Abandoned Mississippi: First Christian Church, Jackson

First Christian Church, Jackson (1949-50)

Jackson’s First Christian Church doesn’t exactly fit in with some of our other Abandoned Mississippi sites. It doesn’t sit crumbling, left alone in the woods or out in a field, far from the city. From the outside, in fact, the casual observer might not even know that this imposing Gothic Revival building on the corner of High and North State Streets is not a church anymore. But its future is just as murky as if it were in those straits. It has been abandoned–not just abandoned but vandalized–by its original congregation, and is now owned by a congregation that really has no use for it. First Baptist Church bought the property in 2002 with the intention of tearing down all but the tower and creating a “prayer garden” on its corner lot one block from First Baptist’s complex.

First Christian Church, Jackson (1949-50)

After a public outcry in the local press, First Baptist backed away from that plan. In all fairness, they have maintained the property to its current level of manicured lawn and have kept the building secured. But so far they haven’t expressed any desire to actually do anything with the imposing Gothic Revival building, constructed in 1950 and designed by the prominent Jackson architectural N.W. Overstreet & Associates (ironically, N.W. Overstreet was a deacon at First Baptist).

I was fortunate enough to explore the sanctuary one day about a year before the congregation, dwindling down from its stated 450 members in the 1950s to about 50 by the turn of the century, abandoned the church and moved to a small Ranch house at the corner of Ridgewood and Briarwood roads in northeast Jackson. Unaware of what was to come, and before the age of digital cameras, I didn’t have a camera with me to capture the amazing sanctuary, whose shockingly vivid stained-glass windows oozed a blue aura that infused even the high spaces of the sanctuary. I can still see a mental picture of the specs of dust caught in the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows–I wish I could paint that picture for y’all. Luckily, I did snag a full-color brochure that explained each window, and I have scanned those images, which give only a shadow sense of the space. Two pictures of the sanctuary on the MHT site give the best feeling of how the space felt.

these small images were embedded within huge planes of blue glass

For a while, there was talk of another congregation from south Jackson buying the building, which includes not only the sanctuary but an attached two-story educational wing and small chapel. That talk abruptly ended when it was announced that the congregation had sold to First Baptist. The Northside Sun and the Clarion-Ledger both ran articles that were answered by a flood of letters to the editors, and the old Planet Weekly (those were good times, man) published a mocking “alternative-future” article, set in 2009, when the Scientologists buy First Baptist and the New Capitol so that the legislature can move to Madison. The Belhaven Heights neighborhood, which is anchored at the southwest corner by First Christian, opposed the proposed demolition and questioned the sale, as noted in the Northside Sun (April 4, 2002):

Alex McCord, architect and president of Belhaven Heights Neighborhood Association, said his association is appalled at First Christian’s willingness to allow the church to be raised (sic) without properly marketing it.

“It has not been on the open market or with a Realtor. There are bound to be congregations out there that would love to be in such an exquisite historical building that is centrally located downtown,” he said.

“There were several offers that came by virtue of word of mouth.”

The Mississippi Heritage Trust placed the church its 2003 10 Most Endangered Places list.

The negativity clearly caught First Baptist off guard, and they announced they would not demolish the building and even had the building designated as a Mississippi Landmark by MDAH. But there the church has stood, with no use for almost a decade.

what remains of the once stunning stained glass windows--notice the broken remnants of the lead at the bottom

Worse, and I’m not clear when this happened–I’ve been told it happened even before First Baptist signed the papers–members of the congregation of First Christian allegedly destroyed the old sanctuary by breaking out as much of the enormous blue windows as they could reach. They also apparently stripped some of the hardware and doors, and even destroyed the altar/pulpit area, which had been nicely finished in the Gothic style. I was told by a friend who went inside the building after this occurred that shards of blue and red glass literally covered the sanctuary floor. She was visibly upset by the sight.

