Though it’s now been vacant for nearly two decades, the Snyder Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church played an integral role in helping some of downtown Jacksonville’s most vulnerable populations throughout its 118-year history – including the role it played in the aftermath of Ax Handle Saturday.
The church, located at 226 N. Laura Street just south of James Weldon Johnson Park, was constructed in 1903 to replace the previous Methodist Episcopal church building, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1901. Architect J.H.W. Hawkins designed the new building with striking Gothic Revival details; Hawkins was also known for designing the Bostwick building, Hermiker Block, and the since-demolished McConihe building.
The new church was named in honor of the Snyder family, who donated funds to help with construction. It quickly became a pillar of the downtown community, routinely taking in and caring for those in need of help or who had nowhere else to go through its “open-door” policy.
In 1917, the building underwent an expansion to add a gymnasium to its rear, allowing the church to host American troops in training during World War I, and later during World War II as well.
By the late ‘20s, the church found itself amidst a sea of commercial activity, as the neighboring James Weldon Johnson Park effectively became the central plaza for downtown’s plethora of shopping options. The presence of shoppers didn’t affect the church, which thrived from its centrally-located property for decades.
It was the church’s proximity to this bustling plaza, as well as its open-door policy, that led to it playing a major role in the aftermath of the 1960 Ax Handle Saturday race riot.
During and immediately following the riot, the church welcomed in several Black residents who were being attacked, protecting them from the mob. Afterward, it hosted a committee of civil rights leaders and city officials who tried to make sense of the chaos and plot a path forward for the community.
Just a few years later, the church helped provide shelter for survivors of the deadly 1963 Hotel Roosevelt fire.
As the downfall of downtown Jax began during the 1970s, the church’s congregation began to disperse into the suburbs. Nonetheless, it remained open through the late ‘90s before closing its doors after nearly a hundred years.
The building was purchased by the St. Johns River Band, which spent four years renovating it with the help of the city. With the band having run out of money, the city took over ownership of the building in 2004.
In the years since, the city has occasionally utilized the building for festivals and other special events – while keeping an eye on options for future reuse. Among the options proposed for the building’s future is a civil rights museum to honor the city’s many civil rights leaders.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, granting it a certain degree of protection from demolition. Its significance to the history of downtown Jacksonville lends further protection to the property.
So while it may still take a while for the Snyder church building to be redeveloped, it’s almost certain to be around for many years to come.