The historic Florida Theatre is one of downtown Jacksonville’s greatest sources of activity and entertainment, and aside from a three-year closure in the ‘80s, it has been since it opened in 1927.
But did you know that Florida Theatre was originally one of several theatres along Forsyth Street?
Back in downtown Jax’s heyday, around a dozen other theatres could be found within its central core. Most of them were every bit as lavish and well-designed as the Florida Theatre – a few were even designed by the same architect, Roy A. Benjamin.
They served an important purpose, adding to the full cultural experience of the city during an era when downtown Jax was filled with high-end department stores and even-higher-end hotels.
Of course, as the downtown area began to decline, those department stores and hotels closed their doors permanently. It became clear that the area could no longer support the number of theatres that existed.
Those theatres gradually died off unceremoniously – and, as was the standard in Jacksonville until recently, their buildings were torn down rather than being preserved for reuse.
Today, Florida Theatre seems to adequately provide for the current level of activity in downtown Jax. But imagine how helpful it would be to have even one or two of those lost theatres around now, as the city looks to reinvigorate the area’s entertainment options. Or what could have been done with those historic buildings, even if the theatres themselves didn’t survive.
We’ve profiled a select few of those long-lost theatres of downtown Jax below, so that at the very least they won’t be forgotten.
The Empress Theatre, sitting at 18 E. Forsyth Street, was smaller and not quite as decadent as the theatres that were built in the years after its building first opened.
Originally home to another business, the Empress’s building was constructed shortly after the Great Fire of 1901 – but the theatre didn’t come into the equation until the ‘20s.
It was noted as a popular theatre for black residents making a downtown outing, as well as hosting vaudeville acts early in its lifespan.
The Empress was torn down, along with a few other theatres, in the 1970s to make room for a parking structure to serve the new Independent Life building. Today, it’s still home to the same parking structure.