Located just west of Arlington along the St. Johns River, the private, four-year Jacksonville University originally launched in the 1930s as a smaller college in downtown Jax.
The school first opened in 1934 within First Baptist Church’s campus as two-year institution William J. Porter University, named for its founder. After just a year, it rebranded as Jacksonville Junior College. The college spent its first decade bouncing around downtown Jax, going from FBC, to a building along Laura Street, then to office space within the Florida Theatre.
In 1944, Jacksonville Junior College relocated to the Kay Mansion at 704 Riverside Avenue – it would only stay there until the end of the decade, and the building would be demolished shortly thereafter to make room for the Fuller Warren Bridge.
In 1950, the school moved to what would become its modern campus in the Arlington area, completing its first building – the Founders building. The new campus expanded quickly, with Swisher Gymnasium opening in 1953, followed by the Nelms Science Building and Swisher Auditorium just a few years later.
Both the gym and auditorium – and later, the campus library – were named for local businessman and cigar magnate Carl S. Swisher. Swisher served on the school’s Board of Trustees for nearly two decades and donated funds for several campus buildings; he also donated funds for libraries at Bethune-Cookman University and The Bolles School.
The campus’s rapid expansion coincided with a period of major growth for the school as well. In 1958, it merged with Jacksonville College of Music; the combined college was renamed Jacksonville University and relaunched as a four-year institution.
Within just a few years, the school received full accreditation as a four-year college and began constructing its first on-campus dormitory buildings.
The university’s athletic department rose to national prominence in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as breakout basketball star Artis Gilmore led the JU Dolphins to the NCAA championship game in 1970. Gilmore, who went on to become an 11-time All-Star during his 18-year ABA and NBA career, would later be given an honorary doctorate by the school.
The launch of University of North Florida in the early ‘70s brought about the privatization of JU and would soon lead to a major overhaul of the school’s campus as it sought to keep pace with its new local competition. Through a large fundraising campaign, including a $3.5 million gift from the Davis family, the school added apartments, a new concert hall, a visual arts annex, and a $1.5 million cafeteria during a major construction period in the ‘90s.
The JU campus has kept expanding ever since, adding a $10 million marine science facility in 2009 and an $8 million health sciences building in 2013.
The school’s most recent noteworthy expansion, however, was outside the confines of its Arlington campus. It recently opened a downtown satellite campus within the 18th floor of VyStar Tower, featuring 19 offices, 4 classrooms, and 5,000 square feet of multifunctional space.
Gilmore remains one of the school’s most notable alumni; other key figures to graduate from the school include two former mayors of Jacksonville: Alvin Brown and Tommy Hazouri.
The school has plans to continue expanding its campus and, in conjunction with its new downtown space, looks poised to keep going for years to come.