The Laura Street Trio is a cluster of buildings located in downtown Jacksonville, Florida, collectively known as the most endangered historical buildings in the city. The Trio includes the Florida National Bank Building, the Bisbee Building, and the Florida Life Building. Located at the corner of Laura and Forsyth streets, each built just a few years after the Great Fire of 1901, the third-largest metropolitan fire in U.S. history. The history of the Laura Street Trio begins with the Old Florida National Bank Building, also known as the Marble Bank. Opened in 1902 as the Mercantile Exchange Bank, it was the first of the Laura Street Trio to be built. Its Neoclassical Revival design, highlighted by its large windows and marble columns, was the work of Baltimore-based architect Edward H. Glidden.
The Old Florida National Bank was originally constructed with the facade half as wide as it is today. It was purchased in 1905 by the newly organized Florida Bank & Trust, the forerunner of today’s Florida National Bank chain. The new banking firm expanded the building to its present size, retaining its Neoclassical Revival style. The entire facade is sheathed in marble, including six massive columns also made of marble. In 1916, the interior of the building was completely gutted and redesigned by the New York architecture firm of Mowbray and Uffinger. A grand banking room was created, complete with a spectacular skylight, coffered ceiling, and classical plaster detailing, at a cost of $135,000. During the 1950s, two dropped ceilings that covered the skylight and plaster ornamentation were added. In 1978, the Jacksonville National Bank, the owner of the building at the time, commissioned architect Robert Broward to guide the restoration of the interior to its 1916 splendor. The false ceilings were removed, the skylight was uncovered, and the beautiful plaster detailing was once again revealed. Both the bank and the architect received awards for this dramatic restoration.
Florida National Bank soon grew beyond its relatively small space within the building and would later expand into the adjacent Bisbee Building. By the 1960s, the bank had left the building altogether. Jacksonville National Bank took over its space and enacted a new round of renovations in the late 1970s, restoring many original design elements that were removed or modified over the years. Later, its operations would gradually expand to the other two Trio buildings. By the 1990s, engulfed by a flurry of mergers, the bank eventually became a wing of NationsBank of Florida. NationsBank sold the Laura Street Trio a few years before its merger with BankAmerica, creating Bank of America. The Laura Street Trio was vacated in the mid-1990s.
In 1999, a German investor named Angela Schneider acquired the Laura Street Trio. When she began to threaten to demolish the historic buildings, the City of Jacksonville agreed to buy the property for a little more than $3 million in 2002. The Trio is currently owned by the Southeast Group, which plans to renovate the Marble Bank into an upscale restaurant.
Next door to the Marble Bank, the Bisbee Building was a ten-story tower designed by famed architect Henry J. Klutho with heavy Chicago style influence. Construction on the Bisbee Building began in 1908, but midway through the project, building owner William Bisbee asked Klutho to design a duplicate section to double the future building’s capacity. Completed in 1909, the Bisbee was one of Jacksonville’s first ‘skyscrapers’. It was also the first high-rise office building in the South to be built with a reinforced concrete frame. When the Florida National Bank outgrew the Marble Bank building, operations were moved into the Bisbee. Over the years, the office building housed various tenants, but by the 1940s, Florida National Bank was the main tenant. In 1961, FNB moved to its new headquarters at 214 N. Hogan Street. The bank vacated the Bisbee Building and was replaced by Jacksonville National Bank’s expanding operations. Charter Mortgage Company also held office space within the building. Like the Marble Bank, the Bisbee came under the ownership of NationsBank as a result of mergers.
The last of the three Trio buildings to be constructed, the Florida Life Building, was completed in 1912. Another Klutho design using reinforced concrete, the structure leaned more towards a Prairie School influence, including ornamental terra cotta cornices at the top of the building. The narrow eleven-story tower very briefly held the title of the tallest building in Jacksonville upon its completion. The Florida Life Building was supposed to house operations for the Florida Life Insurance Company, but the company went bankrupt just three years after opening its new headquarters. Instead, it served as an office building for various tenants, including both Florida National Bank and Jacksonville National Bank at different times. Its tenure with Jacksonville National Bank led it to become lumped in with the other two Trio structures as property of NationsBank. Not long before NationsBank sold the Trio, it removed the ornamental cornices due to fear of damage from storms. The Southeast Group plans to convert the Florida Life Building into a Courtyard by Marriot hotel.
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