Florida Baptist Convention Building

by Tim Gilmore, 11/24/2021

For more than 60 years the Florida Baptist Convention Building at 218 West Church Street has stood abandoned. For six decades it’s waited, weathered, nestled against the heart of the city, unloved, 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 more than half this building’s existence, its city has failed to nourish it, to nurture it, to nurse it back to health. And now that’s changing.

artist’s rendering by Henry John Klutho, courtesy Brooke Robbins

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.” She’s not seen another 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.

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.

1988 photograph by Judy Davis, courtesy Brooke Robbins

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.

image courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

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.

Florida Baptist Convention Building, 1991, image courtesy Brooke Robbins

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.”

1988 photograph by Judy Davis, courtesy Brooke Robbins

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.

from The Tampa Times, August 17, 1926

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.

Florida Baptist Convention Building, 1958, image courtesy Brooke Robbins

The convention renamed the building for Rogers in 1932 and kept its offices here, stenciled letters spelling “Baptist Bookstore” on the front windows, until it built a larger building on the downtown Southbank in 1958. Since then, 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?

rear side of the Florida Baptist Convention Building, behind Henrietta Dozier’s Federal Reserve Branch Building, image courtesy Brooke Robbins

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, 60 and 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 John Delaney’s Better Jacksonville 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.

artist’s rendering, courtesy Brooke Robbins

There’s something almost mystical in old buildings that have gone through their histories more unused than inhabited, as though they’ve become more their own entities, their own selves, than the property of their owners. Only one family ever lived year round in the Nettleton Neff House on Fort George Island and the nearby Napoleon Bonaparte Broward House likewise has stood more often empty in its century and a half than occupied. Now, having served its religious and office functions for fewer than 40 years, then moldering for more than 60, the S.B. Rogers Building, the Florida Baptist Convention Building, prepares to come into its own for the first time in its life.