What could have possessed a supposedly Christian congregation to destroy a place of beauty and glory to God with such conscious relish? Did they want a piece of the building for nostalgia? Did they assume it would be torn down so it didn’t matter? Did they not want it to ever be used again? Certainly, this vandalism has diminished the value of the sanctuary. At least in its previous state, as Alex McCord noted, its architectural presence and detail were a selling point and might have led another congregation to take on the maintenance of such a large and complex structure. Now, possibly only First Baptist has the money, if it will spend it, to put the building back into use, but what does that church need with yet another sanctuary? Is there anyone in the First Baptist congregation who can speak up for this abandoned treasure?

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Categories: Abandoned Mississippi, Architectural Research, Churches, Demolition/Abandonment, Jackson, Mississippi Heritage Trust

19 replies

  1. Well, that is a sad story and profoundly disturbing.

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  2. It is incredibly sad and certainly unnecessary. Any thought perhaps of its being adaptively reused as a restaurant, loft or even office use? This might make an interesting centerpiece for a boutique hotel. I can’t comprehend the mindset which would allow the members of the congregation to destroy their own sanctuary.

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    • As a member of First Christian Church, I would like to point out that this article is completely not true. The person who wrote this has absolutely no idea what they are talking about. And honestly, this is slander. We are a congregation of loving people who would never have destroyed a sanctuary that we loved and were heartbroken to leave.

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  3. Truly sad and outrageous! Being the daughter of a retired minister I can’t imagine a congregation wreaking such havoc on a house of God. Perhaps if they had taken out the stained glass to put into a new sanctuary I could understand, since it was part of their history. But to destroy it is just disturbing. I don’t know what can be done to replace what was taken from the building but if I were closer, I would certainly jump on the fastest bandwagon to help!

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    • That is exactly what our church did. I am a member of First Christian Church. The person who wrote this article should really do their research first and should be ASHAMED of what they have written! If you would like to see the stained glass windows that we “destroyed”, we would love to welcome you to our new (not really new anymore) location at the corner of Briarwood and Ridgewood.

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  4. My brother was the architect that did the renovation prior to the sale to FBC. I spent a lot of time there before it was gutted by the previous congregation. When FBC bought the property, they had plans to make a prayer garden as someone stated before. The reason they chose the garden was that the building itself has major foundation problems that would require a complete rebuild to save. I’m talking Yazoo clay cracking walls and floors. The last renovation tried to address the problem but was unsuccessful. The congregation (thinking the church would be demolished) took all the old stained glass, and just about anything else that could be hauled off (and I mean everything, light switches and all). Their intent was to use the glass and fixtures when building a new church located in Madison…. whether they followed through with that is unknown. It was a beautiful church, the sanctuary glowed from the light through the stained glass. The huge pipe organ and wooden pulpit were beautiful. Now, it stands unused with the exception of a small kitchen/auditorium building on the back. For now, the building stands waiting on time and Yazoo clay to bring it down.

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  5. I can’t think of a less–suited use of this parcel than a contemplative garden. I don’t know why downtown churches are so gung-ho on ripping everything down in favor of yet more parking lots….lots that, lets face it, are only used during Sunday mornings.
    I wonder if the clay-caused shifting occurs in both the sanctuary and the ancillary building attached to the east side. If it’s the latter, could not a newer, properly built structure replace it?

    And, perhaps a wedding venue? Lecture/performance space? Could the back building perhaps house non-profits that could share the cost of upkeep/maintenance?

    One thing I know…it’s a great place for a 12-step program. I know, since I quit smoking at Nicotine Anonymous, in a room on the lower floor. It worked

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  6. Somehow I found my way to this post and the comments above. I can understand the feelings of outrage about vandalism. I felt that way myself. If blood could boil, my veins and arteries needed a steam pressure release valve. Then I read Mr. Dillard’s comment. Mr Dillard’s comment explains the circumstance that demolition loomed as the sadly diminished congregation could not fix the foundation problem. I notice that First Christian still features blue stained glass as its logo. http://www.fccjackson.org/News.html It does not look as though First Christian used professionals to save what it could of its sanctuary, but apparently the congregation tried to preserve what they could. (I doubt on reflection that 50 aging members of a congregation would hack their way about to make tokens and keepsakes enough for thousands.)

