For four decades, the former Annie Lytle Public School building has sat vacant along Chelsea Street in Brooklyn – or Riverside, depending on who you ask – accruing structural damage from fires and weather exposure and unintentionally growing a local mythos based around transients, ghost stories, and even devil worshippers.
For the first five decades of its lifespan, however, the building operated as a regular grammar school. Specifically, it was known as the Riverside Grammar School, or Public School No. 4, when it first opened in 1917. Designed by local architect Rutledge Holmes, the school building had two stories as well as a basement, and it was made primarily of concrete, red brick, and wood. The words “Public School Number Four” were etched into its front façade.
Unfortunately, development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s would bring the noise of construction – and, later, highway traffic – right to the front door of the school, which by that point had been renamed Annie Lytle Public School to honor a longtime teacher. The path from the Fuller Warren Bridge to the I-95 and I-10 interchange was constructed over a stretch of land between the school’s front entrance and Riverside Park.
The project’s location effectively rendered Public School No. 4 unusable as a school. It would officially close in 1960, after which Duval County School Board used the building for storage. By the early ‘70s, though, the property had become a target for crime, leading the organization to close off access to the building altogether.
The locally-based Ida M. Stevens Foundation acquired the property from the school board in the ‘80s with plans to convert it into an apartment complex for seniors. The foundation had just completed a similar project, the Stevens-Duval Apartments, within the old Duval High School building downtown. Ultimately, the project proved financially unviable, and the foundation dropped its plans.
In the meantime, the old school building continued to attract vandals and vagrants in the increasingly derelict Brooklyn neighborhood, which had also been negatively affected by the interstate project. Graffiti tags covered the building’s interior and exterior; transients frequented its interior for safe haven.
And as the property deteriorated, and reports of criminal activity within the building became relatively commonplace, it took on something of a separate folklore existence. Urban legends spread about the school being haunted. One legend told of a disgruntled janitor who boiled children alive; another centered around a principal who doubled as a cannibal. Former students supposedly still roamed the halls from beyond. Some of the graffiti symbols within the building, as well as several fires at the property, even sparked rumors of devil worshippers inhabiting the abandoned structure.
The truth of what happened to the building in those years is much less salacious: without maintenance, and with routine vandalism, it simply continued to rot away from neglect. The “negative energy” that some claimed to feel within the building likely came not from ghostly inhabitants, but rather the sorrow of witnessing a crumbling piece of local history.
The building remains standing today only by an edict of Jacksonville city council; it was declared a local historic landmark in 2000. Efforts in the mid-2000s to convince the city to drop its landmark status and allow its demolition were rebuked, thanks in large part to the efforts of a community group formed to preserve the property.
The Annie Lytle Preservation Group, founded by local resident Tim Kinnear, has acted as the property’s sole remaining protector, remaining steadfastly dedicated to saving the building even as other local preservation activists have more-or-less conceded the structure’s eventual fate. The group is notoriously protective of the building, monitoring it 24/7 and rejecting just about any inquiry to photograph or observe the aged structure, and all the while trying to restore it to its former glory on a shoestring budget.
Finding a new purpose for the building would be an uphill battle, to say the least. It’s still unattractive to developers for the same reason it ceased operating as a school building – the obfuscating presence of the highway interchange – but it also has much bigger issues to be addressed now. Much of the building is without a roof and has been exposed to the elements for years, if not decades. And while ALPG has repaired years worth of damage from vandalism, restoring the property to the point where it would be able to be salvaged for any meaningful use would still cost significantly more than it would to just demolish it and redevelop the property.
In essence, there was a window of time in which the building could have been properly preserved, but that window is now all but closed.
Nonetheless, the group continues to maintain and advocate for the building, even receiving an award from the city for its efforts in 2015. The property remains under the ownership of Ida M. Stevens Foundation; the building itself is owned by a local investor.
Perhaps one day, someone with deep pockets and a love for historic buildings will be able to provide the old school with the extensive array of costly repairs it needs to once again become viable. Until then, it sits somewhat ominously just steps away from one of the city’s most beautiful parks, sparking curiosity – and maybe even a little anxiety – among those who pass it.