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Jax Daily Record Monday, Feb. 24, 202005:20 AM EST

First Baptist Church will fight local landmark designation for building it wants to demolish

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Church says status would derail its plans to consolidate Downtown.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

A Jacksonville Planning and Development Department report could lead to a local landmark designation for a First Baptist Church building Downtown and halt its demolition.

Church leaders say the move would derail plans to consolidate its 13.7-acre Downtown campus to a single city block.

First Baptist Senior Pastor Heath Lambert said the church would take legal action to challenge local landmark status if it is approved by City Council.

The report issued Feb. 21 says the 93-year-old, six-story structure at 125 W. Church St. may meet six of the seven criteria used by the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission to determine landmark status.

First Baptist wants to demolish the building to make way for a welcome center that would serve as a connective space and the 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 church project to renovate and redevelop the 1.53 acres into “The Hobson Block.”

An artist's rendering of the First Baptist Church welcome center that would go in the place of the Sunday School Building at 125 W. Duval St.

In December, First Baptist hired real estate firm CBRE Jacksonville to market and sell 11.29 acres of its Downtown campus to address declining attendance and rising maintenance costs on its aging Downtown facilities.

First Baptist representatives met with city Planning and Development staff Jan. 9 before the church applied for a demolition permit Jan. 29.

The Historic Preservation Commission will meet at 3 p.m. Feb. 26 to consider whether to support the demolition permit or recommend the local landmark designation to Council.

Also known as the Education Building and First Baptist Sunday School Building, it’s classified as a contributing structure to the National Register of Historic Places Downtown Historic District.

Among the findings, the report determined the building has links to people and institutions with historic significance to the city, Florida and U.S., as well as architectural significance.

The report also states the exterior of the building is “basically sound” and suitable for preservation.

“It’s got a lot of history,” said Christian Popoli, city planner supervisor for the Community Planning Division, Historic Preservation Section.

Popoli led the team that drafted the report. He explained if a building owner wants landmark designation, it must meet two of the city’s criteria. If the designation is objected to by the owner, it must meet four.

Popoli said if the commission decides the building doesn’t meet the threshold, it can recommend approval of the demolition permit.

If the commission agrees with the report, it will ask the staff to prepare a full landmark designation. That will be considered at a future meeting and, if approved, will be drafted into legislation as a recommendation that will go before Council for the final decision.

Only Council can designate a local landmark.

First Baptist Senior Pastor Heath Lambert announces plans for "The Hobson Block" in September.

Novus Architects, hired by the church to design the welcome center and campus consolidation, told commission officials in a letter included with the demolition application that the building has “very limited structural clearance.” Novus said the city block as it exists would have “limited desirability” to commercial developers.

The firm argues the financial burden to retrofit the space for modern use would keep First Baptist from moving forward.

“The removal of this structure is not only for the greater good of the church, but also the city district with in which it is located,” Novus Principal Jerry Traino wrote. “Should the church not be allowed to remove this building, they cannot do this project and will be forced to use another piece of property, which is not in the city’s best interest.”

In a Feb. 19 interview, Lambert said if the building is designated a local landmark the church can’t tear it down. “There is no Plan B,” he said.

“The reality is there isn’t a way to renovate the building to accommodate the amount of foot traffic we have,” Lambert said.

Building history

The building was built by First Baptist in 1927 for Sunday school classes.

According to the report, the building was the first location of Jacksonville University in 1934, which the school used through its first academic year.

Formed as William J. Porter University — named after its founder — Porter assembled an advisory committee for the school which included First Baptist Rev. F.C. McConnell Jr., who offered the building’s third floor for the school.

In 1938, the church sold the building to Gulf Life & Accident Insurance Co., which used it as its home office.

Gulf Life was the first Florida life insurance company to reach more than $2 billion in policy sales, the city report states. Prominent Arlington developer H. Terry Parker was Gulf Life’s longest-serving member of its board of directors.

The church reacquired the building from another company in 1977.

The report found the building’s architectural significance includes its designer. The building is the work of architect Reuben Harrison Hunt.

The report says Hunt is known as the “Master Builder of Chattanooga” and focused his work on church and public buildings throughout the Southeastern U.S.

Hunt did pro bono design work for congregations unable to pay professional fees. 

Hunt was active as an architect from 1882 until his death in 1937 and has 39 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The Jacksonville First Baptist building is his only documented work in Florida.

The interior of the First Baptist Church building at 125 W. Duval St. is in disrepair, according to Senior Pastor Heath Lambert.

First Baptist view

Lambert said the building’s interior is in disrepair, with electrical and HVAC systems that are not operational. The church did not seek a cost estimate to redevelop or restore the structure, but Lambert expects it would need to be gutted.

The pastor said Feb. 19 the building layout cannot fit all 3,000 church members inside, although the report found the structure was built to accommodate 3,500 people.

Lambert said church officials were “surprised” city staff found there could be justification for landmark designation.

“We strongly believe it doesn’t meet the criteria, ‘’ he said.

Lambert said he’s not predicting the designation will make it through Council.

Mapping Jax

The local historic preservation and Downtown revitalization group Mapping Jax, founded by Harbinger sign CEO Steve Williams and local filmmaker Joe Karably, plans to weigh in at the commission meeting.

Williams owns the Hoptinger Bier Garden & Sausage House and The Bread & Board buildings in Five Points. He toured the First Baptist campus while considering investment in Downtown commercial real estate.

Mapping Jax, he said, wants the commission and Council to keep emotion out of their decisions and consider the landmark designation.

“It’s not just about this building, I think it’s about what’s happening in Jacksonville and our lack of appreciation of our history and our story,” Williams said.

Williams said the size of the First Baptist campus is encumbering growth in the Downtown core and he applauds the church’s decision to downsize.

But Williams doesn’t consider that a reason to tear down the 93-year-old structure.

“If they’re going to spend $30 million to build a new visitors center, why can’t they use a creative solution to use the existing building?” he said.

Staff Writer Scott Sailer contributed to this report

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