by Tim Gilmore, 3/24/2023
Like a pre-life ghost of the landscape, the temple stood even before its architect camped out on the forested slope that reached down to the lily’d pond at Strawberry Creek in 1965. Ancient live oaks, with their winding thickly textured rivulets of bark, told him they were part of his design.
Surely that’s how it was, for this church forms an integral part of its landscape.
It was the median point of the 1960s when Robert Broward camped out here on these unbuilt acres to see what they asked of his vision. The oaks had been waiting for more than a century. For other structures, Broward spoke of using sunlight and rain as architectural materials.
Before he died in 2015, 89 years old, having created more than 500 architectural designs in a career of more than 60 years, Broward called the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville his personal favorite.
“I should have died,” he said, “but I didn’t.” Recuperating from a car accident, he drew his first sketches of the church in his hospital bed. Right-handed, his injuries forced him to draw with his left hand. “I feel that all life is a gift,” he told Lee Butcher of The Jacksonville Business Journal in 2005, “and that I had been given the gift a second time, and that I should use the rest of my life to give back.” Other times, he described “a very deep reverence for the universe” infusing his vision for the church. “Every little detail came out of my heart.”
Architect David Lafitte and architectural photographer Kathleen McKenzie married here in 1980, though they only became members of the church 10 or 12 years ago. David designed Florida State College at Jacksonville’s administration building downtown and the lighting on the downtown bridges. He also designed his and Kathleen’s residence nearby on Pottsburg Creek.
I meet David here on a balmy February afternoon. As we stand beside an old live oak that grows up through an external hallway, I ask him how a building accommodates the growth of a tree that’s part of the architectural design. Broward said he didn’t believe in killing trees if it wasn’t necessary. David leans down and points to where deck boards have been sawn back recently to allow the tree its growth. He notes that all the church’s corridors are outside and how even on a warm day, cool air ventilates the site.
Broward had studied with that most famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, at Taliesin West in Arizona. Wright loved Japanese art and architecture, had designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, but Broward’s church on Arlington Expressway looks as much like a Japanese temple as anything Wright composed.
Paradoxically, however, this building grew native from this land, a completely Floridian church by a quintessential Florida artist. Its buttresses rise up from the lily pads of the pond like the hill itself. Broward built these strange stone gliding lobes of Ocala Stone, a concrete mixed with Florida limestone the color of the state’s sandy soil. Meanwhile, within, windows behind the pulpit bring the outside inside, so the marsh and the oaks and the longleaf pines form the deep view through the transept, the earth most holy.
Broward, like Wright, like the great American writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Unitarians both, like practitioners of Japanese Shintoism, saw nature itself as divine. Across the marsh, with traffic roaring angrily over Arlington Expressway and its service roads above me, the green absorbs the cacophony, the chaos. From here, the church’s earthen buttresses and the pine and redwood roofline form a kind of gateway up from the waters into the sanctuary. I’m reminded that in The Book of Genesis, water exists before light. Before God created light, his spirit “moved upon the face of the waters.” The buttresses reach out like welcoming arms, palms up. The roofline above reminds me of a Japanese Torii, the traditional gate at the entrance to a Shinto shrine.
I find a peace here unlike most any other place in Florida. I try to see what Broward saw in the trees, in the odd arcs of pines growing slowly bent, long and low, reaching toward the light. I try to match the anhinga, the snakebird, spread out like a flying cross over the waters, to the one I’m sure Broward saw here in those lost moments when he camped out, after he’d received the gift of life twice. I hear here the mourning of the same doves, the questioning of the same owls, the light percussion of the same turtles, Florida redbellies, dipping their heads beneath the waterline.
Camping here alone, listening to the land, letting the earth dictate this church, the 40 year old architect, with 50 years of his career still left him, must have thought, as Emerson wrote, “Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all, the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
Broward saw architecture as the “the highest art form man can achieve,” through which he strove to “celebrate life.” In May 1981, he told Donna Moran of The Christian Science Monitor, “I do only work that I believe in; therefore, I’m free.”
He told her of throwing his first tendril to Frank Lloyd Wright in 1948. “I was a student at Georgia Tech and had read about Mr. Wright at the public library in Atlanta. I was impressed by the scope of this human being and wrote him a letter. He wrote back and invited me to visit him for the Christmas holidays at Taliesen West in Arizona.”
Ripe with Wright’s influence, Broward came back to school and entered a design competition for a church for sharecroppers in Oak Mountain, Georgia. “The prize for winning,” Broward said, “was that the church would be built, using local labor, college students and Quakers from the American Friends Field Service.” His first built design rose from the farmers’ earth the way Thoreau made “the soil express its summer thought” in “blossoms” and “the earth say beans instead of grass.” Perhaps architects could grow their buildings like gardeners.
Broward grew up near the swamp from which the now-gone Oriental Gardens was built, now River Oaks Park. His not being allowed in the swamp only increased “its mystery and lure.” In 2013, he told a neighborhood newspaper’s Victoria Register-Freeman how the swamp “became [his] personal playground.” At night, he said, “I could hear alligators bellow and occasionally a panther scream.”
