Walter Whetstone has spent a lifetime collecting his city’s excised memories, especially from historically black neighborhoods like LaVilla, and has assembled his findings in the walk-through collage on Jefferson Street he calls the Whetstonian. “If Smithson can have his Smithsonian,” he explains, “then Whetstone can have the Whetstonian.”
The Whetstonian may well be Jacksonville’s greatest work of art, though Walter shakes his head dismissively at the notion that he’s an artist. He’s always had an eye for strange artifacts, life on the verge of disappearance and the aesthetics of arranging the city’s castoffs.
Situated on half a city block that includes a 1927 two-story brick commercial structure, a 1965 life insurance building, and the space where shotgun shacks once stood between them, the Whetstonian incorporates old restaurant signs, a Harriet Tubman bust, fluegelhorns and trumpets and trombones and piano innards, blackface statuettes and portraits of black Jesuses, carousel horses, mannequin parts, tall tin plates emblazoned with architectural slogans by Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, and human-faced suns in factory cogs.
Little of LaVilla escaped demolition during Mayor Ed Austin’s “River City Renaissance” in the early 1990s. Once a plantation, then a thriving black neighborhood just west of downtown, the densest and most culturally vibrant district in Jacksonville’s history, LaVilla was largely destroyed during Austin’s “urban renewal.” Among the remains of LaVilla stand the old Brewster Hospital, three shotgun shacks, the Ritz Theatre and Museum, and the Clara White Mission.
“They would have got this place too,” Walter says, and it still seems miraculous the Whetstones saved their block. He asks me to imagine the Whetstonian “multiplied by everything that disappeared in LaVilla,” and says, “There’s a lot of black history around here. Including me.”
For years, Walter constantly added to and altered Jacksonville’s great “Outsider Art” masterpiece. Outsider Art — associated with Simon Rodia’s Watt’s Towers, St. EOM’s Pasaquan, and Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden — refers to art created by people neither trained in the arts, nor seeking artistic fame, who yet have an unyielding passion and compulsion to create. Artists, academics, and activists across Jacksonville would love to see the Whetstonian saved, but the Whetstones are weary.
Walter Whetstone has spent most of his life “outside.” When he delivered telegrams for Western Union, the law forbade him to sit on benches in downtown’s Hemming Park. Once, before Walter
was presented with an insurance sales award at a swanky hotel, a business executive flagged him down to carry his luggage to his room.
Walter will be 80 in January. He’s suffered two strokes in the last two years. His wife Dot often speaks for him now. His health is failing fast, vandals have stolen Whetstonian artifacts, and with Walter no longer able to sell life insurance from his corner office, back taxes have accrued. “This is not how I envisioned living the
last years of my life,” Dot says. Walter looks to a mural on an inner Union Street wall depicting the narrative of his life, drops his tired eyes, and says, “This too shall pass. This too shall pass.” We hope not. The Whetstonian deserves to be preserved for generations to come.