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Film Studio Renovation Proponents Optimistic; They Have Renderings to Restore Buildings Used to Make Early Films about African-Americans

Article excerpt

Byline: CHARLIE PATTON

There is nothing architecturally distinctive about the cluster of five wooden buildings at 6337 Arlington Road.

But, from a historic perspective, those buildings are among the most significant in Jacksonville, said Joel McEachin, the city's historic preservation planner.

Which is why a group of city officials and community activists gathered Tuesday to look at preliminary renderings of plans to renovate the buildings and convert them into a museum and education complex.

Built in 1916 to house the Eagle Film Studios, the complex served from 1920 to 1928 as the Norman Studios. Although Richard E. Norman, who owned, ran and lived in the studio complex, was white, he operated one of very few movie companies producing movies for and about African-American audiences.

"His was one of the earliest efforts to present African-Americans on film in a positive light," said Carolyn Williams, a professor of history at the University of North Florida and a member of The Norman Studios Silent Film Museum Board of Directors.

That organization began as Old Arlington back in 1993, waging a long campaign to acquire and restore the old studio complex. In 2002, the city was able to purchase half of the land and four of the five buildings for $260,000. The non-profit board is optimistic that eventually it will be able to purchase the rest of the property and the fifth building, which was the building in which stages were constructed and most of the filming took place.

That land and building are owned by the Circle of Faith Ministries, which has indicated it will sell if offered fair market value for the land, said Rita Reagan, a member of the Norman Film Studios board.

Meanwhile through a combination of city, state and federal sources, including a Save America's Treasures grant from the National Park Service, about $650,000 has been raised to begin restoration on the four city-owned buildings.

Architect Kenn Smith said those four buildings are all deteriorating and in need of immediate work to stabilize them. By contrast, the old studio building owned by the church is in excellent condition, Reagan said. …