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Riverside Avondale: The Great American Neighborhood

Visitors who pass through Jacksonville on Interstate 10 and Interstate 95 may form an impression of the city as a sprawling, nearly modern place. The broad arc cut by the St. Johns River through the city is scenic, almost majestic, yet Jacksonville leaves the speeding motorist with the sense that this place is neither futuristic nor very historic, a town whose character blends in with the sameness of dozens of other rank-and-file American towns along the miles of interstate.

Hidden away from the highway traveler lies an extraordinary neighborhood that exudes charm and scenery, art and history, just a few blocks from the interstate traffic. In many ways this community embodies what all of Jacksonville once was but no longer is. It is Riverside Avondale, one of American’s great historic neighborhoods.

Once this land was a series of unspectacular plantations, but after the Civil War a couple of Boston Yankees saw its real-estate potential and began selling off parcels for residential purposes. They named it “Riverside,” appropriately enough for a long swath of property overlooking the St. Johns. It was then on the outskirts of Jacksonville, just far enough out of town for many of the city’s well-to-do citizens to decide to build large riverfront homes there. It caught on. By the turn of the century, it had become annexed into the city of Jacksonville, and a street railway was built connecting the suburb with Downtown.

The development of Riverside accelerated soon after a great fire destroyed most of Downtown Jacksonville in 1901, as more and more prominent families migrated to this tranquil setting. With oak-canopied streets and a row of great mansions, Riverside Avenue was admired as the entire city’s most elegant residential street.

During the peak years of Riverside’s development from 1895 to 1929, a profusion of residential building styles gained popularity across the nation. With the influx of building tradesmen who came to the city after the Great Fire, Riverside became a laboratory for aspiring architects and competing residential fashions. The richness and variety of homes built during this period was remarkable. Colonial Revival, Georgian, Shingle Style, Queen Anne/Victorian, Bungalow and Tudor styles were in abundance. Riverside Avenue boasted having more houses designed in the Prairie Style of architecture than any other street outside the Midwest, where Frank Lloyd Wright popularized it.

With the success of Riverside as a suburb, several wealthy investors assembled a large undeveloped tract of land immediately to the south in the summer of 1920. They set about building a new exclusive subdivision that would overshadow all of the other developments around it. They called it “Avondale” and advertised it as “Riverside’s Residential Ideal,” where only the “correct” and “well to do” people would live. The Avondale Company sold 402 of the total 720 lots and completed nearly two hundred homes in its first two years.

As the most elaborately planned development in Jacksonville at that time, Avondale lived up to its publicity. Gently curving roadways and sixteen small parks were laid out by a well-known landscape architect from Ohio. Adopting the architectural style that would saturate Florida during the booming years of the 1920s, a large proportion of the early Avondale residences were built in the Mediterranean Revival style. Would-be Italian and Spanish villas sprang up beneath the moss-draped oak trees.

Riverside Avondale is not on any of the tourist maps, and the neighbors like it that way, quietly hidden off the interstate, preserved for future generations of families to enjoy. It is one of America’s unique neighborhoods.

This essay, Riverside Avondale: The Great American Neighborhood, was written by Dr. Wayne Wood, author of the book, Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage, as well as several other books on Riverside and Avondale. He is the founder of Riverside Avondale Preservation, Inc. and an optometrist by profession.