|City/Town: • Jacksonville|
|Location Class: • Commercial|
|Built: • 1926 | Abandoned: • 2004|
|Status: • Restored (2019)|
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit|
In the heart of the Central Business District in Downtown Jacksonville, FL stands an 18-story building once proudly known as the Barnett National Bank Building in all its former glory. It stands high in Jacksonville’s skyline along with The Marble Bank Building, the 10-story Bisbee Building, and the 11-story Florida Life Building, the three buildings known by the locals as Laura Street Trio.
Its roots date back to 1875 when William Boyd Barnett, a merchant and a banker from Kansas, traveled to Jacksonville with his wife to visit their eldest son. Sarah Barnett suffered from neuralgia, severe pain due to a damaged nerve, which improved during their stay in Florida. Due to this, the Barnetts eventually relocated to Jacksonville in March 1877. Their youngest son, Bion, was a senior at the University of Kansas and left school to join his parents in Florida.
During this time, the United States was in the middle of the Long Depression, Jacksonville only had a population of about 10,000 at the time and already had three banks. Despite this, William opened the Bank of Jacksonville on May 7, 1877, with a capital of $43,000. William was the president, Bion was the bookkeeper, and someone was hired as a teller. By the end of its first year, deposits only amounted to $11,000. William pressed on and invited Bion to be his partner.
Henry L’ Engle, the Duval County Tax Collector, was conversing with Bion one day when he told him how he was annoyed that the bank that was holding the county’s funds charged $6.75 for each transfer to New York City banks. Bion immediately offered to waive the fee if the county’s funds were deposited into the Bank of Jacksonville which L’Engle accepted. The Bank of Jacksonville began to prosper and by the following year, L’Engle was appointed Treasurer of the State of Florida, having the state’s funds deposited into the bank as well. Not long after, the Barnetts applied for and received a National Charter, allowing them to become the National Bank of Jacksonville. By 1893, the bank’s deposits had exceeded $1 million.
William Boyd Barnett died September 2, 1903, and Bion renamed the institution Barnett Bank in his father’s honor. The Barnett National Bank Building was designed in 1926. It was designed by Mowbray Uffinger, an architecture firm known for bank buildings and as vault engineers, and constructed by the James Stewart Co. which constructed Madison Square Garden in New York. At the time of its competition, it was the tallest skyscraper in the city standing at 18 stories, and kept that record until 1954.
Bion Barnett died in 1958 at the age of 101. For the next two decades, Barnett Bank continued growing with the acquisition of many other banks here in Florida. Unfortunately, its growth came to a halt in the 1970s and 80s under the guidance of Chairman of the Board Hugh Jones. Barnett Bank was slow to get involved in banking mergers across state lines, and when they did eventually start purchasing out-of-state banks, they failed to grow their brand by not renaming the banks they acquired. Because of this, Barnett Bank was viewed as a small player in the area of mergers and acquisitions, so their stocks began weakening. Despite this, they had a new headquarters built in 1993 in downtown Jacksonville, the same year Hugh Jones retired. The new Barnett Center stood at 42 stories tall and is currently the highest building in Jacksonville.
In 1997, Barnett CEO Charles Rice, just six weeks after a month spent at a drug rehabilitation facility for alcoholism, offered the company up for sale. Charlotte-based NationsBank made the highest offer which was accepted. The purchase was announced on August 29th, 1997, but before Barnett signs could even be changed, Nations merged with BankAmerica, creating the Bank of America, in 1998. Under the new ownership, Bank of America leased out the former Barnett National Bank building to smaller companies into the early 2000s until it was fully abandoned by 2004. There have been a number of renovation efforts throughout the years, but none of the projects were ever completed, leaving the building completely gutted.
You can read about the Barnett National Bank Building and many other abandoned places in my books, Abandoned Jacksonville: Remnants of the River City and Abandoned Jacksonville: Ruins of the First Coast.
Both the Barnett National Bank Building and the nearby Laura Street Trio were purchased by Southeast Development Group, a commercial real estate firm based in Jacksonville. Through a joint venture partnership with the Molasky Group, they plan on revitalizing the buildings.
Renovations on the Barnett are estimated to take 16 months from the start, the Barnett will total 157,000 square feet including a national retail bank on the ground floor and mezzanine. Floors three through seven will have 40,000 square feet of commercial office space and higher education. Floors eight through 18 will have over 100 loft and one-bedroom apartments, including luxury units on the top floor with majestic views of the St. Johns River.
Estimated to take 22 months to complete, the Marble Bank will house the upscale Bullbriar restaurant, owned by acclaimed chef Scott Schwartz of 29 South in Fernandina Beach. A 145-room Courtyard Marriott boutique hotel will occupy most of the Florida Life and Bisbee towers, and the three buildings will be joined by a common core elevator/stair system. The ground floor of the Bisbee will feature a much-needed downtown bodega-style grocery called Cucina Urban Pantry. The Laura Street Trio contains 90,000 square feet, plus nearly 50,000 square feet of new construction facing the corner of Adams and Laura Streets. An amazing rooftop bar and café, green space, patios, and a motor court to drop off hotel and restaurant guests on Adams Street will highlight the new construction.
Concurrent with the revitalization of the buildings, a parking garage will be constructed to serve both commercial tenants and residents of the buildings, as well as the public-at-large. The garage, located across the street on what is now a city parking lot, the new garage will include 550 spaces and 5,400 square feet of retail, with completion expected 12 months from start.