An Interesting Architectural Discovery Today in Jacksonville’s Lakewood Neighborhood…
“Have I got an interesting story for you,” Lola Washington said with a big smile, “you’re not going to believe this!”
Lola, her husband, Ed, and I just sat down for lunch at the Mellow Mushroom in Avondale. Good friends, both. Ed & I went to Lee High School together in the early Seventies. If either of us become unfriended somehow, there is no way either of us can run for political office due to all of the stories we have on one another. Of course, neither of those situations is likely to happen in this lifetime. Yes, I always love a good story…
It turns out that Lola was talking to her brother-in-law – Ed’s sisters’ husband – and I came up in the conversation:
She asked him if he knew Robert Leedy, the artist.
“Leedy….now that name rings a bell…”
“His father is Gene Leedy, the architect who lives in Winter Haven. Aren’t you from Winter Haven?”
“Gene Leedy? Why I know Gene Leedy…During my first marriage [not Ed’s sister], I drove down to meet him in his office and bought plans for a house he designed; I came back to Jacksonville and built the house!”
Lola & Ed couldn’t believe the connection and drove by to see the house in Lakewood at 1663 Shirl Lane, a street off of San Jose Boulevard. Richard gave them the street address.
In the Seventies, Ed had accompanied me to my father’s house in Winter Haven a few times. He liked my father the moment he met him. “You’re a lucky kid – to have two fathers,” he told me. Ed had grown up without his. My mother and father divorced when I was young and she remarried a young Stetson law student from Jacksonville. They married when I was four-years-old. Mom and I moved from Tampa to Jacksonville. My new stepfather turned into a new, loving father for me. I saw my biological father (Gene Leedy) several times throughout each year. He also remarried. A woman who had been married to a young Jacksonville lawyer who worked for the State Attorney’s office. The two lawyers were good friends and there was a special connection between me and my new stepsister. Yes, it’s confusing but I had to throw that in since we are talking about connections…
“That’s definitely a Gene Leedy house,” Ed told Lola as they reached the end of Shirl Lane, “it looks just like the one he lives in – the one Robert was born in.”
They were headed to Avondale for lunch. I was leaving my studio at the same time they called me. We agreed to meet for a bite to eat. They told me the story and I could not believe it. I had never heard of a Gene Leedy house in Jacksonville. It had to be a mistake, I thought; maybe another Mid-Century Modern that merely resembled a Gene Leedy house? As far as I knew, the only ones I was aware of were in Winter Haven, Lakeland, Orlando and Sarasota.
“I had a lot to do this afternoon,” I told Lola and Ed, “but my curiosity has got the best of me and I must drive straight over there and see for myself!”
I turned left off of San Jose Boulevard onto Shirl Lane. The road was very narrow, in fact, there was only room for one car with a little left over. A Ford SUV was coming towards me so, I pulled over into the driveway of what appeared to be a Mid-Century Modern home. If that’s the house, I thought to myself, they’ve got it all wrong; it looks like a Fifties’ Modern house but it’s not a Gene Leedy…
The SUV slowed and I recognized Ed & Lola. I think they were just as excited as I was.
“If you’re talking about this place [pointing to the house on the right], we’re barking up the wrong tree,” I said as I rolled down my window.
“No, the house we’re talking about is all the way down at the cul de sac. We are going to drive down the street behind the house and see if we can see any more from that angle.”
They drove on and I continued down Shirl Lane still skeptical of finding a Gene Leedy house. I got to the cul de sac and the first thing to catch my eye was a McMansion that obviously had been a victim of the economy and a resulting foreclosure. Children’s toys littered the yard and the large five-car garage door appeared to be rotting.
As I spun around the circle, there it was! An unmistakeable Gene Leedy home. It was just like the one I was born in – only a reversed or mirrored image. And the blue Studebaker was missing. And instead of a concrete block wall separating the courtyard from the street, there was a wooden fence I’m sure was a third or fourth generation over the years…
A car was in the driveway so, hopefully, someone was home. I walked down the walkway and rang the doorbell. No one answered. I rang again. There was no answer. I wondered if the owner was an elderly person: while we were in the Mellow Mushroom eating lunch, Ed checked the city records for the address on his iPhone. We were surprised to see that the most recent transaction was in the Sixties’. An Easter egg wreath on the door told me that the inhabitants weren’t grumpy old hermits. There was no peep hole in the door and I wondered if there was an elderly woman who was afraid to open the door to an unexpected visitor she could not see. I rang the doorbell one last time and turned to go back to my car.
At the end of the driveway, I turned around with my iPhone to take a photo. Just as I was about to push the button, the front door opened and a woman in her 40’s wearing a cast on her leg looked at me with a confused look. As I hurried back to the door, I spoke:
“I’m really sorry to bother you but my name is Robert Leedy and….”
“Are you the architect’s son?”
“YES! I was told about this house only today and could not believe it existed. I had to come by and see if it really was a Gene Leedy house.”
(I was still skeptical that it was not a real Gene Leedy house – maybe Richard skimped on expenses and modified the design…)
“I almost didn’t come to the door – I just had knee surgery.”
“I’m sorry to have pulled you to the door and I know it is weird for somebody to drop by unannounced but here is my card and if you have the time, I would love to come back and see the house at another time.”
“Do you want to take a look now?”