That same Bob Broward, grown into the architect, must have thought of his childhood swamp mysticism countless times as he looked up into the 22-foot tall tapestry behind the pulpit. Golds and gold-greens rise along turquoise and goldenrod, shimmering earth tones reaching to the vestments of a lopsided archetypal saint. If swamps grew their own stained-glass windows, this tapestry would rise as cultivar of a Marc Chagall window lit up in cypress trees. That must be what happened.
Broward asked his former art teacher at Landon High School, the Georgia-born Jacksonville folk artist Memphis Wood, to design this tapestry for the church. In 1984, she told Peggy Friedmann of Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Kalliope: A Journal of Women’s Art, “It presented quite a problem because my room is only 17 feet. So the builders finished the minister’s study, which was 22 feet long, and they put [saw] horses and a piece of plywood in there and when I finished the three separate sections, I went out there and put the thing together.”
Wood said she tried to think of archetypal emblems used before Christianity, “so I went back to the traditional symbols of the early artists, the circle and the square, and I played those against each other, letting the circle dominate.”
Above the church, meanwhile, the square dominates. While the awkward shingled boxing of the bell tower originally reminded me of Japanese temples, the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects, in granting Broward its 1967 architectural merit award referred to the “ancient Scandinavian stave church siding effect.” Churches of wooden staves were built a millennium ago in Scandinavia, though the replicated Seglora Kyrka, in Skansen on the island Djurgården in Stockholm, dates just to 1730.
It’s at the city’s oldest Unitarian Universalist church that Shintoism connects to medieval Scandinavian churches, where a Nigerian musical group, fronted by Prophet Olanrewaju Bankole and backed by a “wall of sound” of amplifiers, fills the nave and the full-length skylight riding the peak of curving pine beams on Sunday afternoons, where in a second-floor glass room supported only from above, the Jacksonville Soto Zen Buddhist group holds all-day meditation retreats. Standing in the labyrinth of stepping stones between this hanging glass room and the marsh, these ecumenical connections seem manifestations of Einstein’s description of quantum mechanics as true but incomplete, entanglements of “spooky action at a distance.”
I need not fear the uncontrollable branchings of blossomings. I know it’s but ego that demands control. Up through Robert Broward, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville proliferates, even in fits and starts, from its founding by City Councilman and Mayor and Florida State Representative and U.S. Senator Duncan Fletcher just after the Great Fire of 1901.
The Fletchers held the church’s first meetings in their home at 240 West Church Street, where Anna claimed to hear ghosts. Anna wrote two books about Spiritualism, explaining seances and spirit trumpets and spirit photography and arguing the legitimacy of Spiritualism against Harry Houdini, the most famous magician in America, before Congress.
The Fletchers helped fund construction of the first Unitarian church on the southeast corner of Hogan and Union Streets in 1908. Florida Governor Sidney Catts, the only gubernatorial candidate from any state elected from the Prohibition Party, attacked Duncan Fletcher’s Unitarianism, “which denied the divinity of Christ and considered Him a bastard.” Indeed, in his 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address, Emerson said, “The true Christianity, — a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man, — is lost. None believeth in the soul of man, but only in some man or person old and departed.”
Another warm afternoon, the first of March, 2023, I shortcut the labyrinth, alone in this landscape with Broward, 1965. Before I found Buddhist meditation here so much harder than I’d expected, after I found local descendants of Baháʼu’lláh as rigid as those who persecuted their founder’s faith in his homeland, I noticed study rooms each named for people I’d written about in my University of Florida dissertation on Transcendentalism’s full flowering in Walt Whitman and its effect on 20th century poetry: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margert Fuller and William Ellery Channing. Oh how long ago I immersed myself in their thinking!
I’ve tried a few times to crystallize my own religious principles, shed of the fundamentalism that terrorized my childhood and now threatens, through a kind of religious nationalism, to overtake America, but I always fail. I write, “All life is sacred. All living things are connected. That connectivity is most sacred of all. The ancient unfathomable age of the earth is holy. The world and the earth are different. The world is always old and declining. The earth, though older than the world, always renews itself. The earth contains the world.” Probably sounds like gibberish, but these thoughts sustain me.
Perhaps Bob Broward makes for a new prophet in this earthen theophany. “My father,” he told a neighborhood journalist not long before he died, “who held the record for river crossings, ran the St. Johns River Ferry that provided access to both banks of the river. He went to work at three a.m. and finished at three p.m., seven days a week. If something happened and he had to call in a substitute, there was only one, Mr. Westcott, a Dutchman who lived in a boat house off the Southside docks where Prudential is now. I remember walking those docks and seeing lots of people living there. It was the Depression and folks were poor, really poor, but I have never seen a picture of those boat houses, as they were called.”
Out of Broward’s unexpected second life, composted from that car accident, 60 years ago, he built this boathouse on the edge of the marshes that settle above Strawberry Creek, raising us up from the waters that Genesis says existed before the light, into a sanctuary that shows us our sanctuary was always the earth from which we build.