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A Man and Three Hotels

By Donald J. Mabry

   Rare is the man who builds a business that outlives him; rarer still are those who build businesses of very different kinds and they outlive him. Humans tend to specialize and few of us are talented enough to succeed in disparate enterprises. William H. Adams, Senior was a man who created a number of successful businesses in Florida before he died. Among them were his three hotels, hotels which pioneered the settlement and development of the Jacksonville Beaches. His hotels are the focus of this essay; they were such visible signs of his and his wife’s talent.
    Adams was born in the very small central Mississippi town of Canton, during the Civil War; he lived in Terry, Mississippi on the estate of his grandfather until his father, Charles Mason Adams, moved the family to the small town of Sanford, Florida in  January, 1882 in hopes that milder weather and Florida sunshine would help him recuperate. Sanford, on Lake Monroe, had economic potential, for it was a port on the St. Johns River which flowed north to Jacksonville, the largest city in the state.  He became a partner in a furniture store with a relative who died three years later. Nevertheless, he had moved his family to the frontier state of Florida where opportunities abounded for those who could recognize and capitalize on them.
    Adams could. He left Sanford for Tampa in 1885, where his brother, Hugh, was a jeweler. Eventually he owned the Tampa Fish and Ice Company. He also retained ties to Sanford where, in 1888-1889, he was engaged in the orange business in connection with Chase & Company.[1] Business success in a town of  5,500 was important but he retained his ties to Mississippi.


Figures 1& 2 William Hester Adams, Juliette White Holt Adams
circa 1898

 

    While visiting his grandfather in Terry MS, he fell in love with the rector’s daughter, Juliette White Holt, and they were married July 31, 1896. Juliette, who was to play a key role in the Florida hotel business, was ten years his junior, born in 1874. She was from a successful family. Her father David was a witty Civil War veteran who became an Episcopal priest. His memoirs of his war experiences were published in 1995.[2] Their first child, William Hester Adams, Junior, was born on December 3, 1898 in Tampa.
    In 1900, Adams, Sr. moved northeast to bustling Jacksonville, Florida, a city of 28, 429. It had grown 65.3% since 1890. Even though the Great Fire of 1901 destroyed much of the city, its population increased 102.9% by 1910.
    Undaunted, Adams moved the family to a different and unburned neighborhood. Their son, Elbridge Gerry Adams, was born there on April 22, 1903. The father started the Fisherman’s Supply Company, a business that would sustain him and the family long after his death.[3] By 1918, he also operated the Jacksonville Engine and Machine Works. He was a go-getter, an entrepreneur.
    Henry M. Flagler created business opportunities in the Jacksonville area and W. H., Sr., soon took advantage of them. Flagler was one of the founders of the Standard Oil Company and was immensely rich. He had come to Florida in 1885 and saw the opportunity to develop railroads and tourism.
    Flagler acquired several million acres of real estate between 1885, the year he purchased two short-line St. Augustine railroads, and 1912, which marked completion of the Key West railroad extension. Flagler obtained a portion of this land from Florida's Internal Improvement Fund (IIF), although he received the bulk of real estate from other Florida corporations.[4]
    He bought the Jacksonville and Atlantic Railway Company in 1899 and changed the narrow gauge, light railroad to standard gauge with 60-pound rails, thus making it compatible to the railroads in the country. In other words, he made the beaches railroad part of the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) system and the national train network. He extended the line to Mayport; built a spur to Mineral City when mining began there; and built a railroad bridge across the St. Johns River between Jacksonville and South Jacksonville.[5]
    On June 1,1901, Flagler opened his Continental Hotel in Atlantic Beach. The yellow hotel was 47 feet by 447 feet with a six story rotunda and five story wings. The dining room could seat 350. There were 186 sleeping apartments (later 200) and 56 baths. It had numerous outbuildings.[6] It was spectacular as these images show.


