Written and photographed in collaboration with friend Brandon Kidwell from brandonkidwell.com. Visit his site for more great work.
Located in the heart of downtown Jacksonville, Florida at 420 North Julia Street lies The Ambassador Hotel. Formerly known as the 310 West Church Street Apartments, the hotel was built in 1924 in the Georgian Revival architectural style at the height of the Florida land boom. The building was designed in an “H” shape to provide windows for all 50 apartments that held approximately 110 residents. The building was a premium location during its better days. On May 2, 1950, Senator George Smathers celebrated his nomination to the United States Senate in a suite that would live on to be known and marketed as the Senator George Smathers Suite. After twenty years of operation the building was turned into a hotel and has went through various names and owners until 1955 when it was renamed as the Ambassador Hotel.
In 1983 The Ambassador Hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Buildings but by that time the hotel was already in decline. From that time on, the hotel has a history of vagrants, drug busts, raids, fires, vandalism and destruction. In 1998 the hotel was officially condemned and has remained that way ever since. The Ambassador is a constant reminder of Jacksonville’s historic past as the city struggles to attract popular interest and funding to renovate its historical downtown, losing to cheaper options such as land development and urban sprawl.
When Mike and I decided to visit the Ambassador as a project for the Nokia Lumia 1020′s I couldn’t wait to try it out. We met at the hotel and entered at the ground level. Dark and dirty the air was thick with dust, dirt and ash as a recent fire had blazed throughout the bottom floors less than a year before our visit. I immediately started playing with the Lumia and was instantly amazed by the features of the Nokia Camera. The low-light capabilities instantly impressed me, but what excited me the most was the incredible exposure and ISO controls which were very useful in this dimly lit environment.
As we explored from the ground floor up, it was apparent that life still existed in the condemned hotel. Walking from room to room we saw the broken remnants of lost lives. One room was littered with baby diapers, baby shoes and a crib reaching out of the room and into the hallway. There were rooms locked from the inside and sounds we heard from others as we decided to pass by and leave the inhabitants their privacy. You can imagine all the joy and pain that has filled these walls. The paint was literally falling off the walls, no longer able to carry the burden of the countless stories it has witnessed from triumph to tragedy, but not all rooms told a sad story. There were some rooms that showed signs of making the best of a tough life, one had beer cans littered throughout, a deck of cards scattered and sleeping pallets made of found blankets and makeshift pillows. I hope that this building will find its way back into the community, fill its walls with hope and moments of celebration but only time will tell and over the last few decades for The Ambassador, time has not been kind.
When I first pulled up to meet Brandon outside, looking up at the building it didn't seem like much. Definitely not the type of place I’d drive or walk by and think about exploring. It was your typical 35 year old stripper named ‘Lady Ambassador’, meaning it was in pretty good shape on the outside, and severely damaged on the inside. But I knew Miss Ambassador had mad stories to tell, so lets get started.
One room had soda bottles placed in the kitchen cabinet, like as would any normal home, only the room looked like it was nuked long ago, or in some sort of post apocalyptic scene from a movie where the family chose to ignore that the big one was dropped way back and still lives there.
It felt weird walking into these peoples homes. All the doors were opened but a few, locked from the inside, and I can only assume there was someone on the other side hoping we wouldn’t force our way in. Plenty more to see, we can let them be, they’ve had it rough enough, I reckon, without a couple of nosy explorers complicating things. Big day tonight, let em rest.
Reaching the roof, with the 70 degree air, bright sunshine and blue sky was refreshing. The place was, as you would expect, pretty nasty inside. We definitely picked a beautiful day to lock ourselves in a homeless den, but I love the explore so much that days like this can always be sacrificed, especially for a trip as rare as this.
When we decided to leave, looking back down those stairs was intimidating. Was it really that dark when we came in, or had the sunlight spoiled me? Until next time, Ambassador.