Springfield: Hornsby House / First Evangelical Church / the Raines’ Place

by Tim Gilmore, 5/12/2023

Long before Jennifer Raines exposed interior brick in her living room and kitchen, the old church that’s now her home housed Pentecostal singing and dancing, the Creole prayers of a Haitian church, even the “Jesus Freak” hippie commune where Michael Bennett once lived with 11 other men. He played percussion on the roof once with the band who lived here. His first few nights, 53 years ago, he sat up with a junkie going cold-turkey through heroin withdrawals.

In 2009, when Jenny bought the old First Evangelical Church of Jacksonville, built in 1927, her sister, a former funeral director, said she’d conducted a funeral here in the 1990s. When Jenny moved in, she regularly received mail sent to former church congregations, including the Haitian church destroyed by arson here in 2000.

from The Florida Times-Union, October 19, 2000

Surely such spaces are collectors and composites of life and lives. What lives this old building has known! Our buildings are extensions of our bodies. It’s why we believe in haunted houses. It seems unquestionable that all that’s existed between our flesh-and-blood bodies and our brick-and-frame exoskeletons must remain.

This Sunday afternoon, Jenny tours us through her ambitious renovations and Mike, who speaks so gently and quietly I have to lean in to hear him, tells us how different the place was 50 years ago.

When Mike lived here from 1970 to ’72, people called the church “the Hornsby house,” after Jim and Sarah Hornsby, Presbyterian missionaries “to the inner city.” Jim also served on the school board and Sarah was an artist and writer. Springfield then was a once elegant neighborhood in steep “White Flight” gothic decline, the large rooms of old mansions framed up into tiny rooms to make boarding houses, halfway houses, flophouses, its streets infamous for drugs, prostitution, housefires and shootings. The neighborhood welcomed the Hornsby House, where men detoxed and got clean, where the second-floor meeting room welcomed the community with live music.

from The Florida Times-Union, 1981

When Jenny bought the church, the “men’s dorms” Mike had helped the Hornsbys build had been gutted. She and her friends laid new floors, reworked the plumbing and wiring systems and pulled out interior wall plaster. “The plaster was water damaged, mildew grew all through the walls and there was fire damage on the back side,” she says.

original architectural rendering for First Evangelical, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

In 2009, when the church was for sale, Jenny took one look inside and said, “Hell, no.” After the price kept dropping, she lowballed further, and when the sellers surprised her by accepting the offer, she said, “Oh shit!” What sane person would take on such a task? Now she says she’ll never live anywhere else.

original architectural rendering for First Evangelical, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

First Evangelical Church of Jacksonville was designed by Charles Curtis Oehme and the Swiss-born M.R. (Maxime Rudolph) Nippel, in the Mediterranean Revival style they’d used the year before for Woodlawn Baptist Church in Riverside. Nippel’s career was astonishingly peripatetic. Born in French-speaking Neuchâtel, he established an architectural partnership in Omaha, Nebraska, then moved on to Fort Dodge, Iowa; Dallas; Jacksonville; then Springfield, Massachusetts and Englewood, New Jersey, before moving finally to San Diego.

The Hornsbys took over the church, after it had housed a Mormon congregation for 30 years, just before Michael Bennett stepped onto the scene. One day in 1970, Mike was done with his classes “in the old barracks” of the mud-soaked and longleaf-pined Cumberland Campus at Florida Junior College and was hitching a ride on Roosevelt Boulevard.

“So this guy picked me up and his car had been smashed so he had to let me in through the driver’s door. He told me he’d take me where I was going, but first he needed to stop at Hornsby’s. I didn’t know what Hornsby’s was, but we stopped here and I met Jim, who showed me the church and told me his vision.”

1850 Liberty Street

The Hornsbys lived around the corner at 1850 Liberty Street, where they housed destitute women and couples. Now they’d taken over this dilapidated church, where they were moving their men’s “ministries” from a house downtown on East Church Street scheduled for demolition.

Shortly after they met, Mike remembers, “I stopped by again and Jim said he’d got a call from somebody withdrawing from heroin and needed help. So Jim says, ‘I need somebody to sit up with him while he goes cold-turkey,’ and he asked me if I could move in and do that.” For three days, Mike stayed in a little upstairs apartment, long ago removed, at the back of the church, while the addict vomited and raged and thought his heart was exploding.

