Public School Number Four was constructed on the former Riverside Park School site. The original wood-framed school house had multiple additions since being built in 1891. It was eventually considered unsafe and closed after being deemed a fire hazard. In 1915, Duval County voters passed legislation to build a dozen new brick school houses. Public School Number Four was completed in 1918 at a cost of $250,000. At the time, the school had a beautiful view of Riverside Park.
Public School Number Four was designed by architect Rutledge Holmes and built by Florida Engineering and Construction Company. The entire two-story building is solid concrete making it virtually fireproof. The Neo-Classical design features massive columns prominently placed at the front and side entrances. Classrooms were located upstairs with the library, auditorium, and administration offices on the first floor. The school house featured large windows and high ceilings with a fireplace in the cafeteria.
The “Public School Number Four” inscription refers to the school being Duval County’s fourth public school house. The school was known as Riverside Grammar School until 1950, then renamed Annie Lytle Elementary School after former principal and teacher, Annie Lytle Housh.
During the late 1950s, I-10 and I-95 interstate construction isolated the school leading it to close in 1960. The building was used for office storage until it was condemned in 1971. There are rumors the school was rented as a Catholic school for a few years in the late 1960s before it was abandoned.
For decades the enormous brick building was a favorite hangout for the homeless, thrill seekers, and drug addicts. In a state of decay, the graffiti covered walls and busted windows made it an attractive environment for disreputable acts.
Stories of hauntings and satanic worship began in the 1960s. There were also rumors of killer principals, missing kids, and even a cannibalistic janitor that tortured kids in the boiler room. All of which were highly untrue.
Police reports indicate a rape occurred shortly after the building was condemned, along with various other accounts of trespassing and vandalism. Sadly, there is even a classroom labeled the “rape room” by taggers. Easy to see why the school gained the nickname, “The Devil’s School.” Later in 1995, vagrants set fire to the auditorium causing half of the roof to collapse.
In 1999, Foundation Holding Inc. purchased the property and planned to demolish the school building. In its place would be a retirement facility named Lytle House Condominiums. Some of the units were sold before construction even began. After public outrage and pressure from multiple historic groups, the City of Jacksonville designated the school a historic landmark in 2000, halting plans for demolition indefinitely.
In 2005, The Annie Lytle Preservation Group was created by a group of neighborhood volunteers aiming to preserve and clean up Public School Number Four. They hoped it would make it more marketable to a buyer who would renovate the 98-year old school.
The preservation group has removed tons of debris and dead trees from the school property, enhancing the appearance. Another fire in the auditorium broke out in 2012, collapsing the partial roof that was left. The school also suffered fires on the first floor administration offices set by transients. Today, a barbed-wire fence standing six feet tall surrounds the entire property. The preservation group actively patrols the grounds and reports anyone trespassing to law enforcement.
After our visit with the Annie Lytle Preservation Group, my tour guide pointed out the upside-down crucifix in the photo. The window frame was empty while we were there with no visible cross on the bricks in the background. The upside-down crucifix was considered a Christian symbol and sign of humility among Catholics in ancient times. However, today it is commonly used as a symbol of atheism and the occult. I cannot explain it, but it adds to the long list of tales of Public School Number Four.