Tour the abandoned Florida home of Jacksonville's payphone king |

2022-10-16 09:13:56 By : Ms. Alice Lu

This 114-year-old gem in Jacksonville's historic Springfield neighbourhood served as the home and HQ of the city's leading payphone provider, David Swearingen, who sadly passed away from Covid in 2020. Inside, he left behind a fascinating array of coin-operated contraptions, vintage kiosks, and more. Leland Kent of Abandoned Southeast was invited to photograph the house in September 2021 by the late owner's son, William, before it was cleared out and put on the market. Click or scroll on to step inside and discover its fascinating history...

Boasting a frame vernacular design with Colonial Revival elements, the charming three-bedroom house was built in 1908. At the time, the Springfield neighbourhood was in the midst of a construction boom that had followed the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901. The blaze had destroyed vast swathes of the city's downtown area and, in the aftermath, many of its denizens moved north of the centre to Springfield.

This old photo of the home was taken in the 1980s. As you can see, the property looks absolutely pristine here. According to Leland, David Swearingen moved into the house with his wife Nancy in 1980, three years after the couple tied the knot. David scored a job as a locksmith with the Southern Bell telephone company, and set up his own locksmith business on the side.

Even now, you can't fail to be impressed by the elegant Corinthian columns and other fine period details. And if you look past the pieces of broken furniture, rickety fence and unkempt yard, the house is actually in pretty good shape. The wooden siding could do with sprucing up, but by and large, any issues appear cosmetic.

The porch's hardwood decking, screen door and other original period features remain intact after all these years, a testament to their quality. In fact, as you will see, the materials used in the construction of the house look to be top-notch, from the wonderful hardwood flooring and frames to the cast-iron window grills. Now, let's step inside and take a look at the curios Leland encountered when he first visited the home in 2021...

The entrance hall and handsome staircase were littered with random odds and ends, but the most out-of-the-ordinary objects were the 13 payphones gracing the stairs. While he might have only got into the business later on in life, David ended up operating the lion's share of Jacksonville's payphones, reportedly looking after around 300 dotted around the city by 2009.

By the time he'd founded his Florida Public Telephone Company, David had become an industry-leading master keying specialist, having designed complex systems for the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, and other major institutions. This, together with a stint operating vending machines and arcade games, gave him all the right skills to excel in the payphone business.

This picture of the home's staircase was taken in 1980, just before David and Nancy moved in. The couple took an active role in the local community, participating in the Springfield Community on Patrol (SCOP) organisation to help boost safety in the neighbourhood. With the city's blessing, David would later set up a sideline boarding up vacant homes in Jacksonville.

In July 2022, Leland was invited back to photograph the property after it had been cleared out. This is how the entrance hall looks now, emptied of the payphones and other objects. Despite the peeling wallpaper, mouldy blinds, and other signs of decay, the fundamentals of the room—such as the hardwood flooring and that gorgeous staircase—look to be robust. Fixing this place up really shouldn't be that big of a job.

Before the home was cleared out, there were plenty of intriguing knick-knacks to discover around the parlour and dining room. For instance, the writing bureau was home to three models of haunted mansions, including one based on the famous attraction at Disneyland California. These whimsical objects were probably bought for the aforementioned William, David and Nancy's son, who was born in 1984.

A bunch of boxes containing some of the tools of David's trades are pictured here. They included various payphone handsets, locks, and keys. William helped out his dad as best he could from an early age. Tragically, Nancy died in 1991 following a battle with cancer and David became a single parent. William was just seven at the time.

Throughout his childhood, the industrious youngster often assisted his father with jobs, including helping him board up abandoned houses around Jacksonville, while as a young adult he looked after IT for the payphone company. Casting a closer look around the reception room as it was in 2021, this corner was piled almost to the ceiling with belongings. Note the two payphones on the floor, bringing the total we've seen so far up to 16.

As well as being the HQ for the Florida Public Telephone Company, the property also served as the workshop for David's master locksmith business. This photo shows two key-cutting machines discarded in another corner of the room. Metal dust covered the machines and several shiny uncut keys were also scattered around the devices, giving the impression they were used not that long ago.

Sadly, David Swearingen passed away from COVID-19 in 2020, and William inherited the home. He evidently worked hard to empty the residence, if this recent shot of the parlour/dining room is anything to go by. While the built-in cabinet is worse for wear, the hardwood flooring, doors and other original features (such as the skirting boards) look like they need nothing more than sanding and refinishing.

