by Tim Gilmore, 11/24/2021
For 40 years the Florida Baptist Convention Building at 218 West Church Street has stood abandoned, waiting, weathered, nestled against the heart of the city, a block from one of Florida’s artistic masterpieces, architect Henry John Klutho’s St. James Building. Klutho designed the St. James, now Jacksonville’s City Hall, at the height of his career and the Baptist Convention Building as his light was fading. For four decades, the city has failed to nourish it, to nurture it, to nurse it back to health. And now that’s changing.
As architect Brooke Robbins climbs the stone steps that wrap the empty elevator shaft, she speaks passionately, amidst the sound of jackhammers, of this building’s every detail, every oddity. She notes when one stone step is of slightly different height than those before and above it, how original construction materials in the walls mismatch. She speaks in lights and layers, of “complementing the quirks.”
Brooke has seen no other building in which the stairwell wraps the elevator shaft. Meanwhile, a second impression, across from the elevator well, seems to indicate where a second elevator would be installed, though not needed, but never was. Richard Cummings, who remembers being a little boy and coming to his father’s office here, will soon tell me how the elevator fell to the basement weeks before his father’s company relocated in the 1980s.
Then there’s the way the original building was designed with four stories, but the owners decided, just months after its completion, to add one more. So builders lifted the top of the building, including its dentiled cornice and the pediment with its tablet announcing, “Erected 1924,” topped with motifs of seashell and acanthus leaves, tacked on the fifth floor, using different methods and materials than the previous four, and reset the crown.
The people who’ll soon call new apartments in this old building home likely won’t know these kinks and vagaries. Nor will those dining in the back restaurant. Nor those who will dine in the courtyard, surrounded on three sides by historic buildings—Sweet Pete’s Candy Store in the old Seminole Club Building, once home to good-ole-boy politico indiscretions, the Old Federal Reserve Building, designed by Jacksonville’s first woman architect, Henrietta Dozier, and the Florida Baptist Convention Building.
The Florida Baptist was the last building Henry John Klutho designed for a downtown a newspaper cartoon had once depicted him building, by himself, as a child playing with building blocks. The St. James Building, one block away, just the other side of Dozier’s Fed building, is Klutho’s magnum opus, a Prairie Style masterpiece designed for the Deep South.
The St. James is Klutho at his most magnificent; the Baptist Convention Building is Klutho’s career trailing into insignificance. So wrote architect Robert Broward in his 1983 book The Architecture of Henry John Klutho: The Prairie School in Jacksonville. Broward called it “a well-built structure of reinforced concrete with a cream-colored brick exterior. Its design was not distinctive, however; it did not compare favorably with his early work, and it was bereft of the fine detailing of the earlier Prairie School buildings.”
The building opened without fanfare, its longtime champion soon died, and almost immediately it became a financial burden. The Florida Baptist Witness newspaper, which operated in the building, reported an “open house” held on September 23, 1924, and though around 1,000 people came to visit, a three piece Hawaiian band playing steel drums in the lobby, “no invitations,” the Witness reported, “had been issued.” In fact, “There was nothing formal, no addresses, no public function of any kind, simply a ‘come and go’ inspection of the building.”
The Reverend Stewart B. Rogers, jug-eared and bowtied, the third executive secretary treasurer for the Florida Baptist Convention, the Florida branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, the world’s largest Baptist denomination and second largest Christian denomination in North America, had fought for headquartering the convention in Jacksonville since 1909. Two years after its completion, Rogers suffered a series of strokes and died.
The convention struggled to keep tenants in the building, repeatedly lowering rental rates. According to the Fall 2005 Journal of Florida Baptist Heritage, “A study committee found that while there was strong demand for rental space in the building, these businesses objected to the word ‘Baptist’ appearing on the official address.” Then the economy crashed and the Great Depression descended, miring the nation in economic woes through the 1930s. When the building was six years old, the Florida Baptist Convention faced foreclosure, then reallocated monies from “mission gifts” to pay the building’s mortgage.
