By Steve Hochstadt
Originally published in the Jacksonville Journal Courier on February 14, 2012.
Everybody I talk to is sad about the closing of the Three-Legged Dog at 27 South Central Park Plaza. That grand space embodies Jacksonville’s history and promise. I offer the consolation of its long history, which demonstrates that the space will continue to be significant to our community.
The Marble Block was built right after the Civil War on the south side of the square. It is one of the oldest buildings in downtown Jacksonville. I don’t know much about the early tenants, but in 1911 the Farmers Bank, owned by the French family, moved into that address, where it stayed for several decades. The built-in safe is still upstairs.
After Farmers Bank took over the former Ayers Bank building at the end of West State St. in 1941, the space was occupied by Hoffman’s Floral Shop. A dropped ceiling was installed.
In the 1990s, Jack Lukeman, from the family which owned Lukeman Clothing Co., located for decades on the east side of the square, took over the space and began extensive renovations. He had the ceiling removed, revealing again the spacious three story-atrium. Lukeman wanted to use this renovated space to bring back another famous Jacksonville institution, Merrigans.
Since the early 20th century, Merrigans had been a confectionery and sandwich shop on West State St. It had a beautiful carved wooden bar back with huge mirrors, and wooden booths in back. The “urban renewal” craze of the 1970s, which did so much damage to American downtowns in the name of progress, led to the tearing down of the building that housed Merrigans. The classic furnishings traveled to Springfield, where they became part of the lunch counter at Famous-Barr, a branch of the St. Louis department store, in the new White Oaks Mall. Eventually the lunch counter closed, Famous-Barr became Macy’s, and the furniture moved on to another city.
Jack Lukeman located the old Merrigans fixtures and installed them at 27 South Central Park Plaza to create Merrigans Old Place, a shop selling sandwiches and sodas in the 1990s. But those years were not kind to downtown shops, here and everywhere else in America. The Achilles’ Café and then Due Gatti (Two Cats) continued to serve food and coffee in that location, until Joe Racey created the Three-Legged Dog, which opened in April 2007.
For Racey, and his downtown collaborators Joy French Becker and Tom Grojean, the Dog and its neighboring buildings were among the early investments in the comeback of downtown Jacksonville. Since 2007, the square has been transformed from an ugly reminder of urban renewal to a potentially beautiful and commercially functional center of a revived community. The square once again provides a calm space at the heart of town. Around it, renovations inside Art Eclectic Gallery reveal the bones of the venerable Hockenhull building, Jacksonville Art Glass creates new beauty in glass and restores the glass history of local churches, Cheryl Kelly develops photographs into art, and Jim and Sally Nurss have brought a bookstore back to Jacksonville.