    My boiling blood has cooled and my fires are banked by the facts. Now I am wondering whether my readiness to condemn what appeared to be inexcusable vandalism should be replaced with some readiness to help those doing what they can in untenable situations.

    In that vein, I have several questions. Has anyone ever contacted the First Christian congregation about possible re-use of the windows and pews and organ and such, in a way that continues in some sense, in some place, the iconic interior for the community as well as the congregation? Likewise, has anyone ever asked if First Christian donated the glass and the rest eventually to some other church? (The Christian Church in Cairo Illinois’ windows were donated to the Seelos Center in New Orleans.) Has any one ever contacted First Baptist about studying the foundation problem, which has meant that First Baptist is attempting to stablize a building for preservation purposes that is inherently unstable? Unless someone has and that someone met with indifference or hostility, I believe I should attempt to make some small donations in partial amends for my too quck condemnation. As things stand right now, I am abashed at the least.

    By the way this is no comment upon or judgment about the very fine posting or other comments. This clearly generated interest, besides my own. Too, clearly I am not in a mood to criticize anyone or anything today, after my own change of course regarding my indignation.

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  7. In the way that retirees have of putting themselves into matters that, when working, they would avoid like the plague, I took it on myself a few weeks ago to follow up to see if the windows were still there in Jackson and, presumably, available for some suitable project to resurrect the bluish light that is mentioned on this blog. After several e-mails to FCC of Jackson (which features the blue windows as its logo), I called the Church and was referred to a Mr. Jack Mobely (sp?) . (601) 594-5138. Mr. Mobely stated that several members of the congregation took the small windows, but that the sanctuary windows were still in storage. I explained that the question had come up on this blog about whether they had survived if someone or some group had an idea for their use, and he seemed certainly willing to talk to people about appropriate use and interest.

    I am not from Jackson, but it is clear to me that these were for many there part of the social and religious iconography of the community, in a way that extends far beyond any particular congregation or denomination. If any preservationist has any interest, I hope this proves helpful.

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  8. On a tangent, does anyone know whether the melted fiberglass windows of the 1960s, specifically those of Resilene by Browne (TM), were used in any churches? I bought a 1960s “painting” (not translucent) by Resilene by Browne and became intrigued by the few references I found. See the publicity/lpress photo from the old Chicago Dally News at http://www.ebay.com/itm/1964-Press-Photo-Resilene-Browne-stained-glass-windows-/250995868369 and the copyright entries at http://books.google.com/books?id=Ux4hAQAAIAAJ&pg=PP585&lpg=PP585&dq=Resilene+by+Browne&source=bl&ots=iOiukfJvMM&sig=Y0PQkB7LxBIp8Z4703XMLGmzv8U&hl=en&sa=X&ei=OYJHT5LLK8aqgwetqrH5DQ&sqi=2&ved=0CCIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Resilene%20by%20Browne&f=false

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  9. I’m a young minister who have started a new church in Jackson and I would love the opporrunity to acquire the property and with God and anyone willing to support the restoration; give life to a very precious and needed landmark. If First Baptist has no use for it they should allow someone else to make good use of it.

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    • Pastor Buckley, prayers and encouragement to you and for you. As a far away individual, I can only suggest that you need to talk to First Baptist. They may have a use not obvious to us or there may be reasons why the landmark cannot have life. You may, of course, find the opposite and that everything is in a sense prepared for your entry on the scene. Best hopes to you.

