The church wants to build a welcome center on the site as part of plan to consolidate campus.
The Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission voted Feb. 26 to deny First Baptist Church a permit to demolish its Downtown building at 125 W. Church St., but the fate of the structure may not yet be decided.
More than 100 people attended the public hearing to show support both for and against the demolition. The meeting was moved to a larger space to handle the crowd.
The vote was 5-2. Commissioners Jack C. Demetree III, Andres Lopera, Erik Kasper, Timothy Bramwell and Maiju Stansel voted to deny the permit. Ryan Davis and Max Glober voted against.
First Baptist wants to demolish the building to make way for a welcome center and primary entrance for the historic 182,000-square-foot Hobson Auditorium, the church administration building and the Ruth Lindsay Auditorium.
It’s part of a more than $30 million project to renovate and redevelop 1.53 acres of church property into “The Hobson Block” as it consolidates its Downtown campus.
Built by First Baptist in 1927, the building is a contributing structure to the National Register of Historic Places Downtown Historic District.
First Baptist Senior Pastor Heath Lambert told the Daily Record on Feb. 19 the building’s interior is in disrepair and expects it would need to be gutted.
A city report released Feb. 26 said the building could meet six of the seven criteria used to proceed with designation as a local landmark. Christian Popoli, city planner supervisor for the Community Planning Division, Historic Preservation Section, presented the findings to the commission.
Rogers Towers attorney T.R. Hainline Jr. represented First Baptist at the meeting.
Hainline and architects David Luke of Luke Architecture and Jerry Traino of Novus Architects defended the church’s plan to demolish the building.
They argued the structure was not as significant to Downtown as the institution of First Baptist itself.
“This structure is not a significant reminder of the cultural-historical architecture or archaeological heritage of the city, state or nation in contrast to the Hobson Auditorium, which is highly identified with the First Baptist Church,” Traino said.
Lambert told the commission “there are precious few institutions” in Jacksonville that have made a 181-year “investment” like First Baptist.
“We’ve been committed to this city, we’ve been committed to Downtown. We remain committed to Downtown,” Lambert said.
But a majority of the commission said the building could satisfy at least four of the seven criteria local landmark criteria and was structurally sound for preservation and renovation for church use.
Kasper said it’s important to remember the commission’s job is to evaluate the building’s worth for preservation, not the institution of First Baptist.
“I think we should not make these criteria too monumental that they are not George Washington’s home or Abraham Lincoln’s courthouse, but they are buildings that represent time periods associated with important institutions in the city,” Kasper said.
The commission’s vote may not end First Baptist’s plan to demolish the building. The church has 14 days to appeal the denial.
If the church appeals, the Office of General Counsel would then file legislation with City Council’s Land Use and Zoning Committee and the full Council.
Asked if the church intends to appeal, Hainline and First Baptist Executive Pastor Coty Hoskins said no decisions have been made.
“We are working with our attorney and team to talk about next steps,” Hoskins said.
If the Council approves the church’s appeal, the demolition would move forward.
Another path could decide the building’s fate.
The Planning and Development Department is working on a more in-depth study of the building’s historic value.
The commission will meet in March to decide if it will recommend to Council that the building receive a local landmark designation.
If the commission does not recommend the local landmark designation, the church will be automatically granted a demolition permit.
Likewise, if Council rejects the local landmark designation, the building can be demolished. If Council grants landmark status, the building will be preserved.
Only Council can designate a structure a local landmark.
Lambert told the Daily Record the church would take legal action to challenge local landmark status if it is approved by Council.
In the days leading up to the meeting, local historic preservation and Downtown revitalization group Mapping Jax led an effort to convince city policymakers to save the building and organize people to speak.
The Jacksonville Urban Core Citizen Planning Advisory Committee also said at the meeting it was opposed to the demolition. Neighborhood CPAC members are appointed by the mayor’s office.
Brandon Pourch, president of the American Institute of Architects Jacksonville chapter, spoke against the demolition and offered the organization’s services to find a solution to preserve and retrofit the building.
“Tearing this building down also means missing a chance to build our civic pride and strong bridges in the community,” Mapping Jax co-founder Steve Williams said. “I would encourage the First Baptist Church to engage the community.”
Jeanette Meadows, a nine-year church member, said First Baptist is her life. She told the commission granting the demolition is the right thing for Downtown and the church.
“Let me tell you something, all these buildings do not belong to this city. They belong to Jesus Christ, God almighty,” she said. “We want to improve, and we want to be able to stay Downtown and win souls to Jesus Christ. We can’t do it with all the property we have now. … We’re not trying to destroy anything. We’re trying to create more.”