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The Aging of Urban Churches

Rendering of a proposed Welcome Center that would replace the former Sunday School building of First Baptist Church. The church has applied for a permit to demolish the 1927 structure to build this Welcome Center.
In recent months, Jacksonville’s historic buildings have been a lively topic in the public discourse. The attention drawn by the demolition of Fire Station #5, on Riverside Avenue, as well as that of a group of houses in the Cathedral District, has raised awareness and sensitivity to the future of old buildings. The conversation promises to continue, as the First Baptist Church recently has applied to the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission for a demolition permit for one of its buildings at 125 West Church Street.

Built in 1927, the six-story building was designed by architect Reuben H. Hunt, of Chattanooga, and constructed by Jacksonville contractor Robert J. Gallespie. Commissioned as the Sunday School building for First Baptist’s then-growing congregation, it served in that capacity until 1938, when it was purchased from the church by the Gulf Life Insurance Company. Gulf Life was headquartered there until 1967, when it relocated across the St. Johns River to what was then christened the Gulf Life Tower (now the iconic 28-story Riverplace Tower). Subsequently the church reacquired the building on Church Street, and uses it today while preparing to sell portions of its multi-block downtown campus, and consolidate into renovated quarters.

In the 21st century, First Baptist faces headwinds similar to those experienced by urban congregations across the United States. During the 1920s in Jacksonville, as in many places, construction of new churches boomed. First Baptist’s property is an example of urban churches financed, designed and built during a decade when American downtowns were vibrant economic and social centers. Downtown houses of worship were convenient, the natural result of desirable neighborhoods close to the urban core, lower automobile ownership, and effective transit by streetcar and bus. In the early 1920s, church building committees were unconcerned about the costs of maintaining a spacious new sanctuary or education building. Air conditioning was unusual, and the expense of electricity was relatively minor. During the 1920s, church attendance across America was robust and growing, right along with the urban population. The 1920 census showed that, for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than elsewhere, a trend that has increased ever since.

That wave of ambitious expansion during the 1920s yielded a legacy of church buildings, such as First Baptist’s, that are now approaching their centennials. Even those that have been well-cared for over the decades require modernization and continuing, sophisticated care. All face costly utilities expenses. Increased automobile ownership since the 1920s resulted in unanticipated parking and access issues, with many churches having to build and maintain costly parking decks. Church membership in general has declined in recent decades, while residential neighborhoods have spread further away from downtown cores. In this context, it’s unsurprising that urban congregations undergoing retrenchment must look for alternative uses for the real estate that they inherited. In the years ahead, it’s likely that more historic urban churches will confront these decisions.

First Baptist’s building at 125 W. Church Street is listed as a contributing structure to the National Register of Historic Places Jacksonville Downtown Historic District. Demolition will require review and approval from the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission, which denied the application to demolish at its meeting on February 26. More than 100 people showed up to speak on both sides of the request, but the Commission voted 5-2 to deny the permit.

The next step toward preserving the building would be local landmark designation, which can only be granted by City Council.

For detailed information about the regulations governing historic preservation in Jacksonville, contact:
Historic Preservation Section
Planning and Development Department
214 North Hogan Street, Suite 300
Jacksonville, FL 32202
Phone: (904) 255-7800
Fax: (904) 255-7885

Alan Bliss
Executive Director

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