Since its golden age as an old Hollywood powerhouse, visitors have been drawn to Jacksonville’s eye-catching buildings, lush landscape and picture-perfect beaches. Filmmakers, inspired by architect Henry John Klutho’s visionary designs, flocked to the city for its evergreen terrain and plot-inspiring scenery, while industry pioneers like Kalem Studios and Norman Studios pushed the silent-film envelope with innovations like Technicolor production and daring action scenes. Even after Hollywood packed up and headed for the hills, locals preserve Jacksonville’s cinematic roots with silent-film festivals that retell the story of the “Winter Film Capital of the World.”
Jacksonville may have been known for its silent films, but its national clout – attracting tourists from all over – was anything but quiet. With its enviably warm winters and touted accessibility via railway, the “Gateway to Florida” was the southernmost destination for well-to-do Gilded Age travelers seeking respite from harsh northern winters.
With the turn of the century, Jacksonville saw tourism decline after the Great Fire of 1901, which devastated the city’s entire downtown business district. The burgeoning city was reduced to rubble and martial law in the weeks following the fire; but with destruction came opportunity when architect Henry John Klutho, a pioneer of the Prairie School style – popularized in the Midwest by Frank Lloyd Wright – redesigned Jacksonville’s cityscape with its signature horizontal lines, broad eaves and flat roofs. While many of the buildings were demolished in recent years, Jacksonville still boasts one of the most impressive tableaux of Prairie style buildings outside of the Midwest.
Jacksonville’s refreshed aesthetic and expanded railways, leading to destinations like Miami and Palm Beach, gave the city a fresh start and attracted the attention of Northern movie mavens who sought cheaper labor and more welcoming conditions for winter filming. The boom, complemented by a series of firsts – first Technicolor film, first full-length feature film in color, first films featuring African Americans “splendidly assuming different roles” – dubbed Jacksonville “Hollywood East.” For years, locals endured movie mischief like simulated car chases and feigned riots – antics that angered the city’s more conservative residents and eventually led the studios to seek refuge in California.
Though Jacksonville has long since traded the glitz and glamour of the film industry for lazy strolls along the boardwalk, its storied past is preserved in the Silent Film Museum (housed in the historic Norman Studio complex), the annual Jacksonville Film Festival, and its restored Art Deco movie palaces. Jacksonville’s legendary past, paired with a recent resurgence of blockbuster film production starring Hollywood heavy-hitters, still draws renegade creatives looking to share a story all their own.