The story of our magnificent school starts in the trees around you… with the Spanish moss hanging from those branches to be exact.
On May 3, 1901, a spark from a lunch-time fire ignited a pile of drying moss at the Cleaveland Mattress Factory near LaVilla. The moss was used to stuff mattresses and pillows. Within hours, the fire was out of control. By 8:30 at night over 2,000 buildings were lost and 10,000 people left homeless. It was the Great Fire of Jacksonville – the largest city fire in the south to this day.
The devastation was news across the country. A famous young architect named Henry Klutho had just returned to New York City from a year in Europe when he read about the fire and, seeing both a challenge and a business opportunity, he headed south. He designed many unique buildings in Jacksonville, many of which have been torn down over the years. One that is still with us is this wonderful building: our school, which was named the Panama Park Elementary Shool.
Panama Park was a new area of town – and a special one. North of the area destroyed by the fire, it was loaded with natural beauty, thousands of shade trees, and a 12-mile view down the St. Johns River. It had a protected harbor for small boats, a sandy beach, and transportation to downtown. An ideal place for a new development.
In fact, Panama Park boasted a feature of modern day developments: building restrictions. Rule number 14 in the original Panama Park Restrictions was: “No person will be allowed to maintain a herd of cattle, hogs, sheep or mules - or permit poultry to run at large.”
Initially, two hundred lots were developed and first offered for sale in 1910. By 1915 the population had grown to the point where a school was needed. Henry Klutho was hired to design it. It was built the next year – in 1916.
Panama Park was just the right place for Klutho’s work.
Many people think of our eagles on the towers as the signature feature of the school – but there are other features which make it significant to historians.
The school is an example of the Prairie School of architecture made famous by the world renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Klutho studied Wright and made extensive use of that style.
You can see the style in the patterns in the bricks – and in the geometric ornaments below the eagles, above the entrance, and on many of the columns and walls inside. You can see it in the nearly flat roof with wide overhangs – and in the gables on the ends which match the roof over the front door – which, incidentally, was once beautifully matched by an even larger pointed roof high up above the decorative stone grill. Now gone. The building somehow seems to fit comfortably with its surroundings – which, of course, is exactly what Klutho tried to do. It was, and is, a beautiful school.
When the school was built, it was felt to be way too big, but by 1926 it was overcrowded and eight rooms were added on.
By the 1940s the area had grown more but it retained much of its early appeal. There were woods on either side of the school, and horses across the street. There was a little store down the block where kids went after school to get candy – or to buy a Duncan yo-yo.
You came home from school with a report card which simply said Very Good, Satisfactory, or Needs Much Improvement.
There was a message in the report card from the superintendent. In it he said:
“Parents are encouraged to help their children do the following –
Sleep 10-11 hours each night
Eat nutritious food
Play each day in the sunshine
Drink pure water and milk
Form regular toilet habits
Bathe frequently and regularly”
I don’t think that’s in report cards today, is it?
The 1950s brought school dances under the lights in the park, and more little stores on every other block.
It also brought a group called the 58th Street Rowdies – some of whom may be lurking in the crowd today - who appear to have had lots of Tom Sawyer adventures involving things such as-
Running hoses through friends’ bedroom windows
Challenges to jump the highest out of the big oak tree
And backyard snake pits.
Suffice it to say, the neighborhood had spirit! And it had something else. From every one of the many people I have talked to, it has been a wonderful, special, warm, happy place. Some of you have done an outstanding service by creating a fabulous web site – panamapark.com – which presents a loving history of this neighborhood. I recommend it to everyone.
Our magnificent school – now named for the former principal, Lola M. Culver - is a one-of-a-kind building. And it is a symbol of a one-of-a-kind neighborhood. Both warrant loving care and preservation for the future.
For all the folks who have attended this school, now or back in the day, your challenge is to carry this piece of Jacksonville history with you, and keep this wonderful building and its spirit – and this wonderful neighborhood and its spirit – alive and well. It means too much to let them pass.
Closing of Lola Culver Elementary School