Figure 3 Postcard of Continental Hotel


Figure 4 Continental Hotel and Pier

Figure 5 Map Showing Railroad to the Jacksonville Beaches, circa 1917

   To promote the Continental Hotel as well as neighboring Pablo Beach, the FEC ran excursion trains to the beaches every weekend and promoted the construction of summer homes. People came from neighboring states to the beaches but the core tourism was from Jacksonville and environs. The Continental Hotel wanted rich people as clients, people who could afford idle luxury. Moreover, these were the people who could afford summer houses. H. H. Buckman, a developer associated with the Jacksonville, Mayport, and Pablo Railroad and afterwards with the Flagler interests, promoted lots in Atlantic Beach but the community remained very small.[7] Lots for summer homes sold in 1901. R. H. Paul of Watertown, FL, a lumber man., was the first to build. John Christopher, a Jacksonville business man, built a home at 11th Street, one which Harcourt Bull bought and improved. More summer homes went up. To cater to its wealthy clients, Flagler’s people built a nine-hole golf course.
    Flagler’s interests lay farther south so, in 1911, his company leased the Continental Hotel for ten years to A. S. Stanford who represented the American Resort Hotel Company. In 1913, the hotel and 4,000 acres north to the south jetty were sold by the Florida East Coast Hotel Company to E. R. Brackett and a consortium of New York capitalists who formed the Atlantic Beach Corporation and renamed it the Atlantic Beach Hotel. This corporation, headed by Harcourt Bull, sought to develop the community. On May 17, 1917, the hotel property was sold at public auction and bought by the FEC Hotel Company for $167,000. In November, 1917, it was leased to W.H. Adams, Sr. It burned on September 20, 1919, a loss of $300,000. Fire, the nemesis, had struck again.[8]
    Flagler’s money and attempts to develop the beach as an upper-class tourist resort brought investors. Harcourt Bull, a Canadian by way of New York, and his Atlantic Beach Corporation bought much of what would become Atlantic Beach.
    Adams decided to do economic development on the oceanfront so he moved his family to Pablo Beach in 1907 and bought the Ocean View Hotel for $1,700. Located on the same site as the magnificent Murray Hall Hotel which had burned in 1890 after only two years of operation, the Ocean View existed by 1903 as a substantial but more modest establishment. Adjoining it was a bathhouse which could accommodate 600 bathers at one time. There were 1500 bathing suits for rent, each washed after use. The hotel had a dining room which overlooked the sea. A 500-foot deep artesian well gushed water into the hotel’s pipes but the hotel generated its own electricity. Heat was supplied by fireplaces and wood-burning stoves but they were not used often. The beach enjoyed a very mild climate. [9]
    To promote their new hotel as a summer resort in the face of competition from the Pablo Hotel and rooming houses, the Adams promoted its advantages—ocean breeze cooled rooms, a nice dining room, a large bath house for day trippers, and dances. Juliette Adams oversaw the hotel while her husband focused on his Jacksonville businesses. She arranged events such as dances to attract customers. The Ocean View attracted the middle income classes to stay overnight.

 


Figure 6 Ocean View Hotel, circa 1910


Figure 7 The Ocean View in the left background. The Pavilion on the right.

 


Figure 8. Looking towards the ocean with the Ocean View on the sea front


Figure 9 Interior Views, Ocean View Hotel

 


Figure 10 July, 1925.


Figure 11 Ocean View and the Boardwalk.

 

 

In November, 1917, Adams decided to go more upscale by leasing the Atlantic Beach Hotel, as it was now called, from the Florida East Coast Hotel Company. The complex was large as the following schematic map shows. The train station on the west side was connected to the hotel by a covered walk; covered walkways or verandahs were used extensively. The kitchen, servants’ quarters, bowling alley (not shown but north of the main building, and power plant were separate from the main building which was quite extensive.

