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Saint Paul's By-The-Sea Episcopal Church

Saint Paul's By-The-Sea Episcopal Church

Jacksonville Beach

Built in 1967 by Blake Ellis, AIA, Ellis Ricket & Associates.

St. Paul's by-the-Sea Episcopal Church was the first religious congregation established on the coastal area east of Jacksonville, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Johns River, the Intracoastal Waterway, and Ponte Vedra Beach. Year-round services began in 1925 and in 1940, they became a parish. On March 11, 1951, the parish broke ground for a new parish hall. In 1954, as the Beaches' growth accelerated, plans were made for the construction of the present sanctuary. This vision was accomplished in 1967 under the leadership of the Rector, The Rev. Paul Ritch. The first service in this magnificent new building was on Easter Sunday, April 30, 1967.

The following description of events leading to and about the construction of the St. Paul's By-The-Sea church building is taken from a talk given by the Architect Blake Ellis in the building several years ago and we quote......

"I want to take you on a trip back in time to the year 1965, when the Rector of St. Paul's was a very young priest... and the Architect, a crew cut, clean-shaven child! The Church Building Committee was chaired by Fred Jones, and included J.T. McCormack, Durward Hawkins and a number of others. The Committee; the Rector and the Architect set out to build a new church building........ A church building designed as a setting for the liturgy of the Episcopal Church. A building for altar centered worship with the family gathered around the altar as the central focus of both worship and building. The Committee’s charge to the Architect was to let nothing visually or physically interfere with the people's focus on the altar.

“Liturgy and Architecture” by Anglican priest, Peter Hammond, was then the most respected text on the programming and design of churches in the worldwide Anglican community. So programming and design began with both Architect and Building Committee focused on the functional relationships of the liturgy of the Anglican Communion as they relate to the design of a church in Jacksonville Beach Florida.

Sketching began and quickly evolved into a design with a central altar, pulpit and lectern widely spaced to front and each side, then the congregation, and at the entrance, the baptismal font and narthex. Behind the altar, on a different level, was space for the choir that could also be used as a small chapel. All of this was first conceived in a rectangular building which was the point of beginning!

As the design developed, various forms and concepts began to evolve. Shapes; spaces; light; variations of structure and texture all converged in these sketches. And the sketches soon evolved into rough models of paper and cardboard and string. Curved walls, roof shapes, interior volumes, glass, light, symbols..... Lots of conversation ensued over these rough models, which seemed to generate excitement as well as curiosity.

At this point we needed a sounding board before showing anything to the Building Committee. This turned out to be the Rector, Father Paul Ritch. We met privately and he saw the rough concepts of the design for the first time. He immediately became very excited about the design but also very concerned about possible reactions from the Building Committee. We decided we could not go to them with only the rough sketches so it was decided that we would complete the design and build a presentation model before showing them anything! We did and that model... (now over 45 years old but still intact) is still at the church today!

When first shown to the Building Committee, one member said: “If we are even going to consider that, then I will have nothing to do with it!” The Committee Chairman, Fred Jones, to the great relief of the Architect and the Rector immediately responded: “We may not accept it, but we are certainly going to consider it.” After weeks of debate the Committee (minus one) finally decided to unanimously approve the design and present it to the vestry and then to the congregation.

The model was carefully photographed by a very talented photographer named Wade Swicord. The presentation to the congregation was in the form of a slide show presented by the Committee. In the rear of the parish hall was a very nervous Architect and Rector sitting by the model covered by a sheet. The first and second slides were received in stony silence...!!! Then somewhere about the third or fourth slide... loud applause! Thereafter, excited conversation continued intermittently for the remainder of the presentation. There were a number of very excited people: Rector, Building Committee, Vestry and most especially the Architect. All were relieved, excited and happy and as they say: “the rest is history!” The design stands today just as presented that night.

Developing the construction plans and specifications; all the budgets; schedules; bid documents, etc. necessary to construct the building went well but not with the same excitement and surprise of those early meetings.

When we began the conversation about building the walls of Coquina Concrete, the cement and seashell material of the old Florida Forts, I was relieved when a member of the committee, JT McCormack modestly informed me: “I know everything there is to know about Coquina Concrete. His company designed the mixes and gave the church all the concrete required to build the walls.

Architectural supervision ended when the Architect refused to be strapped to the headache ball of a crane and lifted higher than 90' to check the steel reinforcing!"

This outstanding Architectural building, that we are fortunate to have in our city, is the product of an inspired architect. Ellis’s vision and hard work to express the functional relationship with the liturgy of the Anglican community was taken beyond the building committee’s expectations. The Initial rectangular design, that included a central altar, was transform over a late night at the office into a curvilinear form. This form was a result of a series of sketches and rough models. When the final model was presented to the congregation, the design was loudly applauded.

The acceptance of the design was not the end of the journey for Ellis and his team. They were facing another challenge when the conversation began about building the walls of coquina concrete. This challenge was easily met with the help and knowledge of one of the committee members, J.T. McCormack. His company designed the mixes and gave all the concrete required to build the walls of St. Paul’s By The Sea.

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