A new start?

Florida Baptist Convention Building (Courtesy of Bullet at

Jacksonville real estate firm JWB Real Estate Capital has announced that they have the former Florida Baptist Convention Building at 218 West Church Street under contract to buy. The historic building was designed by prolific architect Henry John Klutho and first opened in 1924.

JWB president Alex Sifakis said the plan is to restore the five-story building into a mixed-use structure with apartments and retail space. “We plan on doing retail/restaurant on the first floor and basement, and residential on floors 2-5”, said Sifakis. “Hopefully get 20-24 residential units.” Sifakis noted that the project was still in the early stages. “We still have a lot of DD [due diligence] to do,” he said. “We’re working through plans and renovation costs right now.”

Gregg Cohen, CEO of JWB, posted a walkthrough video of the building on Facebook:

In the video, the JBJ team mentions that closing could occur within 9 to 12 months. Following closing, the construction phase would then take 12 to 18 months.

History of the Florida Baptist Convention Building

1928 Sanborn map of the Florida Baptist Convention Building. (Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)

The Florida Baptist Convention Building was originally four stories when it opened in 1924. It was designed as the headquarters of the Florida Baptist Convention and also housed Witness Press, a publishing operation owned by the denomination. Klutho, Jacksonville’s most famous architect and a significant contributor to the rebirth of Downtown Jacksonville after the Great Fire of 1901, is best known his iconic Prairie School-style buildings. The Florida Baptist Convention Building, however, had more of a Neoclassical influence, including a decorative cornice and other classical features, and a small balcony on the third floor. In 1925, a fifth floor was added for the local offices of the U.S. Veterans’ Bureau.

At various times, the building housed the Prohibition Bureau, the U.S. Treasury Department Intelligence Unit, the headquarters for Independent Life, and various businesses. By 1959, the Florida Baptist Convention had outgrown the building and sold it to relocate to a new headquarters on the Southbank. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, at which time it was occupied by engineering firm Register and Cummings and in fairly good shape. Subsequently, the building was vacated and has deteriorated considerably.

JWB’s plans are not the first the Florida Baptist Convention Building has seen in recent years. In 2014, Marcus Lemonis signed a letter of intent to acquire it. Lemonis, the CEO of Camping World, star of The Profit reality show, and then-owner of the Seminole Club building where Sweet Pete’s candy business is located, wanted the Florida Baptist building for an expansion of Sweet Pete’s. His plans involved demolishing the building. Lemonis ultimately moved on, and FSCJ considered the building for student housing, before settling on the Lerner Shops building a few blocks away. JWB’s plans are the best chance yet for revitalizing this fertile but mostly forgotten corner of Downtown.

The “Three C’s” of Urban Revitalization

A rendering of the proposed Jones Brothers Furniture project. (Courtesy of Ace Jax, LLC.)

The potential restoration of the Florida Baptist Convention Building is the latest of several high-profile adaptive reuse projects currently underway or proposed in the immediate vicinity. Next door, the old Federal Reserve Bank building, designed by the city’s first female architect, Henrietta Cuttino Dozier, is in the process of being renovated into apartments and commercial space by Ellen and Jim Wiss.

Across the street, Ace Jax, LLC has plans to transform the long abandoned 39,000 square foot, Jones Brothers Furniture Building into a mixed-use project featuring 28 apartment units along with a coffee shop at street level. In addition, the phased project includes the restoration and conversion of the adjacent former Western Union building into 9,600 square feet of retail and dining space.

Just to the west of the Florida Baptist Convention Building, the 19-story former Independent Life Building was recently acquired for $3.7 million. Developer Augustine Development Group plans to begin renovations to convert the structure into 240 market-rate apartments with a ground floor urban grocery store in early 2020. The same developer has already started on the redevelopment of the nearby Ambassador Hotel into a 127-room La Quinta Inn and Suites hotel with a rooftop bar. Jacksonville-based Vestcor will construct a new 200 unit apartment building with 15,000 square feet of retail space adjacent to the Ambassador.

The Ambassador Hotel (Courtesy of Ennis Davis, AICP)

Finally, the First Baptist Church has proposed restoring their nearby historic sanctuary at the intersection of Hogan and Church streets and selling off its remaining nine blocks of property for other uses.

This concentration of projects is well positioned to take advantage of the “Three C’s” of urban revitalization: the Clustering of Complimenting uses within a Compact setting. With so many buildings and residents within a short walking distance, the area has a better chance to see an increase in street-level vibrancy far quicker than if the projects were spread out.

Next Page: A Look Inside The Florida Baptist Convention Building