Towering over Adams St. near Farah & Farah’s main offices, The Carling building has been home to 100 upscale apartment units since its most recent overhaul in 2005.
It also is perhaps one of downtown Jacksonville’s most historically-rich buildings.
The building originally was constructed in 1925. It was designed by New York-based Thompson, Holmes, & Converse, an architecture firm that also collaborated on the design for the original Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital among other projects.
It opened in September 1926 as The Carling Hotel, a 335-room luxury hotel that would become a premier destination for visitors to the city for the next few decades.
It was named in honor of Carling Dinkler; his Dinkler Hotels had acquired the building prior to its completion. Ten years after opening, however, the hotel rebranded itself as Hotel Roosevelt as the result of a naming contest by the new owner, the Robert Meyers hotel chain.
The hotel thrived for many years, but began to slow down a bit in the 50s. As a result, Robert Meyers Hotels opted to construct a newer hotel (which, interestingly enough, has since been demolished), and left The Roosevelt behind in 1957.
However, the hotel continued to live on. It remained one of only two or three luxury hotels in downtown Jacksonville, and featured active ground-floor restaurants and businesses.
Unfortunately, tragedy would strike soon. In the early morning hours of December 29, 1963, with the hotel packed due to Gator Bowl weekend, a fire broke out. It started in the ceiling of the downstairs ballroom, caused by faulty electrical wiring and accelerated by flammable ceiling materials.
Jacksonville Fire Department was called at 7:30 AM; rescue efforts would include U.S. Navy helicopters being landed on the roof to escort people to safety. Prior to their arrival, patrons had been attempting to shimmy down the building to safety using tied-together bed sheets.
Two hours after the first call to JFD, the fire was put out. Estimates of the number of people saved from the burning building range from 400 to 500.
Unfortunately, 22 people didn’t make it, including one of the rescue workers. It was, and still is, the deadliest single event in Jacksonville history. Most of the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.
The hotel sustained massive fire damage, and shut its doors for good at the start of the following year. Workers moved to the competing Hotel Washington, which would shut down by the end of the decade as well.
The building remained in various states of remodeling throughout that decade, eventually being purchased by a church group and turned into a retirement home.
Jacksonville Regency House, as it was named, provided apartment living for retirees. However, it never really gained a lot of traction with this usage. The retirement home operation shuttered in 1989.
The building was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in February 1991, giving it some degree of safety from any attempts at demolition. However, it remained vacant, and the clock kept ticking on the already-crumbling internal infrastructure.
Then, a ray of hope for the building came out of nowhere. In the early 2000s, the City of Jacksonville granted local development company Vestcor a massive 20-year, $16.5 million loan to restore the historic building and convert it into luxury apartments.
Vestcor worked to restore the building’s original features while also modernizing its amenities, adding a fitness center and clubhouse. The project also required massive repairs of parts of the building that were falling apart at the time. It ended up costing $29 million and taking nearly two years to complete the project. A new parking garage was constructed next to the building to accommodate tenants.
The building, newly renamed The Carling, opened its doors to tenants in July 2005 with a collection of 100 brand new one and two bedroom units. Its sister property, 11 East Forsyth, is also an historic building restored by Vestcor.
In 2009, the city and Vestcor agreed to re-work the terms of the loan that funded the project, with Vestcor citing three years of losses between their two historic projects.
Today, the building continues to stand and operate as The Carling. It continues to be home to occasional memorials for the tragic events of 1963 as well.
While the apartments seem to be doing well, Vestcor has struggled to lease its ground-floor retail spaces. In addition, rumors of the building being sold in the future combined with apparent financial issues are certainly cause for concern.
Regardless, the restoration of The Carling’s building, given its long and meaningful history, is without question great for the city and for downtown. We hope that no matter its function or ownership, The Carling will be around for another 90 years – or maybe even longer.