Buildings that rose from the ashes of Jacksonville’s Great Fire of 1901 are now in danger of being destroyed.
“The scariest part of seeing a building being torn down is the opportunity that was missed for a creative solution.” That sentiment, expressed by Steve Williams, CEO of Harbinger Sign, echoes what many architects, historians, and concerned citizens are feeling about the recent demolition of a number of iconic buildings in Jacksonville. For these buildings that have recently met their demise, such as the city hall annex, former Duval County Courthouse, Jacksonville Landing, and Riverside fire station #5, it is too late for a creative solution. However, those who are opposed to the rampant destruction of Jacksonville’s architectural heritage are galvanizing their efforts into saving other local historic structures that may soon be reduced to rubble, including the First Baptist Church Sunday School and Doro Fixtures buildings.
One of those efforts, Mapping Jax, is led by Williams, who is also an advocate of the arts, owner of the Florida Mining Gallery, and the developer who restored Five Points’ former Peterson’s Five and Dime building into Hoptinger Bier Garden & Sausage House, a popular restaurant and rooftop bar. The mission of Mapping Jax is to “support the revitalization of Downtown Jacksonville as the vibrant center of the metropolitan area for the benefit of all citizens by encouraging proven urban revitalization strategies; the preservation of existing architecture; smart planning and development; creative solutions; world-class, high quality design at all levels; street-level activation, mobility and connectivity; mining story from history and the arts; and uniting the community in support of the success of our city.” Williams explains that he started Mapping Jax as a love letter to the city when he saw the city hall annex and former Duval County Courthouse being torn down. “We got tired of our city not seeing the asset of these structures, and we are livid that more creative solutions are not being used to make our city better. We will do all we can to bring positive and creative thought to whatever we do.”
The fight to save the First Baptist Church Sunday School building from being demolished in order to make way for a new entrance to the Hobson Auditorium is currently the focus of Mapping Jax and others dedicated to preserving Jacksonville’s history. Designed by Reuben Harrison Hunt in the Renaissance Revival style and completed in 1927, the Sunday School building is located within the Downtown Jacksonville Historic District. Although the building itself does not have landmark status, the Downtown Jacksonville Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. According to the register, of 176 “contributing buildings” within the district, only nine are of the Renaissance Revival style and “because of the state’s late development, the Renaissance Revival style is not common in Florida with very limited examples in Jacksonville.” This is just one of the arguments for saving the building, but when factoring in all of the building’s historical attributes, it is clear that it meets more than four of the seven required criteria in the city of Jacksonville’s municipal code for historic designation.
Brandon Pourch, of RS&H and president of the Jacksonville chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), has also joined the Mapping Jax effort and is now a member of the group’s internal advisory board. He explains that it is fortunate that there is even an opportunity to save the Sunday School building. According to Pourch, when the First Baptist Church revealed the renderings for their new welcome center to the public back
in September of 2019, it was immediately obvious that it was located exactly where the Sunday School building now stands. As a result, “the preservation community was tipped to their plans to demolish the Sunday School building,” Pourch says. “Had they kept it secret, it would not have been known until early February, and we would have only had two weeks to mobilize a response opposing the demolition.”
The demolition of the Sunday School building has been temporarily halted as of our publication date. The Historic Preservation Committee denied the permit for the demolition at its meeting in February after Mapping Jax and many members of the community argued against the First Baptist Church’s demolition application. The church then appealed that decision, and the appeal was to be heard at an emergency meeting of the Land Use and Zoning Committee (LUZ) in March. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, that meeting was canceled, and the hope is that when it is rescheduled, even more concerned residents of Jacksonville will attend the meeting to help persuade the LUZ to uphold the denial of demolition. However, even if the church loses that appeal, it wouldn’t mean that the building is safe. Its fate would then be back in the hands of the Historic Preservation Committee who would have to recommend the building for landmark status. If that were to happen, it would still have to go back to the city council who would vote to approve landmark status. Pourch explains that the entire process is “so convoluted that you have to be an expert to understand it, and if at any one point the church wins, then they can demolish the building.”
By Eva Dasher