In the early 1960s, as the city embarked on various capital improvement projects, it sought ways to both activate its riverfront and generate tourist activity.
An opportunity to do both came in the form of a land donation from the Southside Business Men’s Club, providing the city with over a dozen acres of riverfront property right next to the Main Street Bridge. Local architect Taylor Hardwick, who would also design the city’s new library building, formed a plan for a park on the property centered around a 200-foot-wide fountain.
By March 1965, after $1.75 million in construction, what was dubbed the Dallas Thomas Park and Marina made its debut to the public. The Fountain of Friendship, as city brochures referred to it, featured colored lights and was capable of ejecting 17,000 gallons of water each minute to a height of up to 120 feet. It was engineered to reduce its stream based on wind speed to avoid splashing park visitors.
Other features included circular covered pavilions, Midcentury Modern-inspired “toadstool” seating, and an open grass field that paralleled the fountain basin.
The park was initially named in honor of city commissioner Dallas Thomas. His name was dropped from the park after being indicted as part of the city’s mid-‘60s corruption scandals. It’s now commonly referred to as either St. Johns River Park or Friendship Park.
The park was a hit with tourists, who came to see what the city billed as the world’s tallest fountain.
By the end of the ‘60s, Jacksonville Children’s Museum had popped up next to the park’s pumphouse, providing another riverfront amenity for the city.
In the 1980s, the city looked to further activate the riverfront. Inspired by San Antonio’s Riverwalk, work began on a similar project along the Southbank, and by 1985, the Southbank Riverwalk made its debut. Friendship Fountain was also refurbished that same year.
The Riverwalk was a big hit, at least initially, but major changes were soon to come at the park.
When the city began work on replacing the original Acosta Bridge, it had to demolish the existing Diamondhead Lobster House restaurant that stood in its way. The owners of the restaurant, which was a descendant of the original Lobster House that burned down in the ’60s, were offered a significant portion of St. Johns River Park’s property for development of a new restaurant called Harbormasters.
The new restaurant was constructed and opened in the late ‘80s, effectively cutting the park surrounding Friendship Fountain in half. But the restaurant’s owners later defaulted on their loan, resulting in a $2.9 million loss for the city and the restaurant’s permanent closure in 1992. River City Brewing Company moved in a year later, but the damage to Hardwick’s original vision for the park was permanent.
By the turn of the century, the water pumps that powered Friendship Fountain were showing signs of irreversible damage. A rehabilitation project in 2001 managed to keep the fountain alive, for the most part, through Jacksonville’s stint as a Super Bowl host city. But shortly thereafter, two of the fountain’s three water pumps stopped working permanently. With replacement parts to repair the original pumps unavailable, the fountain limped along for the rest of the decade with just one functioning pump.
In 2010, the city embarked on a $3.1 million project to replace the old pumps with new ones. The project, a collaboration between JBC Planning & Engineering, Flagg Design Studio, M.V. Cummings Engineers, TLC Engineering and Architecture, and AC General, also involved replacing the fountain’s electrical system, removing broken concrete in the park, and adding new seating and lighting.
The park reopened in June 2011 and has remained unchanged since.
However, big things are in store for the park’s future. A $6 million renovation project will soon reimagine Friendship Fountain as a “water cinema,” with new pumps, lighting, and sound systems allowing for coordinated light-and-sound shows displayed onto the water rising from the fountain’s basin. Those renovations are expected to be completed sometime next year.
The properties surrounding the park could soon look quite different as well. MOSH is in the process of raising funds for an expansion project that would add a new entranceway and café facing the park. And a developer is eyeing the River City Brewing Company property for redevelopment as an apartment complex, which could potentially free up land to expand the park. If everything works out as planned, Friendship Fountain could once again become an innovative riverfront focal point – something that the city desperately needs.