By Jennifer DeCamp
To discover Jacksonville’s arts and culture, start by finding a parking spot near Memorial Park in Riverside.
The best way to explore the city’s architecture is on foot, so do a quick pre-walk stretch near Charles Adrian Pillars’ sculpture, “Life,” before heading west on Riverside Avenue.
The self-guided three-mile architectural tour of some of the iconic homes protected by the Riverside Avondale Preservation society offers a glimpse into how the neighborhood flourished after the Great Fire of 1901 until the crash of the Florida real estate boom in 1928.
Break for Breakfast
You’ve made it to the halfway mark of the walking tour. Yes, you could finish. Or, you could take a slight detour and continue on St. Johns Avenue, three more blocks to the Shoppes of Avondale. If it’s a weekday, head to the The Fox, a retro diner that draws locals for business meetings with a side of eggs. The interior’s vintage vibes also match a menu that’s heavy on the classics: omelets, pancakes, corned beef hash, cheese grits and French toast.
On weekends, get a table at Biscottis. There’s a reason the Breakfast Burrito and Biscotti’s Omelette have been on the brunch menu for years; both are winners, flip a coin to choose. While you wait, also check out the art on the walls. It’s usually Jax centric – and for sale. Did you check out the dessert case with three levels of cakes, pies and cobblers while waiting to be seated? Maybe you even overheard a member of the team giving a wide-eyed guest “the tour.” It calls you like a siren’s song. The White Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake (it’s layered with white cake and cheesecake with raspberry filling between) and Cookies and Cream Pie are standouts. You’re relaxed, your feet our rested -- now, you’re ready to finish the tour. Head back along St. John’s Avenue to Challen Avenue, turn left.
In keeping with the theme of the architectural tour, the beautiful brick building that Biscotti’s occupies was designed by architectural partnership of H.J. Klutho, Fred S. Cates and Albert N. Cole. Klutho, an architect, moved to Jacksonville after the fire and became pivotal in city’s reconstruction. He also brought the “Prairie School” style to city after meeting Frank Lloyd Wright in New York in 1905. Two of his most famous buildings are the St. James Building (now City Hall) and the Dyal-Upchurch Building near the base of the Main Street Bridge.
Art and Gardens
The Cummer Museum’s founder, Ninah May Cummer, wanted the museum to serve “as a center of beauty and culture” for all. Keep that in mind as you stroll the collection’s galleries. Although the museum has seen multiple expansions, you are standing on the site of Ninah’s former home, walking through her gardens and taking in the view of the St. Johns River from under the Cummer Oak’s 150 feet of leafy canopy. She originally bequeathed 60 pieces of art. Since then it has expanded to more than 5,000 pieces that span from 2100 B.C. to the 21st century and include works by Peter Paul Rubens, Winslow Homer and Norman Rockwell. The hundreds of pieces that make up the Wark Collection of Early Meissen Porcelain always surprise newcomers and is so popular that the museum offers two versions of its printed tour guide, one for adults and one for families. The perfect way to enjoy the museum is walk half the galleries then take a break in the gardens before exploring the rest.
The gardens, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, were created with three distinct visions spearheaded by Ninah and her sister-in-law Clara. They comprise the Olmsted Garden, which was designed by the Olmsted Brothers Firm, (One of these brothers was Fredrick Law Olmstead, architect of New York’s Central Park.), the Italian Garden and the English Garden. The Italian Garden always draws the most oohs and aahs with its twin reflecting pools and Italian marble fountain. On special days, visitors might even be able to watch an artist painting en plein air.
A quick detour into the city’s Main Public Library brings you to one of city’s more unique art galleries. You’ll find the Jax Makerspace Gallery on the ground floor. The rotating exhibitions incorporate the work of local artists and photographers. But more uniquely, the space is about encouraging you to find your inner artist. Throughout each exhibit’s run, workshops are led by artists whose work is on display. Tables hold sewing machines, other classes teach how to record music, and document scanners encourage scrapbooking. Recently, the gallery gained buzz by displaying “Haight Street Rat,” by the anonymous artist Banksy, with works by local street artists for the exhibit “Writing on the Walls.”
When you walk through the front doors of Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, the current Project Atrium exhibit looms behind the registration desk. The installation changes throughout the year with each work specifically commissioned for uniquely vertical dimensions of the narrow space that spans the museum’s three floors. Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha, whose intricate lanterns created a play of light and shadow on the walls and ceilings, summed up best why Project Atrium is so beloved, “Installation artwork has the ability to take you out of yourself into a space that is somebody else’s creation but it makes you feel things that you find common within your own experiences.” Make sure you view the installation from each floor, you’ll always see something new. The museum’s permanent collection includes nearly 1,000 artworks spanning 1960 to the present and includes many multimedia works.
Dine in Style
Dinner is an early affair; you hopefully have a show to catch. Walking through the front door to Cowford Chophouse, is like stepping back in time. The original building was part of the first phase of reconstruction after the Great Fire of 1901 and its first tenant was the First National Bank of Florida. The Renaissance Revival building changed hands, doubled in size in 1919 and eventually was abandoned until being purchased at auction in 2014. Years of neglect left the building’s interior infrastructure nearly unsalvageable, but Jacksonville native and owner Jacques Kelmph was determined to restore it to its original glory. Some of these details include the 300-year-old heart of pine lumber used throughout the building and the historic arched windows.
The restaurant pays tribute to this history taking its creative notes from Roaring Twenties. The art deco-inspired illustrations and typography for the menus are stunning and the bar’s mixologist has crafted a dozen signature cocktails that update martinis and old fashioneds. The dinner menu follows the model created by other signature steakhouses, the meat playing a starring role with dozens of shareable a la carte options for starters and sides. Choose your entrée, or more notably the size of your entrée first, and then build the rest of your meal. Cuts of meat can start as small as a 4-ounce portion of A-5 Satsuma Wagyu to a 40-ounce Porterhouse. Service is impeccable and you’ll be helped to navigate the optional add-ons (like foie gras with bourbon bacon jam) or sauces (au poive or bordelaise) as well as the rest of the menu. If you arrive early or want a less formal dinner experience, head to the rooftop bar for river views and sunset.
Hear the Beat of Dancing Feet
Jacksonville boasts five live entertainment venues in downtown. Plan your night’s entertainment and purchase tickets in advance by checking the schedules for:
• Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts: Home of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, site of the FSCJ Artist Series which includes productions of the touring Broadway shows, some mid-size concerts
• Florida Theatre: One of the Sunshine State’s original movie palaces with the interior designed in the Mediterrean Revival style. More intimate concerts and dance shows, offers more than 200 cultural events each year including a summer classic movie series
• Ritz Theatre and Museum: Comedy, plays, concerts and traveling shows
• Veterans Memorial Arena: Large-scale concerts, family shows and big sporting events like the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament
• Daily’s Place Amphitheater: Concerts in an outdoor venue with a roof
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