Todd Smith’s Toyota Prius pulled onto the front yard the modest house on the Westside, back hatch slightly ajar to make room for the big piece Jacksonville history inside. Smith and Charles Harding lifted it out and propped it against the car: a cast aluminum historical marker noting that this is the location the “Van Zant House,” an otherwise rather ordinary-looking home that’s now a Florida heritage site.
And what a heritage it has: “Musicians Ronnie, Donnie and Johnny Van Zant spent their formative years growing up in this house with their sisters and parents between the 1950s and 1980s,” the plaque says, before noting Ronnie’s role in forming Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny’s role as singer in the reborn Skynyrd, and Donnie’s role as a founding member and singer for .38 Special — all told, a legacy that’s a “prodigious contribution to the world rock music.”
Smith, 48, a Jacksonville Beach entrepreneur, bought the property and worked with the state to get the marker, which was ficially unveiled to the public May 12. Lynyrd Skynyrd came storming out Jacksonville to became one biggest-selling bands in rock history, and Smith knows that someone somewhere will decide the plaque would be just the thing for a rec-room or garage. So he’s going to put an iron fence around the property — for now it has chain link — and will invest heavily, he said, in concrete and security cameras.
He found the house while looking for property in the area, learned about its history and decided something needed to be done to ficially acknowledge it.
So, along with the marker (for which the state is paying half) he’s restoring the house to look like a time capsule from the ’70s, complete with an avocado-green rotary-dial phone and a wooden console stereo with an eight-track player and several Skynyrd eight-tracks that still sound just fine. Those touches fit in with the acoustical tile ceilings and the wood paneling on the walls, where Smith will place Skynyrd memorabilia where once the Van Zant parents hung gold records.
The house is at 5419 Woodcrest Road, one block f Lake Shore Boulevard, in a blue-collar neighborhood the Van Zant boys called Shantytown. It’s a mix small, older houses, mobile homes and some new construction, including a few Habitat for Humanity homes going up catty-corner from the property. Deep drainage ditches line the streets in front heavily wooded lots, and there’s talk sidewalks someday.
“The neighborhood doesn’t exactly scream vacation,” Smith observed. “But … ”
He wants to turn the house into a short-term rental for Lynyrd Skynyrd fans who might want to live, briefly, in the place where the music began. After all, some the band’s fans — a devoted, far-flung group — already stop by almost daily to check out the old house, says Harding, 37, who’s working on the renovation while living in a trailer at the back the place where early incarnations Skynyrd occasionally practiced.
“You’ll see them pull up real slow and look at the house, they’ll drive around the block a couple times, pull back up at the driveway. I say, ‘Come on in.’ ” The rough streets Shantytown, an easy bike ride from the Cedar River, where they fished, and not far from the old Speedway Park, a dirt oval auto racing track where they hung out, helped make the Van Zant boys who they were.
“That house was our life, that neighborhood was our neighborhood,” Johnny Van Zant said this week. “We all learned how to play drums in that house, we all learned how to swing on the swing-set out there — that’s where we learned to sing. We didn’t have 700 channels like today. We didn’t have nothing but four channels. We weren’t super rich.”
The Van Zant parents chose to stay in the house where they raised their kids, even as their sons — who shared a bedroom growing up — became rock stars. Both died in that house: mother Marion in 2000, father Lacy in 2004. Lacy, a truck driver, added on to the small home as he could over years, doing the work himself, with perhaps more enthusiasm than skill. Eventually it grew to have three apartments attached to the main house, one which Smith is thinking turning into a music studio, possibly as a nonprit where local kids could learn music.
Gene Odom, a childhood friend Ronnie Van Zant, later worked security for the band and survived the 1977 plane crash that killed Ronnie, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the pilot and co-pilot. He grew up a block away from the Van Zant house and, like other kids in the neighborhood, spent hours there.
A big reason for that was Marion Van Zant, whom he called by her nickname, Sister. “She never let no one in the neighborhood go hungry. She’d always fix big dinners for everybody. You could always get a sandwich, butter beans, pork chops, collard greens. Sister was a fantastic cook.” Odom, 69, sometimes leads Skynyrd fans on tours Skynyrd sites, and always makes sure to take them by 5419 Woodcrest Road. He says it’s a shame city leaders in Jacksonville haven’t done more to acknowledge the homegrown band, but thinks Ronnie Van Zant would get a kick out the historical plaque that’s going up.
“Certainly. That’s what he came from,” he said. “He was proud that neighborhood. He would be mighty proud.”