One of Mike’s first tasks after moving in was cleaning out “the floor-to-ceiling junk” hoarded throughout the old church. “Over where your TV is,” he tells Jenny, “I uncovered a full upright piano. It was so covered in junk we didn’t even know it was back there. It was out of tune, but still playable, so we fixed it up and moved it upstairs to the meeting room.”

Mike helped frame the dorm rooms and build “triple decker bunks” for beds. He spent a whole day underneath the house with an army shovel “digging trenches” for plumbing. Out back where an old Sunday School building had burned down, he ran a tiller across the earth for a new garden. Up over the meeting room on the second floor, they ran a ladder to a cramped attic loft, “straight up in the peak,” where he lived with two other young hippie musicians, a guy named Bruce and a black 12-string guitarist named John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

In addition to the 12 men living here, Mike says, “People cycled through from all over.” One of those people was a young Vietnam veteran named Larry Colton who suffered several mental breakdowns, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, as he made his way through the down-and-out core of ’70s Jacksonville and disappeared in 1979. Mike isn’t sure, but wonders if the person he helped through heroin withdrawals those first three nights might have been Larry. In 2018, a New York cold case investigator worked with Larry’s sister Lorraine to try to find him.

Larry Colton, with Tony Giordano, at “The Bob Hope Show,” Củ Chi, Vietnam, December 27, 1969, courtesy Colton family

A meticulous spreadsheet the investigator created includes notes like: “Larry’s wife Kathy talks about Larry breaking her heart and abandoning her seven months pregnant in Jacksonville. She met Larry after Vietnam. They married in 1970. She talks about the Rev. Jim and Sarah Hornsby’s ministry and that she sought their help in JAX after realizing Larry was sick in Germany (He had been hospitalized on an overdose of Thorazine and acid when she arrived.).”

from The Overseas Weekly, May 24, 1970

(Through her investigations, the investigator learned of “an epidemic of bad acid” around the base where Larry was stationed in Germany, of how using LSD intravenously, even overdosing on Thorazine and acid was not uncommon among Larry’s peers. She sends me a May 24, 1970 article by then-future Rolling Stone Magazine editor Kurt Loder from Overseas Weekly, a German English-language newspaper for American military personnel, about “bad acid” and U.S. soldiers.)

Larry and Kathy had lived at Hornsby’s place downtown on East Church Street before the Hornsbys moved their men’s dorms to the old First Evangelical Church. At that point, Kathy apparently moved in with the Hornsbys at 1850 Liberty, while Larry stayed at the old church. Eventually, the investigator believes, Larry left the Jesus Freak movement for the Cosmic Church of Truth across Downtown in Riverside.

cover of a “book of memories” showing the first location of the Cosmic Church of Truth in 1970

Larry mentioned the Hornsbys often in letters he wrote his best friend Don Maley, another Vietnam veteran who lived with the Hornsbys for a few months, and even Larry’s psychiatric records – contained in his OMPF, Official Military Personnel File, more than 1,000 pages long – mention the Hornsbys. “He was discharged from the Army while in Germany in July [1970],” one entry reads. “He then got into the Jesus Freaks. During this time he felt that his flipping out had slowed down but was still with him.” Larry still feared, however, that other people could read his mind.

Larry Colton, 1972, photo by unknown friend, courtesy Colton family

“Gradually he lost faith in the Jesus cult,” his psych records continue, “but his wife whom he had discussed that he really didn’t love stayed active. He discussed his feelings with his wife and they agreed to separate even though she was 6 months pregnant.”

Larry and Kathy Colton at their wedding in Midwest City, Oklahoma, image courtesy Colton family

On August 13, 1979, Larry stopped by his sister’s house in Lake City to wish her a happy birthday and tell her he was “going away for a while.” On September 10th, his father filed a missing persons report, saying he’d last seen his son on August 27th, when Larry had shown up at his father’s place, Larry’s childhood home, asking to stay the night. His father sent him away because he was “dirty and high.” Larry hitchhiked to Oklahoma, hoping to see his eight-year-old son. He met with Kathy at a motel in Midwest City, “dirty and barefoot,” and “kept talking about Vietnam” and saying “he needed to go surfing before he lost his eyesight,” that he “could no longer hear, but could still read lips.”

self-identified Jesus Freaks, 1973, Michael Bennett at the center, image courtesy Michael Bennett

The Hornsbys left Jacksonville for Nicaragua in 1984, trading the “mission field” of the inner-city American South for Central America. Larry left behind a son, Veterans’ Administration psychiatric records and letters, and a few photos – he and a friend throwing the shaka hand sign at The Bob Hope Show in Vietnam, mugshots, a blurry picture of Larry long-haired and shirtless in 1972 – then disappeared without a trace. He’s not unlike much of transient inner-Jacksonville in the 1970s and ’80s and surely not the only young person to move through the Hornsbys’ homes only to vanish somewhere out in the vast pelagic continent.

