World-famous American architect, Addison Mizner, designed and built the Sanctuary of Riverside Baptist Church in 1924. Mizner's reputation as an architect stems from commissions he received to design and build homes in Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Fl01ida, during the early 1920's. These works include the famous Everglades Club at Palm Beach, the Cloister at Boca Raton, as well as residences for the Vanderbilt's, Cosdens and Singers. Though Mizner was considered to be disinterested in religious matters, he had promised to build a church in honor of his mother. That promise was fulfilled with the design of Riverside Baptist Church, the only church built by Mizner and the only project by the architect in Jacksonville. Donating his talents in memory of his mother, Mizner refused any monetary compensation for his service.
Mizner was granted free license in designing the church and chose to incorporate three major types of architecture: Romanesque, Byzantine, and Spanish. Many of the design ideas, building materials and furnishings found in the church reflect impressions made upon Mizner during his tours of European castles and cathedrals. The over all shape of the church is that of Creek cross. The church walls are constructed from hollow clay tile surmounted by a roof of red Spanish tile. The outer walls are layered with stucco. The interior walls were covered with plaster and, like the exterior, marked off while still wet by Italian artisans to create the illusion of limestone block construction. After drying, the walls were rubbed with buttermilk and burnt umber to simulate centuries of age. Originally, the exterior and interior of the church were the same limestone color. Staining caused by a water-proofing process made it necessary to paint the exterior.
Worshipers enter the church through one of three pecky-cypress doors each embellished with carved Greek crosses. The larger center doorway forms the lower half of a great stone archway above which are three Romanesque windows. Above the center doorway, inside the great arch, a carved tympanum in bas-relief depicts the baptism of Christ. Symbolic scapegoats flank the center doors.
To provid easense of spaciousness to the narrow Narthex, Miznerutilized a Gothic style groin-vaulted ceiling. Copying a Spanish motif, star-shaped lanterns representing the star of Bethlehem hang from the ceiling. An antique poor box can also be found in the Narthe.
Under the balcony is a circular painting depicting Christ sitting in judgement of the world. Other painted decorations in Fifteenth Century Italian Renaissance style adorn the ceiling, cypress beams, and front of the balcony. The design for these decorations, along with the painting "Christ Sitting in Judgment", Mizner copied from the Don Sitter Palace in Florence, Italy. All of the painted woodwork in the nave, originally in bright colors, was rubbed down with buttermilk to achieve an antique effect desired by Mizner. Little is known about the meaning of the thirteen heraldic shields on the front of the balcony. Perhaps, they, in keeping with the tradition of European cathedrals, are the family crests of honored members of the church who led in the building program, made great donations, or served the church in some outstanding way.
The nave of the church describes an octagon (symbolic of rebirth) with bays or transepts extending to the north, south, east and west forming the shape of a Greek cross. The capitals of the various pillars are made of cast stone, a process Mizner used to give them the appearance of being hand carved. Every fourth capital repeats a design, giving the interior a balance achieved through an imbalance. Acanthus leaves, fems, griffins, eagles (symbolic of St. John), and lions (symbolic of St. Mark), adorn the capitals. Beneath the massivedome, at the summit of each of the eight great pillars, stand life-size angels. Enormous antiqued pecky-cypress beams crisscross against the columns to support the massive dome. Eight scripture phrases ring the top of the nave.
12 Large radial or rose windows illuminate the northern and southern transepts. Beneath the dome are Romanesque windows in groups of three symbolic of the Trinity. Taken together, the sum of these windows is twelve, one for each of the apostles. Triple Romanesque windows also adorn both sides of the balcony. Napoleon's tomb in Paris, was Mizner's inspiration for the use of blue glass in the windows throughout the nave. This glass illuminates the nave with an overall bluish cast, intended to intensify reverence. From the Saint Sofia Mosque in Istanbul, Mizner copied the central portion of the great chandelier. The outer tier was added to provide greater illumination. Other lanterns throughout the nave are either star-shaped or miniature versions of the center portion of the chandelier.
Three large Romanesque arches and six smaller Mudejar (Moorish) arches overlook the chancel. Like the balcony, triple Romanesque windows adorn both sides of the chancel. These windows incorporate gold glass and are patterned after the amber windows in the altar of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. These windows flood the chancel with a golden glow, a lighting effect Mizner designed to be at peak intensity during the morning worship hour. Wrought iron grills, commonly used in Spanish churches, enclose the choir and baptistry. The grill-work incorporates many octagones (symbolic of rebirth), triple concentric circles (symbolic to the trinity), croses in the form of quatre-foils and other shapes, and roses used as candle holders. The ironwork was made in Sarasota, Florida, by Martin Roehr. Roehr also made the majestic entrance gates to the Ringling Mansionand Ringling Art Museum, as well as gates for large estates throughout Palm Beach.
Mizner brought the red and aqua tiles used on the rostrum, center aisle an dambulatories froma Sixteenth Century Spanish cathedral. Close inspection of these tiles reveals some to have letters, numbers and symbols. The baptistry on the right side of the nave, however, is made of a modem blue tile. The pews and pulpit furniture were made in Jacksonville by Wilkie J. Schell. Schell was a member of Riverside Baptist Church and served on the Building Committee for the Sanctuary.
In the north transept, hangs Lee Adam's painting, Adoration of the Shepherd". Adams, a renowned artist, and long time resident of Jacksonville, was a member of Riverside Baptist Church at the time of commission. His wife, Mildred, was the model for the Virgin Mary.
Around the exterior of the building are a variety of stone reliefs with religious motifs: acanthus leaf and egg and dart design, lion; (representing St. Mark), and the dove (representing peace). Humorously on both sides of each bay can be seen a laughing nun and a winking monk looking down on the people below. These were used in the place of Gothic gargoyles.
For more detailed infomation about the architectural design of the church and the significance of the various designs, please contact the church office by phone, email or facebook and we will be happy to provide you with a color booklet detailing more information about our beautiful and historic sanctuary.
If You would like to be one of the many Jacksonville residents or visitor who would like to tour our sanctuary and see what makes this beautiful structure so special. Come and meditate, take pictures walk around and study all of the historic and interesting nuancesin this special, one of a kind holy building. Call ahead to make an appointment for a tour. Tour groups can be large or one single person. The tour is free and pretty much self-paced. We welcome you to visit this beautiful and special building that you can find registered on the National Historic Registry.