Romanesque Revival: Addison Mizner’s Riverside Baptist Church

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“Mizner’s greatest work,” proclaimed Paris Singer, beholding Jacksonville’s Riverside Baptist Church. From its distinct Old World plan to its furnishings, fixtures, wrought-iron screens, tiles, murals, vases, and stone work, this out-of-the-way sanctuary houses the largest ensemble of original artifacts designed by Addison Mizner and manufactured by Mizner Industries. Almost a century later this anomalous cache remains intact, however distressed and in need of resources to restore its former artistry.

Addison Mizner’s influential style continues to shape Palm Beach and Boca Raton’s architectural ambiance. And yet, what some consider Mizner’s magnum opus, his only religious building, remains far-removed from this protective limelight. One of 16 churches and more than 2,000 contributing buildings comprising Jacksonville’s Riverside Historic District, the Riverside Baptist Church is as distant geographically as it is economically from Mizner’s pervasive South Florida presence where appreciation for his work evolved from indifference and mockery to reverence. While this remoteness could be seen as the reason it has escaped major modifications, demolition or the impulse to be modern that beset many of even Mizner’s finest works, it is also a cause for concern whether there are available resources that will insure its preservation for another century.

During a recent visit I noticed the landmarked building’s exterior appeared stabilized but interior aesthetic and structural elements were noticeably distressed since my last stopover nine years ago. As much as I value a worn patina and displays of the aging process and the church is to be commended for preserving a significant page in architectural history, I was alarmed by the decomposition of Mizner’s original designs. Significant painted figurative scenes and geometric designs have faded into near oblivion. Light fixtures need restoration. The nave’s scored stucco walls show surface deterioration. Wrought iron and stone work require maintenance and refurbishment. By restoring the sanctuary’s original visual character, the church recaptures its historic sense of time and place.

Architect Addison Mizner and associate architect Bruce Kitchell’s drawings were filed with the City of Jacksonville in March, 1924. Construction began July 1924; the first service was held April 1926. Built at a cost of $175,000, the octagonal-shaped sanctuary was based on a Greek cross configuration with bays and transepts extending to the north, south, east, and west. Following Romanesque models, Mizner utilized classic arched and vaulted buttress support systems. Rising up from the street on a terraced platform and set on a brick foundation with concrete footings, the building’s reliance on load-bearing walls enhanced the sense of a large, unified enclosed space. Courtesy Riverside Baptist Church.
Façade, facing King Street. The façade’s central portal is sheltered within a stone arch set beneath a trio of Romanesque windows trimmed with archivolts. A tympanum depicts the baptism of Christ in bas-relief directly above rusticated pecky-cypress doors with carved Greek crosses. Pictured to the right, an attached arcade added in 1964.
Postcard, 1926. Façade and north elevation. The church’s first service was held in April 1926. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.
North elevation and façade, view from the corner of Park Street and King Street.
To the right of the façade, an arcade and three-story building designed by Saxelbye & Powell were added in 1964.
Riverside Baptist Church, estimated building costs. 1925. Historic American Building Survey, National Park Service. 1975.
Addison Mizner’s factory in West Palm Beach produced much of the Riverside Baptist Church’s structural and decorative elements while local Jacksonville contractors installed them.
Façade, looking northeast.
South courtyard elevation and Transept entrance. The courtyard was formed with the addition of two administration and educational buildings. Following this substantial expansion the church lost much of its congregation during the “white-flight” that affected many of the South’s urban areas.
South elevation, radial window.
North Transept entrance.
Along the north elevation, a winking monk and a laughing nun.
South Transept radial window, interior view.
South Transept. The church’s brick and Inter-Lochen structural clay tile walls were scored with grey-white stucco to resemble limestone blocks, resulting in one of Mizner’s most ambitious ashlar-patterned tromp l’oeils. After drying, the walls were reportedly rubbed with buttermilk and burnt umber simulating a heightened medieval ambiance. Some congregants more accustomed to the Baptist penchant for Colonial Revival architecture were reported to have left the church, thinking it more apropos for Catholics rather than Baptists.
North Transept. The windows filter the sunlight, casting a bluish tint on the sanctuary walls. The spindle and arch-trimmed black oak pews face east toward the chancel.
Chandelier. Addison Mizner, designer. The one-of-a-kind leaded-glass chandelier was said to be inspired by the original central chandelier at Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul with corner castellations framing the multi-faceted octagonal Moorish lantern.
The octagonal exposed ceiling was composed of intersecting triangulated painted rafters with wood and steel trusses sheathed with cypress beams.
Historic American Building Survey, National Park Service. 1975.
Ceiling, 1926. F. E. Geisler, photographer. Courtesy Riverside Baptist Church.
A HDR image shows the ceiling’s nearly vanished polychrome painted finish.
L to R.: Campanile chimney. A rare original intact.; North elevation, tower enclosing octagonal staircase to balcony loft.
Façade, central arch.
The Tympanum depicts the baptism of Christ.
Façade, pecky cypress entrance doors, detail.
Nave, view from the Chancel to the organ loft. Today’s congregation of about 100 contrasts with the as many as 500 who once attended weekly services. The original grayish-blue windows were selected to cast an ethereal aura into the main sanctuary. Mizner embellished the Romanesque Revival symmetric center-aisle plan with linear arcades and curved moldings, traditional arches and vaults, pilasters alternating with structural Corinthian columns, figurative sculptures, detailed woodwork, decorative painting, and murals.
The balcony houses the second Skinner organ that plays independently or simultaneously with the church’s main organ in the chancel. The arch is lined with thirteen heraldry crests painted within a carved arcade supported by decorated cypress beams buttressed by cast stone columns. Keeping with the tradition of European Romanesque cathedrals, the heraldic shields represent family crests during the Crusades. The figurative ceiling scenes have faded almost beyond recognition.
Historic American Building Survey, National Park Service. 1975.

