Larry Denny pulled Jacksonville’s most iconic skyscraper out of a box and carefully placed it on the desk of his office.
There it was, shiny and majestic: The old Independent Life building (now Wells Fargo Center), with its distinctive angled base and 37 floors of reflective glass.
Denny’s version of the building was made long before the real tower went up. At just 10¾ inches tall, it falls far short of the real building’s 535 feet in height, which when it was finished in 1974 made it then the tallest building in Florida — and the centerpiece of just about every photo since taken of downtown.
Made out of cardboard and the actual glass that would sheathe the building, it was — in the days before 3D computer modeling — a way for those who dreamed of it, and those who would pay for it, to visualize what would soon loom over the city.
Denny made the tiny tower in the early ’70s with an architect named Joe Noll, whom he hired in 1967, 50 years ago. They were kids when they started out together: Noll was 17, an architecture-crazy teen fresh from military school, and Denny was all of 20.
Before long the two men became the model-making kings of Jacksonville, working for years with KBJ Architects, which had a hand in many of Jacksonville’s biggest buildings, and moonlighting together for other firms.
Together, they built much of the city, using cardboard and Plexiglas, glue and magic markers, working with X-Acto knives, laser-cutters and an infinite amount of patience.
They made dozens of models, all remarkably intricate, some complete with tiny trees and cars and people. It’s an exacting task: It helped, they say, that they were friends.
And it helped, they note, that Noll is left-handed and Denny right-handed. That way they didn’t get in each other’s way during the hundreds of hours of work that went into most projects.
“We were lucky,” Denny says. “A lot of our clients gave us pretty major buildings to do. It doesn’t happen everyday where you do a whole city. But back in the ’70s, it was energized: Everybody, all the business leaders were full steam ahead.”
Denny and Noll had a hand in the Independent Life building, The Gulf Life tower, Prudential’s complex on the Southbank, the Prime Osborn Convention Center, the BellSouth tower, the Baptist hospital tower and many others.
Some of the names of the buildings have changed, several times, but they’re still standing. When Denny and Noll go downtown and see the steel and concrete and glass versions, that can’t help but bring memories back.
Noll, whose family has lived in Jacksonville since 1901, gets the satisfaction of knowing that he joined the generations before him in shaping the city.
As for Denny, a New York City native: “When I look at these buildings, I see the faces of all the people I worked with on those jobs.”
Denny, 70, and Noll, 67, live a short way from each other in the Fruit Cove area. They worked together from 1967 to about 10 years ago. They have an easy rapport and, as old friends often do, a habit of finishing each other’s sentences.
Denny spent 34 years at KBJ, working up from making blueprints (he can still smell the ammonia used in that process) to senior vice president. He never became certified an architect. “I tell everybody I got my degree from KBJ architects,” he says.
Noll, who became an architect, worked there and at other firms, and spent years at the University of North Florida as facilities manager, with a part in the development of much of that campus.
Both of them were more than model builders: They oversaw projects, dealt with clients, did just about everything.
But for several decades, they were the go-team for architectural models, says architect Ted Pappas, who hired them several times.
“They were in the right place at the right time,” Pappas says. “They both worked for KBJ and they started doing models on the side. I felt very comfortable using them: They were precise, they asked the right questions, and they just had a good feel for it.
He says some architects still use models, even in this high-tech age. “The old-timers do. I think the younger emerging architects tend to use computers and graphics that allow people to walk through the building and everything. I like (models) because it gives the client a chance to visualize, even if you have the renderings.”
Denny and Noll said that when they began making models at KBJ, they soon found they had a knack for it, for taking what was on paper and making it real.
“You can walk around a model and see 100 different things,” Noll said. “You can touch and feel them. You see a picture on a wall and you just see whatever that is.”
They made models for many projects around Jacksonville and Florida — university buildings, the Times-Union’s headquarters, condo projects, hotels and even prisons.
They still talk about the massive amounts of work that went into ultimately unsuccessful bids to build international airports in South Korea and China.
Denny went to Shanghai with an airport model that was fully assembled, in a waterproof plywood case in case his plane went down. The two men put it together for many painstaking hours in an old church next to KBJ’s headquarters. When they were done it was eight feet long and insured for several hundred thousand dollars.
Denny still gets a kick, though, from the Independent Life building he keeps tucked away in his office. Though small, much work went into it: They tried different glass in to get the right color for the reflections that would show in it, and tinkered for hours with the lettering at the top of the tower so it could be read for miles away.
“We were looking,” he says, “for something, a monolith, something tight that would anchor that area, that would sit there, and that would be it — the signature piece for Jacksonville for years to come.”
He figures they, and the many people they worked with, got it right that time.
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082