Figure 12 Atlantic Beach Hotel, 1917. Source: Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps


Figure 13 Hotel Brochure, 1919


Figure 14 Composite Views

Fire is the bugaboo that threatens any wooden structure. Fireplaces, candles, wood stoves and heaters, and other means of generating fire pose an ever-present danger. And without an available fire department, possible destruction is an even greater threat. Such was the fate of the hotel which burned to the ground September 20, 1919. At least the Adams family had another hotel as well as businesses in Jacksonville. They were not wiped out.
    Adams bought the remaining buildings, water works, and electric plant of the old Continental/Atlantic Beach Hotel and began anew. The Florida East Coast Hotel Company still owned some of the original forty acres. William and Juliette opened the Atlantic Beach Inn and Donac Shell Tea Room in what was the bowling alley. They added a second story in order to accommodate more guests. The Inn’s restaurant became famous for seafood dinners. Donacs are little shell fish, much like clams, indigenous to the area, and Juliette was famous for her donac soup.
    The inn continued the tradition of using the hard-packed sand as a race course for cars. Being 300 feet wide at low tide there certainly was room and the beaches extended for miles to the north and south.


Figure 15 Atlantic Beach Inn and Donac Shell Tea Room

   Within six years, the Adams erected the new Atlantic Beach Hotel next to and adjoining the Inn so artfully that they looked as if they had always been one. Triumphant, they opened the fifty-room, stucco hotel in June 1925. Then they added to it, by building a 50’ by 150’ swimming pool in 1929.[10] Besides hotel guests, others could pay to use the pool and, if necessary, its two-story bath house with changing rooms on separate floors for men and women. One could enter the pool area or go directly to the ocean. Originally, it was a salt water pool, “an inland ocean” some called it, but, after a few years, it was converted to fresh water. The local Fletcher Junior-Senior High School swim teams practiced there. One could enter the pool area or go directly to the ocean through a tunnel under the porch. The tunnel meant that a person could wash off and not bring sand in the pool.


Figure 16 Atlantic Beach Hotel, circa 1940


Figure 17 Postcard, Note the tag World’s Finest Beach

 

Jutting into the ocean, the hotel’s pier provided sightseeing and fishing. Kids, lovers, friends, the elderly, and the curious would wander out to its end both day and night. Lovers preferred the night, especially preferred moonlit nights. Fishing, however, was almost always a daytime activity.


Figure 18 Atlantic Beach Hotel Pool

 

Adversity struck on July 29, 1926 when a fire consumed the Ocean View Hotel and much of the Jacksonville Beach business district. No one died; only money was lost. Rebuilding had to occur for Jacksonville Beach was the summer resort for the average person. It had the boardwalk, the bars, the gambling, and almost all of the rooms to rent—for an hour, a day, a week, or longer.
In 1928, the Beach Roller Coaster was built by John Miller of Milwaukee. It was a 93-foot structure with a train that reached speeds of 50 mph. As the tallest structure at the Beaches, it became an icon. In 1933, Miller sold it to W. H. Adams. In 1950, the coaster was taken down. All that remained was the Coaster Bath House as a reminder that it had been there. [11]


Figure 19 Roller Coaster, Looking South on First Street, Jacksonville Beach

 

Atlantic Beach changed as well. Whereas it had been a geographical expression centered around the hotel, it became an incorporated Town during the Florida Land Boom in 1926. Governor John W. Martin appointed Harcourt Bull as the first mayor. He had been the major developer of the community. The boom went bust but Bull remained a major player. In 1929, a town charter was passed by the state legislature creating an elected mayor and five councilmen plus the offices of town clerk, tax collector, town attorney, town marshal, and municipal judge. In 1938, Atlantic Beach joined the Jacksonville electrical grid. In 1947, the town weaned itself from the hotel’s waterworks and created its own. More streets were paved and sewer lines would be built. The Hotel ceased to be the anchor of the community. It still played a central role, however.
          William H. Adams, Senior died of cancer on October 1, 1943. Gone were the nights when he would sit in the lobby of the Hotel with his family playing solitaire. Although Juliette and their sons were deeply involved in the family businesses, Adams was a strong feature of the lives of his wife, sons, and grandchildren. He had accomplished much since he had come to Florida as an eighteen-year-old. He played an important role in the Jacksonville business community and had played a significant role in the development of the Jacksonville beaches.


