funded as part of a $65,000 bond issue for civic improvements
in South Jacksonville; the building is one of the few reminders that South
Jacksonville was a separate and distinct town from Jacksonville, from its
incorporation in 1907 to 1932, when the area was annexed into Jacksonville.
are still issues to address with the SMPS acquisition of the building.
The structure is in need of extensive repairs and renovation. The
SMPS continues to review its options and the funds necessary for the improvements.
exciting project of the SMPS is the expanded public library and Balis Community
Center. Construction began late April 2002. The library expansion
is the first Better Jacksonville Plan library project underway. The
Balis Community Center slated for property adjoining the library, is a
joint project of SMPS and the City’s Department of Parks, Recreation and
Entertainment; funding for the center was provided by the estate of Abla
Balis, a long time San Marco resident. At 5,800 square feet, the
center will be staffed by a city employee.
Boyer, a past president of the SMPS was instrumental in the facility’s
design to insure the center meets the needs of the San Marco community;
funds from the Balis estate are also available for new and expanded facilities
in the adjoining park, Southside Park. Additions include picnic pavilions,
basketball court, and children’s playgrounds. The center, the expanded
park and library are all scheduled to open in the spring of 2003.
San Marco fountain lions are a popular addition to the “square”
to 1997. Designed by Angela Shiffanela and Alan Wilson, they
the square’s association with the Venice, Italy business district
influenced the area’s developer Telfair Stockton.
Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church dates to 1888, when
property near today’s Atlantic Boulevard and Pottsburg Creek was donated
by Mrs. Mary Reese for church construction. The Rev. Albion Knight (later
Bishop) of St. Andrews Episcopal Church designed the little Gothic Revival
River Church. The structure has been moved four times and is now
home to the San Marco Preservation Society. Located in Fletcher Park, the
old church is a popular site for weddings and parties.
Christmas home tour is held every other year; the next one is scheduled
is an annual winter holiday event, the second Saturday and Sunday of December.
newer tradition, a Twelfth Night event, is held at the society’s Preservation
this month, long-time San Marco resident Karen Franklin will take the reins
as SMPS President.