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How ’bout a little history with that haircut?

12 Jan

Cecil Vignutti Salon for Hair, a.k.a. Col. Cay's Carriage House

When a local business opens up shop in one of our historic urban neighborhoods, it doesn’t just add to the area’s diversity and vibrancy; often, its owners also become custodians of unique historical structures that might otherwise have remained vacant or fallen to a wrecking ball.

The Cecil Vignutti Salon for Hair, located at 1545 May Street in Riverside, is a vivid case in point. The charming rusticated stone building that houses the salon dates to 1905, and is the sole surviving relic of one of Jacksonville’s grandest estates.

When Colonel Raymond Cay moved to Jacksonville in 1904, he commissioned noted architect Rutledge Holmes to design an exotic Mediterranean-style mansion at 1249 Riverside Avenue (to the right of where the San Juline Apartments are today). Colonel Cay was a proud son of the Confederacy and a typical southern gentleman of the old school. His mansion on Riverside’s famed “Row,” with its Rococco ceilings, ornate woodwork and colorful stained glass, hosted many a glittering party attended by the top tier of Riverside society.

Col. Cay's mansion, circa 1960

Regrettably, numerous business failures ended up bankrupting Col. Cay and after the Colonel’s death in 1915, the home was sold to his next-door  neighbor, Julian Prewitte. (Prewitte lived in the mansion while building what became the San Juline Apartments in his former front yard.) The Colonel’s wife ended her years living a life of genteel poverty in Georgia, cared for–and, as some records indicate, financially supported by–an elderly black couple that were longtime family servants. Although the mansion was demolished in the 1960s (after serving for more than a decade as the Jacksonville Art Center, forerunner of the present MOCA Jacksonville), the carriage house survived.

The carriage house, built at the rear of the mansion of similar materials as the main house, faces May Street–one of the few surviving brick-paved streets in the city. Over the years, it had been home to a number of residents and businesses, most memorably a 1970s-era shop known as The Mole Hole. When its former owner put the building up for sale 17 years ago, Vignutti, who at the time owned a salon in a “contemporary village concept” development out on the Southside, leapt at the chance to buy it, having long admired the building.

The carriage house, circa early 1900s.

“When we acquired the structure,” says Stephanie Vignutti, “it had a kind of Heidi thing going on,” with rustic barn siding covering every interior surface. Still, it had “everything we needed,” she notes, including abundant natural light from huge iron-cased windows, high ceilings and great character. The couple renovated the interior of the two-story structure, taking it back to the original brick walls and carving out space for a separate retail area stocking high-end hair products, and the jewelry, handbags and other lifestyle items the couple finds on their frequent buying trips in Europe. “This place is just perfect for us,” notes Stephanie, “and we really see ourselves as its caretakers.”

Since purchasing the carriage house, the Vignutti family has become eager students of its history. Many years ago, one of Colonel Cay’s relatives entrusted them with a box of personal family records, material that then became the primary resource for a son’s school research project. (Among the son’s discoveries: Although Colonel Cay had proudly flown no fewer than five Confederate flags in his mansion’s grand entrance hall, his military rank was an honorary one, awarded to him by Teddy Roosevelt for providing lumber and other supplies to Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders.)

Today, the salon is a bustling business in the heart of Riverside, just steps from beautiful Memorial Park. Its first floor is divided into retail space and stylist stations, while the soothing, neutral-toned second floor holds Cecil’s work area and a small room for spa services. The space is truly stunning, feeling both urban and historic, with a timeless organic quality that brand new stores, with their drywall and harsh artificial lighting, will find hard to mimic.  Those looking for a little history with their haircut (or perhaps just a little serenity and style) will want to seek out this impossibly quaint salon.

Salon’s 2nd floor

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