Figure 20 W. H. Adams, Sr. and Juliette Adams with their grandson William H. Adams, III

   In his will, W. H. Adams, Sr., made provision for his wife and left his many business interests to his two sons. W. H., Sr. willed the Fisherman’s Supply Company, the roller coaster and a bath house in Jacksonville Beach to his namesake. So his interest and energy was split. The Fisherman’s Supply Company was a year-round business because the mild climate allowed personal and commercial fishing activities regardless of the season. His bath house and roller coaster business were for the summer season. In fact, Lake Peddy managed the roller coaster, just as he had for W. H., Sr., until it was dismantled in 1950. Junior’s ties to the Beaches were not as strong as his brother’s. Instead of going to the Beaches public schools, like their cousins, some the children of Bill, Jr. and Florence attended private schools.
    Gerry inherited the Atlantic Beach Hotel. Although Bill, Jr. had been involved in the AB Hotel for years, it was Gerry who had been grooming himself to be a hotelier. He had attended the Cornell University of Hotel Administration after Mercersburg Academy and the University of Florida; then he began his career by signing on as a cabin boy with the United States Line, sailing between America and Germany for two years during the 1920's. Then he interned in hotel management at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, one of New York City’s finest. He expanded his hotel management experience, working five winters in New York hotels including the Commodore, Roosevelt and Biltmore. He worked a winter each at the Atlanta Biltmore and the Fort Montague Hotel in Nassau, The Bahamas.

 


Figure 21 Gerry Adams, 1950s


He returned to the Beaches and worked for his parents’ hotel where he continued even after he married Annie Laurie Cureton of Jacksonville in 1930. His mother, Juliette, ran the hotel while W. H. Senior focused on his other businesses. Gerry strung wires to supply the town with electricity from hotel generators. Its pier, built by the two brothers, was the town’s most famous architectural feature after the hotel itself. And the little Florida East Coast train ran just west of the hotel.
    Gerry was as much interested in the restaurant as they were in the hotel business and they explored those option. They moved to Daytona Beach in 1934 where their oldest child, Laurie Corinne Adams, was born; then they moved to Orlando to manage the Angebilt Hotel dining room until 1939 but with trips home in the summer to help with the family hotel. In 1938, they built a home on hotel property and welcomed the birth of their second daughter, Nancy. Gerry’s first love was the restaurant business, and he moved his family back to Orlando to establish The Gerry Adams Restaurant across from the Angebilt Hotel. A third daughter, Edith, was born there in 1941.
    Gerry, whose entire life had been the hospitality business, received the 50-room Atlantic Beach Hotel. His fourth daughter, Gerry, entered the world in 1949. True to his nature, Gerry opened The Fisherman’s Net, a very popular, year-round restaurant. The Net provided a steady income when the tourist season changed as chain motels cut into the business of family-owned hotels and the Beaches tourist season began shrinking to a Memorial Day-Labor Day cycle. As Laurie Adams Crowson put it: “The family rented out their house and moved into the hotel residing in the attic of the oldest part (previously a bowling alley of the old Continental Hotel) and eventually moved down to the first floor.”
    For the children, it was an idyllic existence. They lived in a grand and classic hotel whose patrons were often repeat customers; some ceased to be strangers. They swam in the very large swimming pool or frolicked in the ocean. Their “neighborhood” was small. Atlantic Beach only had 164 people in 1930, 468 in 1940, just over a thousand in 1950, and 3,125 people in 1960. Kids went to school together at the Atlantic Beach School. Almost vacant land lay to the north until one reached the mighty St. Johns River and the village of Mayport and, after 1942, a Navy base. Seminole and Manhattan Beaches north of Atlantic had not been absorbed, yet, by the Navy or by the City of Atlantic Beach. One crossed Atlantic Boulevard to tiny Neptune Beach or to larger Jacksonville Beach but not many lived there either. Eventually, they would attend Duncan U. Fletcher Junior-Senior High School with other Beaches kids but the school was relatively small. 