Historic American Building Survey, National Park Service. 1975.
North passageway.
L to R.: Side aisle, north, paved with terra cotta tiles from Mizner Industries.; Side aisle, south. The faux-painted ceilings and walls of both side aisles show signs of stress.
Side aisle, south ceiling.
North side aisle, detail.
Lantern, Mizner Industries.
Lanterns, Mizner Industries.
Chancel, wrought-iron screen divides choir loft and organ pipes from pulpit and lectern. The organ’s exposed pipes are framed by columned cinquefoil arches.
The chancel’s Mizner-designed artifacts add warmth and richness to the sanctuary’s stone solemnity. Mizner-blue and terra-cotta tiles line the stairs leading onto the central platform where the altar is divided from the choir loft by elaborate wrought-iron grilles. On both sides of the chancel additional Mizner-designed grille work screens the supporting arcades. Within the south arcade the church’s baptistery is surfaced with wedge-shaped Mizner-blue and Mizner-black tiles.
Concerts featuring the church’s more than 4,000 pipe Skinner organ make for popular events. As much as the Romanesque style is commonly associated with the sound of Gregorian chants, the Riverside choir raises their congregation’s vibration with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “How Great Thou Art.”
North passageway.
Baptismal pool screened with wrought-iron divider from the congregation. The ashlar patterned stucco has been greatly diminished.
Baptismal pool, detail.
The baptismal pool is screened from the sanctuary by wrought-iron grilles and paved with signature Mizner blue and Mizner black tiles.
Baptismal pool, detail.
L to R.: Seville Jar, Set atop Mizner Industries stool at steps paved with Mizner tiles leading up to Chancel.; Seville Jar. Set atop Mizner Industries stool at steps paved with Mizner tiles leading to Chancel.
Seville Jar, Mizner Industries sales brochure, lower row, third from left. Courtesy Addison Mizner Collection, Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Chandelier, detail. Unlike Mizner’s often replicated wrought-iron chandeliers, the Riverside Baptist Church’s chandelier remains one of Mizner’s incomparable designs.
Narthex, Poor Box. Mizner Industries.

For more information contact Riverside Baptist Church

Photography by Augustus Mayhew.

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach-A Greater Grandeur

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