I walked in and couldn’t believe how similar it was to my father’s house (he still lives there) – my birthplace!
The woman introduced herself as Mary Jane Williamson. Standing in the kitchen, I told her I could tell her the entire layout of the house. She was amused as I listed and explained the rooms then told me I was completely correct.
The layout of the kitchen and dining area was the first giveaway. There were jalousied windows (original I am sure) and a set of sliding glass doors which opened to the front courtyard. The other dead giveaway was the utility closet directly across the courtyard from the kitchen. It’s yellow door appeared to be the original.
The kitchen had the original oven and original stove. Mary Jane even showed me a built-in blender (in the counter) that, despite never having heard of it before, was also original. “The oven still works like a charm,” she told me. I thought about the Samsung appliances I purchased a year ago that are – one-by-one – beginning to fail. A salesman in the big box retail store where I bought them actually admitted, “Oh, these things aren’t expected to last much longer beyond the warranty!” Check off another wrong thing about America today…
Mary Jane also mentioned that they had tiled the floors after the cork flooring had disintegrated. This was another dead giveaway: My father replaced his some 40 years ago with parquet flooring. Missing were the cypress ceilings. The Williamsons’ ceilings were either sheetrock or plaster painted white. Mary Jane did not know if they were original or not.
I didn’t push my luck on seeing the rest of the house. I did peek into the back courtyard which was nicely landscaped. The living area had all the signs of a Gene Leedy home. Missing, in addition to the architectural furniture, was the fireplace (YES! a fireplace in Winter Haven?) that burns Duraflame logs (the only time my father ignores his insistence on using non-fake materials) as the air conditioning is cranked to the maximum (20 years ago this declaration would have embarrassed him.)
I thanked Mary Jane for allowing me in and started to leave.
“Oh! You must wait for my mother – she will be here momentarily – and would love to meet you.”
Betty arrived minutes later with her granddaughter, Mary Jane’s daughter, from school.
“Hi,” I said as I extended my hand,”I’m Robert Leedy…”
“GENE Leedy’s son?” she said with a big smile from a suspicious gaze.
“I can’t believe you know who my Dad is,”
“Oh, we know all about him. He’s the architect of this house who lives in Winter Haven. He’s designed houses, office buildings, city halls, garden clubs, banks and more.”
“Yeah, that’s him,” I said with a quick smile.
Betty & I talked about the history of the house. She said it was built in the late 50’s and she seems to think there was a second owner before she and her optometrist husband, Bill, bought the house in the mid-Sixties. She said there was a Bob Broward house on the street and that architect Jack Diamond once lived in a house across the street, a few doors down. I asked her if she knew Wayne Wood and she said she had met him many, many years ago. Her husband and Bill Wood, Wayne’s uncle, were friends.
I explained how I grew up in Jacksonville when my father lived in Winter Haven. “Oh, you may have known my stepfather – Homer Humphries – he was one of the original City Council members who worked on the Consolidation of Jacksonville.”
Betty’s smile went to a frown. “Consolidation? I wasn’t too happy with that.” I asked why.
“The City decided that our street was no longer a city street but a private drive and cut all funding.”
She explained that they reasoned it was private because they could not get heavy equipment down the street, “which is nonsense because the man who built that house [pointing at the McMansion across the street] certainly got heavy equipment to work on his house! Then he later tore up the cul de sac – you saw that mess – and said he would pay for it. The next thing we knew he was bankrupt and out of money.”
“When Lori Boyer was running for City Council, she campaigned in the neighborhood and asked, ‘what is this? it needs to be fixed and I will do it as soon as I get into office’….she never did.”
“Why don’t you rally the neighbors and go to a City Council meeting one night?” I asked.
“I don’t think I could get my neighbors to do that.”
Betty mentioned that Rick Weller, a local artist (I don’t know him), lived across the street and was always buying up Mid-century Modern homes. By now, we were outside and I was getting ready to leave.
“Call me if you ever want to sell this place,” I told her as we shook hands.
“Rick has already asked me that,” she smiled.
As I left, I took one last look at the twin house I was born in. I also looked at the large hole in the cul de sac and hoped someone would come to Betty’s and her neighbors’ aid.
I was excited about my find and called Wayne Wood to ask him if he had any knowledge of the house as he is our local architectural expert. I have his book, “Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage: Landmarks for the Future” in my studio library so, I was unable to check for the house from my home. I do not recall reading about it though…
“Hello? Wayne? Robert Leedy here. Do you have a minute?”
“Hey Robert. Well, I’m at The Florida Theater listening to Jack Welch speak…”
[I forgot today was the opening for One Spark and he was busy with the opening festivities.]
“But go ahead, I’ve got a few moments. I’m outside in the lobby.”
“Did you know there is a Gene Leedy house in Jacksonville?”
“No! Is there? Where?”
I told him about it briefly.
“Send me the address and when I resurface in a few days, I’ll call you.”
I haven’t talked to Dad about it. He probably has forgotten otherwise, I would have already heard about it.
When I opened my email before dinner, I already had a nice note from Betty:
What a pleasant surprise, your dropping by.
I am writing Rick Weller a neighborly note
with your card tucked in. He comes and goes
and I never know when I’m going to see him.
I love your card. Thank you.
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- April 8, 2015 / 7:47 am