1850 Liberty Street

City directories continued to list the building as “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” a Mormon church, even through the early ’70s when the Hornsbys housed men here, when Mike Bennett and fellow musicians played standard hymns like “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Amazing Grace,” or the country pop song, “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” Only in the later ’70s did the listing change to “Teen City, Inc.”

Standing in the open second floor, where Jenny’s son played video games in his adolescence, where she works out in the evenings, Mike tries to figure where his attic loft used to be. The building seems to have grown an I-beam since the lofts of the ’70s were removed, altering the level above our heads where Mike can imagine having once stood. In the back upstairs apartment, also long gone, where Mike sat up three days with that junkie in withdrawals, he remembers that a couple who held their wedding here moved in for a while.

The church pew against the back wall of the old meeting room came with the building, but differs from how Mike remembers the pews. “Just shows you how strange and unreliable memory is,” he says. He remembers the blinds being open in the windows across East Ninth Street, through which he clearly saw a man and woman in bed, having sex, a car pull into the driveway, the man’s wife exiting the car and walking into the house, all hell breaking loose in the bedroom.

Jenny says it’s only right that Mike’s a musician and that John Roush, who’d recorded a jazz guitar album called The Cry of the City and who pastored Springfield Community Church here in the 1980s, after being mentored by the Hornsbys, was also a musician, since she and her husband and son are musicians too. Her husband David Raines plays guitar, she plays bass, and her son, whose old bedroom upstairs is still painted “Dr. Who blue,” plays percussion. Jenny played in a couple of punk bands in the ’90s, including Boner Brigade, which played the Green Room at the back of the Milk Bar and the Moto Lounge. David’s best friend is the hip hop artist Duval Spit. On the walls of the music room downstairs hang several guitars, a Jacksonville Jazz Festival poster featuring saxophonist Dexter Gordon, and Duval Spit’s record Wholly Ghost, on which David played guitar.

John Roush, year unknown

The commercial kitchen that once fed homeless people from the back of the building is gone. Springfield Preservation and Restoration shut down church feedings in the 1980s. Springfield Community Church magnetized the indigent when Springfield was struggling to become what Southern Living Magazine would call, in 2010, “the #1 comeback neighborhood in the South.”

On October 18, 2000, after the Reverend Max Jecroy had received threats for months, someone poured gasoline around the building and set the First Haitian Church of the Nazarene ablaze. Jecroy had left Haiti in 1980 and founded the Jacksonville church in 1996. Though the church had fewer than 100 members, neighbors said Jecroy served the non-Haitian community around the church too. “If anyone needs anything, he gives it to them,” a neighbor named Joyce Dukes said. “He is salt and light. He is very, very kind to the people in this neighborhood.” Jecroy, in turn, said neighbors often slipped small amounts of cash through his mail slot. “One day I found $47,” he said.

Reverend Max Jecroy, photo by John Pemberton, courtesy The Florida Times-Union, October 19, 2000

Meanwhile, Larry Colton is still officially listed as missing. His son, Lawrence Shane Colton, served in the Army’s First Cavalry, like his father, and died on April 11, 2004 in Baghdad, when his helicopter responded to a fuel convoy under attack and was shot down. Shane had one son, Lance Shane Colton, who died in 2013 of a heroin overdose.

Chief Warrant Officer Lawrence Shane Colton, image courtesy U.S. Central Command

Michael Bennett’s three days spent with a heroin addict in withdrawals here in 1970 led to a 50 year career of mental health counseling and addiction treatment. He still works for Jacksonville’s Gateway Community Services.

The echoes and patterns bounce back and forth through the acoustics of a century: lives destroyed by and saved from heroin; Vietnam and Iraq; the bass keys of a buried piano and the sounds of the winds of arson; the dirges at funerals and the promises at weddings.

More than half a century ago, affixed to a back wall by the back stairs the Jesus Freaks used as their main access to the second floor, but which Jenny and David mainly use for storage, was a single payphone.

“Whoever answered it,” Mike says, “would put the handle to their chest and yell, ‘Mike!’ There were three Mikes living here and I had to come down from the attic to the ground floor, from the front of the church all the way to the back, so we’d always ask that the person answering the phone to yell the last name.” He laughs and says, “They never did.”