First Baptist Church Lighthouse Replica

by Tim Gilmore, 7/2/2017

Just before Christmas, 1998, several homeowners downtown and just to the north in Springfield said they’d “seen the light” and the light made them mad as hell.

The light flooded second-story bedrooms from a 100-foot-tall concrete lighthouse replica First Baptist Church had built on the corner of a new parking garage at Pearl and Union Streets.

First Baptist Church already occupied a solid wall of nine city blocks at the northern end of downtown, including a multi-block phalanx of parking garages, effectively crushing any organic urban community connection between downtown and the Victorian neighborhood of Springfield. For decades, the First Baptist Wall has perfectly symbolized the church’s bulldozing its outsized influence through city politics.

Every few years, this third largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention garners national media attention, whether for longtime Pastor Homer Lindsay Jr’s long friendship with Pastor Bob Gray, whose child sexual abuse Jacksonville’s Trinity Baptist Church protected and allowed for half a century, or its Pastor Jerry Vines calling the Prophet Muhammad “a demon-possessed pedophile” in June 2002.

Still, despite its cultural dominance in 1998, church leaders felt something was missing.

“We built a new auditorium five years ago,” church “construction administrator” Dudley Freeman told me in 1998, “but we didn’t put a steeple on it.”

A Southern Baptist church without a steeple might as well ordain a woman to preach! Its congregation would find either instance an abomination.

Thereby phallocratically stunted, church leaders decided to build a concrete replica of the St. Augustine Lighthouse, built 45 miles south in the 1870s. It was likewise important for the replica to have its own functioning beam, Freeman said, for First Baptist was the “spiritual lighthouse” of the city.

The “spiritual lighthouse” flashed into the bedrooms of Springfield’s grand historic houses every few seconds from six to 10 o’clock every night.

Bruce Holbrook, who lived on Pearl Street, called the light “extremely obnoxious, just this blinding glare flashing in our windows.” It seemed like the church had stationed “a spotlight […] right outside the house.”

On December 8th, The Florida Times-Union published a letter to the editor from Springfield resident Maria Williams, concerning “the ridiculously horrendous lighthouse that First Baptist Church has attached to its new parking garage.”

The lighthouse disturbed her and her neighbors “with its persistent glaring light,” Williams said, but also made “a mockery of the efforts to revitalize the downtown area with its Coney Island design.” She disparaged the parking garage lighthouse as “Putt-Putt-style architecture.”

When the light first flooded Tony and Karla Crawford’s second- and third-floor bedrooms at 125 West Second Street, Tony suspected an emergency.

“I immediately jumped up out of bed,” Tony told me, “to see what was going on outside, and Karla said, ‘That’s that lighthouse they’ve been building.’ This is like something you’d usually see out over the ocean.”

David Galbreath, a founding member of Springfield Preservation and Restoration, who lived on North Laura Street, thought so too. You have to understand this lighthouse replica, he reminded me, in Springfield’s historical context. Since the middle of the 20th century, when Springfield’s wealth departed for the suburbs, this once-grandest Jacksonville neighborhood had been the “dumping ground” for every city social service and halfway house any other district would have been able to refuse.

Springfield’s “white flight” was further complicated by what sometimes seemed Jacksonville’s personal vendetta, enacted through “benign neglect,” against the neighborhood. Ironically, as the city housed its social services in Springfield, Springfield’s own poor, in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, even through the 1980s, struggled in a vacuum, a total dearth, of public health and community services.

Galbreath, an abbot of the Apostolic Celtic Church, told me First Baptist’s flooding of Springfield bedrooms with its “spiritual light” was typical both of First Baptist’s arrogance and the city’s use of Springfield as Jacksonville’s “whipping boy.”

But he’d come to Springfield for a reason, and his purpose held him fast.

“I didn’t choose to live on the Matanzas Inlet,” Galbreath said. “I chose to live someplace with a city view.”

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

He didn’t appreciate First Baptist Church’s blinding him from his city, but he wasn’t about to close his eyes and he wasn’t about to shut his mouth.

By the spring of 1999 it was clear that church leaders would have to appease Springfield’s fury. Residents complained to the church, the newspapers, the mayor’s office, the city’s building and zoning department. They refused to back down.

So the light no longer shines. The lantern’s been dark for almost 20 years. For most of the residents who live nearby, time has normalized the presence of a lighthouse marooned in a sea of concrete, lonely and lost, a nihilistic parking-garage sentinel staring blindly into the sky.

After all this time, it’s hard for me not to sympathize with it now. I know how it feels to be out-of-place. So sometimes I drive up through the empty concrete garage to pay it a visit. I sit beside it in dark sunglasses, since I can’t handle the scorching sunlight like the lighthouse does. We tell each other jokes and secrets. I give it reassuring little pats. We grant each other absolution.