The Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA Jacksonville, has become one of the most important pieces of downtown Jacksonville’s culture since opening in the early 2000s.
However, its historic building has lived long beyond its current use as MOCA’s home.
The history of the building at 333 N. Laura Street begins in 1931 when it first opened as the Western Union Telegraph Building.
Back in those days, telegrams were a popular form of communication – it was like an infinitely less convenient form of texting. The process required that messages be coded, and then decoded, by telegraphers. And in Jacksonville, as well as in most of the country, Western Union was the primary telegraphy company.
The Western Union building was constructed along Hemming Park at the corner of Laura and Duval streets between 1930 and 1931. It was designed in the Art Deco architectural style by Marsh & Saxelbye, who designed several other historical buildings in Jax such as what is now The Bolles School’s campus.
The five-story building featured a basement as well as four ground-floor retail spaces. In one of those spaces, La Rose Footwear opened in 1949 and became widely renowned as one of the country’s best shoe stores.
As time marched on and telegrams decreased in popularity, Western Union no longer had a need for its Laura Street location. The building was rebranded as The Galleria, still featuring ground-floor shops that complemented the retail-heavy landscape of downtown Jax at the time.
In the late ’70s, the University of North Florida took over the building’s top floor and converted it into a downtown mini-campus to better accommodate students that didn’t live on the Southside. UNF would utilize this mini-campus for just under a decade before deciding it wasn’t a worthwhile financial venture.
By the late ’80s, UNF had left, La Rose had moved down the street, and The Galleria began to suffer from the same issues of aging and lack of interest that plague many similar historic downtown properties.
However, the building gained renewed hope when the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art arranged to purchase the building in 1999. JMoMA, as the organization was known at the time, had been exploring a move into downtown for a while and finally decided that their previous space on Art Museum Drive was insufficient.
The museum set about renovating the whole building, with extra care being taken to preserve the building’s historic features and to integrate the museum’s design with the building’s history.
The museum celebrated its grand re-opening in May 2003, with 14,000 square feet of gallery space, an auditorium, a gift shop, and Cafe NoLa.
In 2006, the museum rebranded itself as the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was acquired in 2009 by UNF, marking the second time the university would become affiliated with the building.
Today, MOCA’s building stands not only as an example of Jacksonville’s great local art culture, but also as an excellent example of reusing historic space in downtown Jax.