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Concert venue, religious services, morgue: Historic Gainesville First United Methodist Church has worn many hats
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The former First Methodist Church of Gainesville, one of the few downtown buildings surviving the infamous 1936 tornado, was purchased and later gifted by Lessie and Charles Smithgall to The Arts Council, Inc. and is slowly undergoing renovations. - photo by Scott Rogers

Each time she glances up at the old stained glass windows during service at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, 84-year-old Caroline Silcox said she remembers the building that used to hold them. 

Before settling into the lakeside property on Thompson Bridge Road in the ‘80s, the windows graced the former Methodist church on Green Street for nearly eight decades.

“It reminds me of the old church, and how much we all loved looking at them when we were sitting in the services growing up,” Silcox said. “Everybody loved those windows. We would not move (the church) unless they moved the windows.”

Although it no longer displays detailed biblical scenes in colorful stained glass, the former church building still poses a striking structure in downtown Gainesville. 

According to the book, “Church History: Gainesville First United Methodist Church,” written by members of the church’s history committee, construction for the building took place from 1906 to 1908. Made with nearly a million bricks and reaching 120 feet in length, it was designed to hold 1,000 people in its auditorium and 800 in its Sunday School room. The towers on either side of the main entrance stand 80 feet high.

The total cost of the old church was $50,000, the book stated.

The building was one of a few in Gainesville that survived the 1936 tornado fairly unscathed. 

Gladys Wyant, executive director of The Arts Council that now owns the structure, said the church’s adult Sunday School classrooms —  called the “Melting Pot” and “Scrap Pile” — were used as morgues to hold the bodies of those who hadn’t been identified or were awaiting a burial. 

“When people came to look for their relatives, they’d say, ‘Have you seen Mary John Smith?” Wyant said, using a generic name. “(They’d reply) No, I haven’t, but you might check the Melting Pot or the Scrap Pile. They thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what is this?’”

The sanctuary became a temporary hospital, and the kitchen and other Sunday School rooms were offered to injured and homeless people, the authors of “Church History” wrote. A memorial service was later held on May 5, 1936, at the church, to honor those who died during the tornado. 

While it served as a space for those in need, the building also offered a place for new beginnings and joyful occasions. 

Alice Paris, who turns 83 this August, grew up attending the church, and still remains active at the Thompson Bridge location today. Paris said she’ll never forget marrying her husband, Tom, at the Methodist church in 1960. 

The Rev. Zach Hayes officiated the wedding. Paris was 22 years old at the time.

About this series 

As the pace of development in Gainesville reaches a fever pitch, The Times is examining the history of some of the buildings downtown and nearby in this weekly series. Other stories in the series include:

“It was totally a white wedding,” Paris recounted. “All the bridesmaids wore white. I remember the candles and the beautiful flowers Ruth Benson did.”

In 1985, the building became Westminster Presbyterian Church. Silcox said Gainesville First UMC left the structure for several reasons.

“The church as a whole felt like we just needed another church out from Gainesville because downtown was getting crowded,” she said. “ … And the building needed a lot of repairs.”

Paris said she will always cherish certain moments shared at the historic building on Green Street. She remembers participating in the old church’s Chrismon tree tradition (similar to a Christmas tree but adorned with symbols of Christ), making symbols to hang on its branches.

“We’ve had lots of wonderful memories in that church,” Paris said. “I did love that church, and I love the new one, too. Time moves on, and we have to move with it.”

Wyant said in the early 2000s she found out that the property was for sale and heard that a realtor was looking to potentially tear it down. 

“I talked to Lessie (Smithgall) about it, and she said, ‘We can’t let that happen, let’s buy it,’” Wyant recounted. 

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The Arts Council Executive Director Gladys Wyant tours the performing arts complex Wednesday July 7, 2021. The former First Methodist Church of Gainesville, one of the few downtown buildings surviving the infamous 1936 tornado, was purchased and later gifted by Lessie and Charles Smithgall to The Arts Council, Inc. and is slowly undergoing renovations. - photo by Scott Rogers

As an individual and not through The Arts Council, Wyant said she set up a limited liability company with Lessie and Charles Smithgall to purchase the building. She said they kept this exchange a secret for a year-and-a-half, taking time to restore the space. During this initial phase, she said they contributed around $1 million in renovations, including replacing the boiler with central heating and air conditioning.

In 2002, the church was donated to The Arts Council. It is now known as the Performing Arts Complex. 

When it reopened in the early 2000s, Wyant said the building hosted several performances, including one from the Zac Brown Band. She said events came to an end after a fire marshall paid a visit, noting the absence of a sprinkler system. 

“I thought it would be grandfathered in at 1906, when it was built,” Wyant said. “He (fire marshall) said, ‘You’re not a church.’”

Since then, Wyant said The Arts Council has installed a new sprinkler system, roofing, decking and several technical upgrades. The plaster has also been carefully stripped away from the walls, exposing the bricks. 

In the last two years, Wyant said the old stage has been transformed to a single platform, offering more than double its original space. It also is fitted with additional outlets for musicians to set up their equipment.

Wyant said these newer restorations have cost around $800,000. She expects it will take another $1 million for the building to be finished for the public. Other future updates include new carpeting and seating. 

Because The Arts Council relies on donations for funding, Wyant said she can’t predict when the complex will be finished. Once it reaches its full glory, she intends to use it as a place for local theater performances, musical entertainment and summer programs for kids.

“We hope to seat 500 in here, including the balcony,” Wyant said, motioning to the auditorium space. “We’ll have more music here than anything else.”

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