The Sunday school building: The background

Editorial by Ennis Davis, AICP

The six-story First Baptist Church Sunday School building could be the next prominent building in Downtown Jacksonville to be razed, despite its historical significance.

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 First Baptist Church desires to demolish the historic Sunday school building in an attempt to be approved for financing to construct a modern entrance to their surrounding proposed consolidated complex. *

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 denied the application in February due to the building’s historic significance. First Baptist then elected to circumvent the Historic Preservation Commission by appealing directly to the City Council for demolition. On June 16, the Council Land Use and Zoning Committee voted 4-2 to recommend granting the appeal, despite Historic Preservation Commission staff’s findings. As a result, First Baptist Church’s appeal of the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to delay demolition of the Sunday School building will advance to the full City Council on Tuesday, June 23.

The First Baptist Church Sunday School building was designed by Reuben Harrison Hunt. Hunt was a prominent architect whose individual work influenced the development of several cities across the South. It was the long time corporate headquarters of Jacksonville-based Gulf Life Insurance Company and was the original location of Jacksonville University.

Here are three reasons why the Jacksonville City Council should vote to send the First Baptist Church’s request to demolish a historically significant contributing structure to the Downtown National Register Historic District back to the Historic Preservation Commission.

Discrediting the Historic Preservation Commission’s role

The Sunday school building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) as a contributing structure to the Downtown Jacksonville Historic District. According to the NRHP, it contributes to a district that “contains a contiguous group of resources that relate to the development of downtown Jacksonville as a commercial, institutional, and residential hub for the city following the Great Fire of May 3, 1901.” In other words, the building is historically significant, not only in its own right, but also as as valuable part of Downtown’s architectural fabric.

Despite already being designated as a contributing structure by the National Register, many have asked why, if a building is historically significant, it isn’t already landmarked locally? The answer is a simple one and found in Section 307.104 of the City’s own Code of Ordinances.

If the community had the legal ability to do it, most of downtown’s historic structures would have been landmarked years ago. Only four entities can initiate the move to landmark a structure or site: the property owner, the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission, the Mayor, or any member of the Jacksonville City Council.

As proposed, the demolition appeal by First Baptist Church to the City Council is a move setting a precedent that undermines the role and purpose of the Historic Preservation Commission. If an objecting property owner can simply circumvent a decision the Historic Preservation Commission operating in its role according to the City’s Code of Ordinances, then we have to question if there is a need to have a Historic Preservation Commission at all.