Dear Call Box: I’d like to know about the brick building that’s been at Bay and Clay streets for as long as I can remember.
Dear G.G.: The 130-year-old building has had a lot of names and uses through the years, but is probably best known as the old El Modelo Cigar Factory.
The first tenant to use the building after it was completed in 1887 was a furniture manufacturing company. But it was El Modelo’s reign as the largest cigar factory in the state that earned it a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The factory moved in around 1890 and gained a worldwide reputation for such cigars as “La Tropica,” “El Modelo,” “Hamlet” and the “Florida Alligator,” according to a Jacksonville Journal story in 1981.
In December 1893, Jose Marti, the founder of Cuba’s Revolutionary Party, gave what was described as a rousing speech at El Modelo to rally support for Cuban independence from Spain. Marti made eight trips to Jacksonville, which had a large Cuban population because of its cigar factories, newspaper accounts said.
By 1895, there were 15 in Jacksonville producing 6 million hand-rolled stogies a year, making it the city’s second-largest industry, the Journal reported. El Modelo (the model) was the largest, employing 225 workers with an annual payroll of $145,000.
Cigars were manufactured on the third floor of the 3-story brick building with its long narrow windows. Customers walked up a flight of stairs to buy cigars on the second floor.
By 1900, the industry had moved to Tampa, and El Modelo closed its doors.
The building at 501 W. Bay St. also is historically significant because it was one of the few commercial structures in downtown Jacksonville to survive the Great Fire of 1901.
After the turn of the century, it had various tenants, including hotels, a tavern, a knitting mill, a bordello, a dental office, a Salvation Army hall and a used clothing store, the Times-Union said. Most notably, it was known as the Plaza Hotel, not to be confused with other Plaza hotels in Jacksonville.
By 1965, it was vacant except for a first-floor pawn shop, according to newspaper archives. Ray Norton, retired senior vice president of Flagship Bank of North Florida, bought the building in 1971 as an investment.
On the second and third floors, there were still some iron beds and nightstands from its days as a hotel, Norton said. The lobby also was on the second floor.
“It looked like something out of a Western movie,” he said.
Norton sold the beds and nightstands. And he had “these huge fire escapes” removed from the side and back of the building fearing they were a safety hazard.
In 1980, it was listed on the National Register. Not only is it on the register, but it’s on the Florida Division of Historical Resources’ Florida Cuban Heritage Trail, according to Internet accounts.
Norton sold it in 1982 to the 1887 Partners, and it became known as the 1887 Building. It houses the law offices of Moseley Prichard Parrish Knight & Jones.
“We liked it because it was the perfect size, and it was the perfect old building,” said senior partner Jim Moseley. “It had historical significance and a lot of good brick.”
One of the first things the partners did was check for structural soundness, Moseley said. “Our engineer said he thought it would sustain normal wear and then came by our office and looked at our law library and said no way.”
The interior was virtually gutted. He compared the building to a brick box that was too weak to stand on its own (those heavy law tomes) so steel supports were set up inside it. The pine flooring was replaced by steel-reinforced concrete floors. Some of the salvaged timber was used to make furniture and in a few offices, was placed over the concrete flooring.
“It’s probably the sturdiest 3-story building because it has so much steel,” Moseley said.
During the excavation process, the Times-Union reported that several glass medicine bottles and a few small pink cards advertising “Perfect Teeth, Painless dentistry - $5.00…Gold crowns and bridges, all work guaranteed for $3.00” were found.
Some of the dental-related items were given to local dentists, he said.
Two vaults that looked as if they had been blown open with dynamite and a sign that read, “Rooms, 50 cents a night” also were discovered during the excavation, the Times-Union story said.
Norton said the partners did a wonderful job with the restoration, which divided the space into modern offices. In the lobby, a skylight is centered above plants and a fountain for an atrium-like effect.
Oh, and there’s another list the building made - The Top 10 Most Haunted Places in Jacksonville by HauntedRooms.com. When it was a bar, the story goes that it was once the scene of a fatal shooting that some say left the place haunted.
“But we did a poll, and no one has seen a ghost,” Moseley said with a smile.
If you have a question about Jacksonville’s architectural history, call (904) 359-4622 or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.
Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128