Arts & Events » Architecture

Second Chance

Second Baptist Church gets “temporary reprieve” from demolition.

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The Second Baptist Church, slated for demolition by the owner of the Jefferson Hotel, William Goodwin, has won a “temporary reprieve” to allow stakeholders more time to explore various reuses of the property, according to Richmond City Council member Stephanie Lynch, who represents the 5th District.

The reprieve comes after weeks of genteel, behind-closed-doors meetings involving Lynch, council members Ellen Robertson (6th-District), Andreas Addison (1st District), Historic Richmond’s Executive Director Cyane Crump, Goodwin, representatives of the Jefferson Hotel and, of course, lawyers.

The push to save the imposing 1906 neoclassical building from a wrecking crew received an assist most recently by a Feb. 22 letter from the chairman of Commission of Architectural Review (CAR), Neville C. Johnson to the members of Richmond City Council. In that letter, Johnson affirms CAR’s support for saving the structure.

The closed-door meetings, coupled with the efforts of veteran preservationist and community organizer, Jennie Knapp Dotts, have undoubtedly contributed to the “temporary reprieve.” Dotts admits she has been busy since the news broke in October that the building was in danger of imminent demolition. With the help of scores of volunteers, she helped organize protest rallies and launched a petition on Change.org calling for a boycott of the Jefferson Hotel.

When Historic Richmond first learned Second Baptist Church was in danger of being demolished, according to a posting on their website, they “reached out to the Jefferson Hotel and its owners [informally and formally] with offers to partner with them to assist with the adaptive reuse of the Second Baptist Church building and to explore nontraditional preservation approaches for the structure and the façade. We were rebuffed."

They also begged for a review of the request by the city’s Commission of Architectural Review noting on its website that “this was always an uphill David v. Goliath battle. We did have a small slingshot – there is a legal process for review of proposed demolitions of buildings in City Old and Historic Districts. The city took away that slingshot. Why? The shadow of Goliath was looming over City Hall.”

The news of a “temporary reprieve” may signal to defenders of architecturally significant old buildings that Historic Richmond and local citizens have found some new slingshots. Dotts says that “everyone has a role to play in saving this building,” she says. “Only so many people can fit in those meetings behind closed doors.”

“The petition grew out of the rally that assembled overnight (literally) to protest the threatened demolition of Second Baptist,” Dotts explains. “I posted the petition on behalf of a broad coalition of outraged citizens called SaveSecondBaptist. Many coalition members are veterans of the same attempt 30 years ago.”

The preamble to the petition titled “Make the Jefferson Hotel Owner Pay for Robbing Richmond History” reads: “The billionaire owner of one of Richmond, Virginia’s finest classical landmarks —Second Baptist Church—neglected its maintenance for 30 years and got away with it because of his wealth and influence. Now he claims that it’s too expensive to fix and must be demolished. He has bypassed the processes meant to protect our historic buildings. Moral arguments have failed. Lovers of history and of Richmond must speak out in a language he understands -- money.”

“By signing below, you join us in pledging to boycott his nearby business, the historic Jefferson Hotel. Don’t spend your money on rooms, restaurants, or events unless and until he agrees to preserve Second Baptist. Ask you friends to do the same.” The petition, launched one week ago, has 380 signatures.

One of the petition signers, Daniella Wyatt Shew, shares a button she wore at a similar protest to save the building in 1992. In a recent interview, she passionately insists: “History must stop repeating itself!”

Shew says that while she appreciates that a “temporary reprieve has been granted,” she “doesn’t trust Goodwin,” noting that “if he really cares about his legacy, why are we having this fight? He has the power – and the friends – to make this right and to save this building.”

In a public comment on the petition, Shew wrote “If you are rich the laws don’t have to apply to you. Bill Goodwin is unspeakably rich. This building was under historic preservation restrictions BEFORE he bought it… malice aforethought.”

Councilwoman Lynch is more diplomatic.

“We’ve come a long way since the ‘90s when this decision was first made. It’s a different Richmond now, one that prioritizes community voices and input,” she says. “While we may be legally bound by the decision made in 1992, we have a civic responsibility to get people to the table and make sure those voices and heard -- this is bigger than a building.”

Repeated calls for comment from Goodwin were not returned.