Atlantic Beach Population, 1930-1970

1930

1940

1945

1950

1960

1970

164

468

956

1004

3125

6,132

   Then Hurricane Dora struck in September, 1964, destroying parts of the Hotel along the oceanfront.


Figure 21 Hurricane Dora Damage, September 1964

Figure 22 Dora Destruction, September 1964

   Gerry Adams repaired the damage but sold the hotel in 1969. Condominiums and apartments replaced it. The swimming pool lasted longer; the wrecking ball got it in December 1973. The principals went as well. Annie Laurie Adams died in 1971; Gerry married Lois Roberts, the widow of the Beaches’ first physician, Earl Roberts, but he died on February 27, 1975. The Atlantic Beach Hotel, its predecessors, and all they represented lived only in images and memory. But it was a proud heritage.

 


Figure 23 Exteriors, 1930s

 


Figure 24 Interiors, 1930s


Figure 25 Atlantic Beach Hotel complex and Pier

Laurie Adams Crowson and Nancy Adams, children of Gerry Adams, were kind enough to send me materials, both written and photographic. Flickie, as Laurie is known, supplied short sketches she had written of her father and grandfather. Nancy loaned me the memoirs of their maternal great grandfather David Holt. Electronic mail kept us in touch. In addition, I was able to use some of the research to write my short book about the Jacksonville Beaches, World’s Finest Beach (HTA Press, 2006).


[1] Stephen Brodeur, “The Whistle Stop that was Atlantic Beach,"  newspaper article; Jacksonville Journal, May 7, 1924.
[2] Thomas D. Cockrell and Michael B. Ballard, eds., Mississippi Rebel in the Army of Northern Virginia: The Civil War Memoirs of Private David Holt. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985).
[3] The title used by two of his granddaughters but a short biographical sketch in the Jacksonville Journal, May 7, 1924, in the “Jacksonville and Duval Country Builders” column identified him as president of the Florida Fish and Produce Company. This article has several inaccuracies, however.
[4] William E. Brown, Jr. and Karen Hudson, “Model Land Company records, “University of Miami, Otto G. Richter Library Archives and Special Collections Department. June, 1993.
[5] T. Frederick Davis, History of Jacksonville Florida and Vicinity 1513 to 1924 . (Jacksonville, 1925), p. 351.
[6] George W. Simons, Jr., Report for Jacksonville Beaches Chamber of Commerce, 1944, p. 11.
[7]James B. Crooks, Jacksonville After The Fire, 1901-1919: A New South City. Jacksonville: University of North Florida, 1991, p.27; Herbert J. Doherty, “Jacksonville As A Nineteenth-Century Railroad Center,” Florida Historical Quarterly 58:4 (April, 1980), pp.383-4.
[8] Davis, 494. The Adams family played an extraordinary role in Beaches history. Some still live there. The cost of living calculator of the American Institute for Economic Research converts this figure to $2,546,750 in 2005.
[9] The price was noted on the reverse side of a brochure picture that the Beaches Area Historical Society has in its collection.
10] The pool was removed in December, 1973, but with quite a bit of effort. Bill Foley, “Millennium Moment: July 7, 1928. Hotel pier was a shared experience for every kid, “ Florida Times-Union, July 7, 1999.
[11] Johnny Woodhouse, “First Coaster at Beach Had Pedigree, “ Times to Remember: A calendar for 2004, Jacksonville Beach, FL: The Beaches Leader, 2003.

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