With downtown Jacksonville seemingly poised for a renaissance in the near future, every piece of unoccupied downtown property is crucial.
This is especially true for buildings in prime locations, like along Laura Street or Hemming Park.
The historic Snyder Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church building happens to fall into both categories, sitting at the corner of Laura and Monroe streets right next to Hemming Park. And for the past fifteen years, it has mostly sat unused despite its prime location.
The Snyder building, as is the case with so many of downtown Jax’s buildings, has quite a bit of history to it. It was built in 1903 to replace the former home of what was then Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, which had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1901.
Its striking Gothic Revival form was designed by architect J.H.W. Hawkins, who also designed the building that now houses Cowford Chophouse.
The church operated for several decades in the heart of downtown. And, despite its mostly-white congregation, it also played a central role in the city’s civil rights movement.
The church opened its doors to a committee of civil rights leaders and city officials tasked with making sense of the chaos that ensued following the disgraceful Ax Handle Saturday racial riots of 1960 that saw a mob of middle-aged white men attack sit-in protestors at lunch counters surrounding Hemming Park. The ultimately successful discussions set a path forward for the community and for the advancement of civil rights in Jacksonville.
By the 1970s, the church had lost much of its congregation to the suburbs as downtown lost its luster following the riots and several major department store closures. It ended its weekly services and would eventually shut down altogether by the ‘90s.
In 2000, the building was purchased by St. Johns River City Band, once the “official band of Jacksonville.” The band held on to the location for four years, hosting shows and making small renovations, before selling it to the city.
Since then, the city has owned the church property and has utilized it sparingly for festivals and other big events. In the past few years, the city has indicated a desire to sell the building.
It hasn’t found any takers, and with a downtown renaissance looming, the pressure may soon be on to figure out what to do with the property.
Thankfully, the city’s current preferred option for unused historic buildings – demolishing them unceremoniously – is off the table here. The Snyder church building is listed as a historic landmark and is in far too good of condition for any exemption to that designation.
But for what purpose should the building be used?
One recent proposal focused on capitalizing on the building’s civil rights connections and turning it into a museum that honors civil rights leaders from the Jacksonville area – people like A. Philip Randolph and James Weldon Johnson.
It could also make for a great live performance venue, as it did briefly for St. Johns River City Band. The building has hosted Jazz Fest acts before and already has the infrastructure in place to be utilized as a small, intimate venue for live music or a theater troupe.
What do you see as the ideal future for this historic downtown building? Let us know your thoughts!