Words and images by Helen Mas
The 310-mile-long St. Johns River disappeared into the horizon and gave way to a cerulean sky lightly scattered with fluffy, silver-lined clouds.
Spectators pointed in awe at the various little details in the scenery — seemingly small, but only because the southern and western views provided by the former Skyline restaurant on the Bank of America Tower in downtown Jacksonville was one of over 600 feet above the rest of the world.
It was a breathtaking sight of the vast River City that most people normally wouldn’t see, yet there I was, lucky enough to witness it with my own eyes thanks to Jacksonville’s Top to Bottom Walking Tour.
Part of Jacksonville’s Walking Tours, the almost two-hour-long excursion is offered every Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. in downtown Jacksonville by AdLib Luxury Tours and Transportation.
For $15, visitors get a tour of downtown’s most unique and well-hidden features including a secret underground tunnel, a stop inside of the stunning Florida Theatre and an elevator ride up 42 floors to the Skyline in the Bank of America Tower for one of the most astonishing views of the land that is Jacksonville.
Dressed head-to-toe in an elegant maroon ensemble, Paula Griesbach, the group’s leading tour guide, softly whispered to the other visitors, directing their gazes out onto the endless landscape and recounting historical stories of the many locally iconic structures in their view, including the one in which we were all standing.
“It was the largest bank in Florida,” said Griesbach, referring to the Bank of America Tower’s early days as the headquarters for Barnett Bank. “It was bought out by Nations Bank and Nations Bank was bought out by Bank America.”
The merger finally created Bank of America.
As I wandered closer to the window, I noticed my breath fogging up the glass. It was one of the first major stops of the Tuesday tour, and I could feel the excitement building up inside me.
I wanted to see more.
The tour began with everyone meeting at the bottom of The Jacksonville Landing escalators, and although my welcome was warm, I found myself the odd one out: young, local and unaccompanied, surrounded by four older couples, Griesbach and another Top to Bottom tour guide named Laura Reardon.
I felt like an anthropologist submerged in an aging-tourist subculture.
And like an anthropologist reaching the end of her research, I came out of the tour having learned a thing or two about the very city I’d been living in and exploring for almost a decade — a city I thought I already knew.
“It’s so many times you drive through a city and go ‘Oh, nice! Old building, old building, next!’” said Reardon. “You don’t know the history behind it, so it’s really good to learn a little bit of that.”
The hard, chilly wind and bright rays of sunshine hit our faces as we walked out of The Jacksonville Landing.
Gripping her burgundy, floral hat tightly away from the wind’s thieving hands, Griesbach led us to the shiny, black statue of a 19th-century man mounted on a rearing horse just several yards away.
“Why Jacksonville?” Griesbach asked when explaining to us the story behind they city’s name. When no one answered, she pointed at the statue of the man on the horse.
“Well, because at the time, the big war hero was Andrew Jackson,” she said.
Whether you’re a local or not, Jacksonville’s Top to Bottom Tour shines a whole new light on the city, giving its guests a view unlike any other on this growing metropolis.
Stop after stop, I continually found myself wondering how in the world I knew so little about the rich history that made Jacksonville the city it is today, from the Great Fire of 1901 that destroyed 146 city blocks of downtown to its early days as the movie industry’s pre-Hollywood filming destination.
Every building, every bridge and every road had its own story; each played an important part in the rise and development of this ever-growing southern city.
As a local, I found it hard to believe that I would exit the tour having listened to stories about Jacksonville I hadn’t heard before. As a university student, however, I knew the possibility to learn something new was always present, no matter what and no matter where.
Although I knew many of the ins and outs of this vibrant city, nothing ever truly satisfied my desire for more knowledge on its history. Luckily, however, I had Jacksonville’s Top to Bottom Tour to fill that void.
The tour ended at the base of the Wells Fargo building with everyone gathered around and talking, delighted in their discovery of this understated yet fascinating city sitting right beneath their noses.
“I’ve lived here since 1998 and couldn’t have told you anything about the history of Jacksonville,” said Reardon after the tour group members finished their discussion.
“People do not visit their own cities. When you go on vacation, you tour those cities —that’s what people do,” Griesbach said. “So, invest in your own downtown — you’ve got a neat one.”