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  10. I am a member of FCC Jackson and have been for almost 25 years and I can tell you that most of this info here is completely false. We, as a congregation, wanted so badly for our building to be used by another church, do that it’s beauty could be seen for years to come, but after having multiple churches look at the place, it was obvious that that was not going to be the case. We hung on a long as we could, until we couldn’t afford to stay their another month….. We were heartbroken, I assure you.
    That vandalizing you talked about???? Well, we didn’t touch a thing until we found out that First Baptist was going to tear the place down. At that point, we removed the pews-which went to other churches-we removed the intricate woodworking-which graces our altar in the new building even today. We removed the stained glass-some of it was reframed and sold to lifetime members (with proceeds to charity), much of it hangs in our church today. What does not, is carefully packed and stored to be used in a new building when we build. The amazing, ornate organ is in another church, the light fixtures are in our current building and even the carpet is being used in another church. To say that we “vandalized” our church, is extremely offensive and is a flat out lie-which you would know if you had actually bothered to ask.
    For all those people who said bad things about our congregation, and became infuriated when they heard about the sale of the building and it’s probable fate, I say this-where we’re you when we put articles in the paper about our plight, or when we tried to reach out to the community-one that took far more from us than it gave? Where we’re they when our congregation cried, prayed and searched for a way to keep our treasured church building alive? Maybe if someone had offered assistance then, none of this would even be an issue.
    I have never been so proud to be a member of any group than I am to be a member of FCC Jackson. The loss of our beautiful church building hurt me more than you will ever know-it was the only place I had ever known, and now my daughter would never have a chance to enjoy it. I, personally, begged businesses, neighbors, historical socities and others and thats just what I did! We ALL tried so hard to avert this outcome..But I finally realized that the part of our church that was important-God and people and our faith-was still fully intact and is still today.
    FCC Jackson has been a beautiful, important part of this city for close to two centuries, and we still are. I pray for the person or people who are responsible for these lies, that, in the future, they will be better stewards of the power of words.

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    • Thank-you Holli beautifully stated. If only people would ask and search out the facts before they assume the worse. If Mr. El Malvaney wasn’t busy playing Angry Birds, smelling the magnolias, tweeting and wandering through old building, maybe, he could have done more research on the building and the congregation. If he would like to view the beautifu stain glass windows, I’d be happy to show him how well they have been preserved and stored. Yes, we do need to pray for Mr. El Malvaney and any others that are responsible for the misinformation they have been given.

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  11. If I have given any false or misleading statements, I apologize; if I did, it was unintentional.

    With that said, I want to remark on only one thing. that being the only thing an outsider to the Jackson community could remark upon. This was a remarkable edifice indeed. Its qualities even in photographs taken some years ago are apparent, and its details for the purposes of worship are clearly thought out.

    However, even if the photographs were murky, it is clear from the feeling of loss that Malvaney articulated how greatly the Jackson community at large prized it and it is equally clear from the comments of you two members how the congregation still prizes the time spent in that structure.

    Thus, on its qualiy and fitness as a church all are agreed; that unanimity is the most amazing epitaph for a building I have encountered. That, despite setbacks, the congregation continues strong n their faith is merely one more testimony to the strength with which that structure girded those who used and graced it. .

    I know this may not be the time my final thoughts would be welcome, but I cannot help thinking Jackson lucky to have all those who have commented here feel so passionately for buidings. I salute all of you, from Malvaney to you members! .

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    • I am glad too, that people care so much for our historical sites, I just wish it had come in time to save such a much loved, imposing and Holy place….over the long course of its life as a House of worship, that place had meant so much to so many…believe me….when I heard that the place was going to be torn down, I even wrote letters to the new owners, and others to let them know that of they were going to tear it down, they would have to do it with me chained to the building, and I promise, I meant it!! Maybe that was the childish part of me talking, but I meant it with everything in me. Anyway, I just wanted people to know the truth and know that as bad as it may hurt others who care about the building as a historical treasure, think about how badly it hurt those of us who knew it as the House of God, and even more simply as our home! As it stands today, it is a beautiful building…A place that will always be special in my heart and in the memories of others… The part that was important-God and our faith- stays with us and lives within us…beautiful building or not..

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  12. It has now been on the open market for some months, and nothing. It is really sad to me. I would love to give that old building some love, if only I had the resources… sigh.

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  13. As Saints of God we must first recognize the tricks of the enemy. The Bible tells us that the devil comes to kill steal and destroy. This my friends is a device of the devil to cause division amongst the Saints. Why is it that we as a people can not come together and pray that God’s Perfect Will be done concerning the building. There are people in need of a place of Worship. Let us not be side tracked by the devil.

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