The convention renamed the building for Rogers in 1932 and kept its offices here, stenciled letters spelling “Baptist Bookstore” on the front windows. Ted Pappas, whose own historic preservation work and often cutting-edge architecture would soon spread across the Jax landscape, began working as an intern for architect Kenyon Drake here in the summer of 1952, and Mellen Greeley, “the dean of Jacksonville architects,” kept offices here also.
The Florida Baptist Convention built a new building on the downtown Southbank in 1958 and the engineering firm Register and Cummings bought the building five years later, occupying the second and fifth floors. The regional phone company Southern Bell operated on the third floor, Nussbaum Realty on the fourth, and tiny Jones College and the sandwich chain Stand ’N Snack had the ground floor.
When Richard Cummings thinks back to visiting his father’s office here, the first thing he remembers is “the odor of cigars that permeated the building.” His father was Morris Cummings, whose partner was George Register, Jr. “Every single engineer in that building smoked a cigar,” Richard recalls.
Richard loved visiting his father’s office when he was nine years old and later going to work for him here. “My dad was my hero,” he says. And he loved Stand ’N Snack, especially the pickles and chili dogs. “No tables,” he recalls. “You literally had to stand and snack.”
His father was 58 when he died of a heart attack in 1986. Richard went to work for his father in ’76 and the firm moved to Arlington Expressway, where it still operates as Cummings Engineers, in 1982. Register stayed in the building for another two years and it’s stood empty ever since.
“About three weeks before we moved out,” Richard says, “the elevator failed. It fell to the basement in a puddle of water and there it remained.” Nobody was hurt when the elevator fell. He adds, in a sort of comedic eulogy, “It was a hydraulic elevator. It sprung a leak and went down slowly.”
Now, all these years later, Peter Cummings, Richard’s brother, is the subcontractor to repair the brick façade for the restoration. “It’s very meaningful for him and for us,” he says. “We all have very fond memories of that building.”
Since the early 1980s, only the homeless, only the lost souls of the city, here in the shadow of First Baptist Church, through the latter part of the 20th century housing Jacksonville’s largest congregation, have inhabited Klutho’s last downtown building.
Story by story, ascending through this old building, I keep catching the city through the glassless windows. I see City Hall and Dozier’s Federal Reserve Branch Building. I see men in ties and women in skirts on the sidewalks. How does this empty architectural shell frame Jacksonville? How do I frame it, walking up through it? Is it true this city has a heart of darkness? Is it true I have a dark soul, as a letter with no return address, signed only “Agnes,” recently informed me, for “framing Jacksonville” thus?
Until Brooke Robbins’s firm got to work on the building, parts of it occasionally fell off into the courtyard next door. Saplings grew from gaps in the walls, from the rotten floors and the missing southeast corner of the top of the building. The additional fifth floor construction used sand in its flooring, which became, 80 years later, a primordial rooftop muck that nurtured a secret forest in the depths of the city’s skyline.
Now I’m caught near the roof, mesmerized by the sheer variety of textures and their interplay framed by empty windows. I count the reds of the bricks and blocks both horizontal and vertical and through the frame, the building that cuts in two next door, the solid face of plaster to one side, yellow brick to the other, and I notice that behind the windows across the alley stands more yellow brick. And now the stone stairwell opens straight to the sky like a metaphor for ascendance.
As Brooke and I stand atop the building, looking out over the Jones Brothers’ Furniture Co. Building, constructed in 1926 and also being restored, she counts 10 historic restoration projects of which she knows in just the surrounding four blocks. When Mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance plan restored the St. James Building and moved City Hall into it in 1997, the City of Jacksonville (capital “C”) committed to the (re)incarnation of the city of Jacksonville (lower-case “c”), the actual living animal, the organic entity, the flowering beast.
But when smaller buildings like this one come back to life, the core system’s begun to thrive, the blood to circulate, the central nervous system to fire, and the flowering beast that is the city awakens, gains strength, looks around, and begins to determine itself. Indeed, I love this rooftop so. I want to cut off a pinkie finger and leave it to parthenogenetically regenerate into another me and give him his own corner here and make it home.