The Riverside and Avondale neighborhoods are two of Jacksonville’s premier historic districts, featuring over 2,000 historically-significant structures within their combined space, which stretches roughly from Roosevelt Boulevard to I-10.
The neighborhoods’ origins can be traced back to the 1800s, when the vast majority of their land was used for agricultural purposes. Following the Civil War, much of that land was gradually sold off for residential development.
Houses first started popping up in the 1870s in Riverside. Streets were laid out, several of which were named for previous landowners such as Francis Richard and John Forbes. But development didn’t truly take off until the area was annexed by the city of Jacksonville in the 1880s – which also brought about the expansion of the city’s streetcar line into Riverside.
Over in what would later become Avondale, a group of investors formed the Edgewood Company and attempted to develop the area with plans of creating an independent town named Edgewood. Several houses and commercial buildings were built in the late 1800s as part of this development, but the company’s grand plans ultimately fell apart with few of the Edgewood-era structures still remaining today.
Meanwhile, in Riverside, development was booming. By 1895, the neighborhood had over 2,000 residents and its first park, Riverside Park, was developed on land once owned by Forbes.
The turn of the century brought about even more progress in Riverside, with development concentrated along streetcar lines and the St. Johns River. Large estates were constructed along the river for the Cummer family, which would later become home to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.
Many newcomers were driven toward the area by the Great Fire of 1901, which destroyed hundreds of homes in downtown Jax. Several companies – including Riverside Company, Riverfront Company, Better Homes Company, Albert Fendig and Company, Haldemar Corporation, and Pipes Improvement Company – competed to fill out the neighborhood.
While many of the homes built during this time featured a simple bungalow-style design, some of the area’s more affluent residents lived in custom-built homes designed by the city’s top architects. Marsh and Saxelbye designs were prominently featured in Riverside, along with those of Henry J. Klutho, Mellon Greely, Roy Benjamin, H.F. McAden and I. Edlestein, and Mark and Sheftall.
Riverside was developed largely for the enjoyment of middle-class white families. Black families were generally not welcomed in the neighborhood, but there was one notable exception: Silvertown, a small annex subdivision developed by August Buesing for use by Black families. Much of Silvertown, however, was ultimately built over by subsequent development in Riverside.
Land for a second Riverside park, Willow Branch Park, toward the western end of the neighborhood was purchased by the city in 1911, with streetcar services expanding out to the park as well.
By 1919, the entirety of what’s now the Riverside Historic District was annexed by the city. That same year, a third park, Memorial Park, was developed by the Olmstead Firm.
Though much of the Riverside development was focused around single-family residences, apartment buildings started popping up in the neighborhood following World War I.
Commercial development remained sparse throughout Riverside and was mainly concentrated along Park Street in the Five Points area. Other structures included Riverside Hospital which opened in 1911 and has since been demolished, St. Vincent’s Hospital which was built in 1916, and several churches with grand architectural designs.
Throughout all of this rapid development in Riverside, the Avondale area had remained fairly quiet. But with space running out quickly to the east, Avondale became the new frontier for development by the 1920s.
The Avondale Company was formed, and it soon purchased 220 acres of what was previously the Edgewood Subdivision. The company was led by Telfair Stockton, a prominent developer and politician who had previously taken part in the development of Springfield.
Developed during the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, Avondale was built as an upscale, single-family neighborhood. It eschewed the traditional grid system with its curved roads, becoming one of the first Jax neighborhoods to be designed with vehicular travel in mind. Its green spaces were designed by nationally-recognized architect William Pitkin.
Land use was carefully controlled by the Avondale Company, with stores, offices, and apartments barred from their property. The few historic commercial or multi-family residential structures in Avondale were built on land that wasn’t owned by the company.
The one exception was a small concentration of shops, known as the Shoppes of Avondale, along St. Johns Avenue, designed to blend in with the residential character of the neighborhood.
As with Riverside, many of the more upscale homes in Avondale were designed by top architecture firms. Marsh and Saxelbye again covered the most ground, with at least 34 homes designed in Avondale. Other key contributors included Benjamin, Greeley, Mark and Sheftall, Jefferson Powell, Wilbur B. Talley, and C.E. Hillyer.
Avondale also shared Riverside’s trait of being strictly “whites-only.”
By the late 1930s, both Riverside and Avondale were essentially fully developed, and the King Street District in Riverside emerged as a third small commercial center.
Unfortunately, Riverside – and, to a lesser degree, Avondale – began to enter a period of decline following World War II. It was also around this time when aggressive expansion by the two area hospitals resulted in several demolitions of historic properties.
The development of the Fuller Warren Bridge and I-10 in the ‘50s brought about more demolitions as well as the permanent decommissioning of Public School No. 4, which continues to sit vacant.
Thankfully, the area’s decline slowed in the ‘70s with the formation of the Riverside Avondale Preservation organization, founded by historian Wayne Wood. Many aging historic homes were renovated and became rental properties or office space. Along with its preservation and revitalization work, the organization was instrumental in the creation of Riverside Arts Market.
In the ‘80s, both neighborhoods were added to the National Register of Historic Places. The city followed suit in 1997, designating the combined Riverside-Avondale area as a local historic district.
Today, the neighborhoods have bounced back with a more diverse group of residents, most of whom value the historic nature of the area, boasting a sustainable, walkable environment that ranks among the nation’s top neighborhoods.
Avondale and Riverside…”whites only.” So sad. Just curious…when did the neighborhoods open their borders to include all people, especially the Black population? I moved to the neighborhood in the fall of 1980 and have lived in Riverside with my family since 1987 and unfortunately, still encounter racism.
In theory, Riverside and Avondale were open to Black families once segregation was ended, but as we all know things didn’t just magically even out after segregation. It remains a largely white, affluent part of town.