The Sunday school building
First Baptist Church wants to demolish the Sunday school building for a new entrance to the Hobson Auditorium.
In September 2019, First Baptist Church of Jacksonville announced its plan to sell off nine blocks of its Downtown property, and consolidate into its remaining block-sized property around the historic Hobson Auditorium. Part of that plan involved tearing down the former Sunday school building at 125 West Church Street next to the Hobson Auditorium. The church announced that it wished to replace the building with “a grand welcoming and event space adjacent to the Hobson sanctuary that wants to be a grand atrium kind of space.”
The Sunday school building today.
In January 2020, First Baptist formally applied for demolition. However, the Sunday school building, which opened in 1927, is part of the Downtown Jacksonville Historic District, and as such demolition requires the approval of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission. The commission will judge the application based on a set of seven criteria defined by local law to determine whether to approve demolition. Alternately, the commission has the option of determining if the building is eligible for historic landmark status, which provides some protection from demolition and alteration. The commission will discuss the matter at its meeting at 3 p.m. Wednesday, February 26 at 214 North Hogan Street.
A building must meet at least two of the criteria to be landmarked, and must meet four to guarantee landmarking designation if the current property owner objects. The criteria are:
1. It has value as a significant reminder of the cultural, historical, architectural, or archaeological heritage of the city, state or nation;
2. Its location is the site of a significant local, state or national event;
3. It is identified with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the development of the city, state or nation;
4. It is identified as the work of a master builder, designer, or architect whose individual work has influenced the development of the city, state or nation;
5. Its value as a building is recognized for the quality of architecture, and it retains sufficient elements showing its architectural significance;
6. It has distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style valuable for the study of a period, method of construction, or use of indigenous materials;
7. Its suitability for preservation or restoration.
The Sunday school building easily passes 6 of these 7 criteria, meaning it should receive landmark designation even if First Baptist Church disapproves.
Criteria 1: It has value as a significant reminder of the cultural, historical, architectural, or archaeological heritage of the city, state or nation
The First Baptist Church Sunday school building was completed in 1927. At the time it was believed to be the second largest Sunday school building in the world. First Baptist subsequently sold the structure to the Gulf Life Insurance Company, and from 1938 to 1967, the building served as Gulf Life’s headquarters. Founded in Pensacola in 1911 by T.T. Phillips, the Gulf Life Insurance Company had relocated its home offices to downtown Jacksonville in 1916.
Gulf Life was a major employer in Jacksonville and a significant economic driver for the city and state. During the period it was headquartered in the Sunday school building, the company experienced significant growth and expansion. It became one of Jacksonville’s major employers, and it was one of the businesses that established the city’s position as the center of Florida’s insurance industry during the 20th century. Gulf Life eventually outgrew the Sunday school building, and in 1966 it relocated to the newly completed 28 story Gulf Life Tower in the Southbank. The tower was Florida’s tallest building at the time and the world’s tallest precast, post-tensioned concrete structure. The company sold the Sunday school building and other Northbank properties to First Baptist Church, which owns them today. By 1985, Gulf Life had grown to become Jacksonville’s largest insurance company with $2.5 billion in assets. It remained a major player in Florida’s economy until it was merged into Houston-based American General Life in 1991.
Criteria 3: It is identified with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the development of the city
During Gulf Life’s period in the Sunday school building, H. Terry Parker was a driving force in the company’s growth. In 1915 he was named to the Board of Directors, serving as board secretary at the time of the company’s relocation to Jacksonville. He went on to serve longer than any other board member, aiding Gulf Life’s evolution into one of Jacksonville’s major companies.
Parker is also known as the primary developer of the Jacksonville suburb of Arlington. He started purchasing land in the area around 1943, when it was little developed. By 1959, he owned 1,800 acres of property, making him Arlington’s largest landowner. Following the opening of the Mathews Bridge in 1953, which connected Arlington to Downtown, Parker’s developments helped make Arlington the fastest growing part of Jacksonville through the 1960s. In addition to his land developments, in 1955 Parker donated 30 acres of land to the Duval County School Board for a high school, named Terry Parker High School in his honor.
Criteria 4: It is identified as the work of a master builder, designer, or architect whose individual work has influenced the development of the city, state or nation
R.H. Hunt was a prominent architect whose individual work has influenced the development in several cities across the South
The Sunday school building was designed by one of the South’s most prominent architects of the period from the 1880s through the 1930s: Reuben Harrison Hunt of Chattanooga, Tennessee. A principal of the R.H. Hunt and Company, he is considered one of Chattanooga’s most significant early architects, having designed every major public building constructed in the city between 1895 and 1935. In 1938, his U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Chattanooga was recognized by the American Institute of Architects as one of the 150 finest buildings constructed in the country over a twenty year period. In addition, Hunt designed many churches, hospitals and office buildings across the South, including First Baptist’s Sunday school building. Many of Hunt’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.