Before William tackled clearing out the house—a job that can't have been easy—this part of the open-plan double reception room was jam-packed with boxes, with the dinky hopper window and larger sash windows almost completely obscured. Now that the room is empty, you can really appreciate how spacious it is.

There's a fireplace in need of a mantel in the parlour proper, which—in spite of its poor state—adds to the home's charm. That said, the property was mostly designed with Florida's hot, humid weather in mind. This is evident in features such as the extra-large, multiple-aspect screened windows, which create cooling cross-ventilation when open.

Plus, since the property is big on windows, the rooms are bathed in beautiful light even during the winter months. Aside from the fireplace and windows though, there's little else in the way of heating or cooling, so the new owner will need to install central heating and air conditioning to get the property up to 21st-century standards.

The kitchen is the next room we come to on our tour. First captured by Leland back in 2021, this fantastically old-fashioned space was a bona fide time capsule. The sink and other features appeared to pre-date 1980 when the Swearingens moved in, and some of the fixtures and fittings looked like they could have originated from the house's 1908 construction.

One of the standout objects in the room was this sturdy Detroit Jewel gas stove, with its fancy marble-effect finish. Crafted in Michigan from enamel-coated cast iron and built to last for decades, this particular model looks to date from the 1930s or 1940s, and presumably was in good working order until very recently.

This photo was taken by David Swearingen in 1980. Note the Art Deco cabinetry, which was removed, and the original sink, which remains in situ. The missing plasterwork is a sign the house wasn't in amazing condition when the Swearingens bought it and required a refresh to bring it up to standard.

This is the kitchen post clear-out. The hole in the ceiling above the door has reappeared and the room requires a complete overhaul. Be that as it may, we're keeping our fingers crossed a new owner will retain and restore some of those attractive original features instead of ripping everything out and putting in a bland contemporary kitchen.

However, it's obvious that a lot needs to go in the kitchen, with the cabinetry around the sink looking in a pretty poor state. And probably one of the first things the new owner will do is pull up the linoleum floor covering, which is in an especially poor state. However, the sink, taps, light fitting, and possibly the wall panels do look salvageable. Now, let's move upstairs.

The fine staircase needs little renovation work by the look of it and is likely to be a cinch to restore, even for someone who isn't trained in carpentry. Ditto the hardwood flooring, doors, and frames which, with some care and attention, should come up looking lovely in next to no time.

The landing doesn't look a whole lot different in this shot, which was taken in 1980 before David and Nancy moved in. As was the case with the kitchen, this part of the house also required a touch of restoration, but like today, the original features were in decent condition. If only they made things like they used to.

Cleared of its furniture and other objects, the master bedroom looks incredibly spacious. Again, the room seems like it would be fairly easy to restore, with any issues likely to be merely cosmetic, which is a major bonus for potential buyers since totally replacing hardwood flooring, window frames, and other key period features doesn't come cheap.

The walls will need to be re-plastered though, as the lath is visible in some parts. Since there's only one bathroom in the property, the new owner may decide to subdivide the space and install an ensuite, or at least a compact shower room. The master bedroom, which has two walk-in closets, certainly looks large enough to make this a possibility.

Moving on, we come to one of the other three bedrooms in the home, which is, of course, smaller than the master. The flooring here is in a worse state compared to other rooms, but it's definitely not beyond repair and probably only requires a bit of filler, some sanding, and a nice refinish. Fixed up, this historic residence could be a welcoming family home once more.

The home's sole vintage bathroom is a real blast from the past, with its old-timey enamel basin and freestanding tub. Note the ornate brass taps. Whether the room's fixtures and fittings end up on a skip or are lovingly restored will be up to the new owner, but here's hoping the house will be sensitively restored.

This old-fashioned roll-top tub would look stunning if it were re-enamelled. After he inherited his childhood home, William made the tough decision to part with the historic property. The house is currently on the market with Lisa Duke Realty with an asking price of $259,000 (£221k), which is quite the bargain considering the home's many wonderful period features and the fact it shouldn't cost too much to update.

In fact, the agency blurb states the house could be worth $480,000 (£410k) after it's been renovated. Outside, the property's backyard has sadly fallen into disarray, with Mother Nature threatening to reclaim the space. However, the discarded phone booths that used to litter the yard have since been removed, and it's clear to see how much potential the surrounding land has. 

Fortunately, this vintage phone booth remains in pride of place in the front yard, reminding visitors and passers-by that the house was once the residence of Jacksonville's payphone king. We hope whoever takes on this remarkable property respects and values its fascinating history, and breathes new life into its faded walls.

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