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Shy of its 100th year, Tampa’s Seminole Heights Baptist Church parish is no more

Seminole Heights Baptist Church parish relocated to 5902 N Himes Ave. and reorganized as Harvest Baptist Fellowship.
The Seminole Heights Baptist Church demolition is underway in Tampa.
The Seminole Heights Baptist Church demolition is underway in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jul. 27
Updated Aug. 6

TAMPA — Whenever Frank Walker drove by the Seminole Heights Baptist Church building, he thought of his father, who helped build the steeple that for decades rose above I-275 near the E Hillsborough Avenue exit.

“It was a source of pride,” Walker said. “My dad would emphasize how well-built it was and say, ‘That can last forever.’”

It didn’t.

The building at 801 E Hillsborough Ave. sold last year and is now being demolished to make room for a free-standing emergency room for Memorial Hospital of Tampa.

Only the steeple’s 43-foot top has been saved. It was removed and then given to Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe.

But Tampa is losing more than a 72-year-old church building.

The city also lost a historic parish name.

After selling the 3.5-acre property for $6.9 million to Nashville-based HCA Healthcare, the Seminole Heights Baptist Church parish relocated to 5902 N Himes Ave. and reorganized as Harvest Baptist Fellowship.

Pastor Brant Adams’ LinkedIn page said the name change occurred in November, two months shy of what would have been the Seminole Heights Baptist Church parish’s 100th anniversary year.

“Personally, I am heartbroken to see that church close because I grew up in that neighborhood and had many friends who attended there,” said John Cinchett, author of Historic Tampa Churches. “But I also know the sad reality of what they faced with declining attendance. These little churches cannot afford to maintain their aging churches.”

The Seminole Heights Baptist Church demolition is underway in Tampa.
The Seminole Heights Baptist Church demolition is underway in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Harvest Baptist Fellowship did not respond to three Tampa Bay Times voicemails and one email.

The Times could not find any mention on Harvest Baptist’s website or Facebook page of its historic connection to Seminole Heights Baptist Church.

According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website, Harvest Baptist Fellowship purchased their new building for $2.2 million.

Ginger Priest Futch was a lifetime Seminole Heights Baptist Church parishioner until a few years ago when she relocated to Lakeland. It’s where she was baptized, attended preschool and married, so, on occasion, she’d still attend service there.

The parish, she said, became too small to afford upkeep of the 72-year-old building.

Inside Seminole Heights Baptist Church in 1998.
Inside Seminole Heights Baptist Church in 1998. [ Times (1998) ]

“When I was a kid, it was standing room only all the way up to the balcony,” she said. “It wasn’t even close to that when I was there that Sunday. You take for granted what you have until it’s gone. To hear of it being demolished is so sad. There are so many memories.”

Readers shared their memories with the Times on the phone, via social media and through email.

“I was baptized at Seminole Heights Baptist Church in 1950,” Sandra Shaw Pelt said. “My grandmother, my mother and my uncles were all members there. My uncles sang in the choir.”

Robert Tracey has mischievous childhood recollections.

“They had those big spectacular columns supporting the roof. So I would visualize where they fall if there was an earthquake and who they would wipe out,” he said with a laugh. “My older brother and older cousin would sit in the balcony and throw paper over the congregation.”

Lori Peacock said her family moved to Tampa from Miami 50 years ago after her brother died. The parish helped them through the hard time. “The youth group embraced me and helped me,” she said.

Seminole Heights Baptist Church's original wooden building in 1938.
Seminole Heights Baptist Church's original wooden building in 1938. [ Courtesy of John Cinchett ]

According to Cinchett, the parish was established on Dec. 18, 1921. “At the opening service,” he said, “42 new congregants were listed as charter members.”

The original church building was wooden and located at 611 E Hillsborough Ave., Cinchett said. In 1947, the parish “began making plans for a new larger church to accommodate the growth of the faith community ... The cornerstone was laid on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1948.”

Mary Ellen Ahrens said her brother, Dick Helveston, “had his name placed in the cornerstone as the youngest member of the church. I believe he was around 6 years old.”

The new 50,000-square-foot brick church building opened in 1949. Later, the parish expanded its footprint by purchasing the neighboring City Fire Department Engine Company No. 7 building and incorporating it into the church campus.

Seminole Heights Baptist Church under construction in the late 1940s.
Seminole Heights Baptist Church under construction in the late 1940s. [ Courtesy of Hillsborough County Public Library ]

The parish was dedicated to establishing local Baptist missions, some of which grew into established churches, Cinchett said. Those include Spencer Memorial Baptist Church, Idlewild Baptist Church, North Rome Baptist Church and Hubert Avenue Baptist Church.

And, “in 1958, the congregation established one of the first church day care centers in Tampa called Babyland,” he said.

But the church was perhaps best known for its steeple, which became a landmark for commuters.

“Iconic” is how Judi Brueggeman described it. “Traveling from Winter Haven to Seminole Heights to visit my mother’s parents, when I saw that steeple, I knew we were almost there.”

Darcie Maldonado said she “grew up in South Tampa. Every year, before school started, we went all the way out to Sears for school clothes and to get our portraits done. It was a big, exciting family outing. We always looked for that steeple to let us know we were almost there.”

Seminole Heights Baptist Church in June 2020.
Seminole Heights Baptist Church in June 2020. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Still, while the “steeple is easily recognizable,” Pete Baker believes the church’s most valuable asset is the time capsule that he has been told was hidden in the “outside door that faces Hillsborough Avenue.”

“When the church was built, they placed memorabilia from the youngest and oldest members of the church into the door frame along with other items,” he said.

HCA spokesperson Debra McKell said the construction crew has not yet found a time capsule. “The team will continue to look for it, but it has not been found in any of the locations people recalled it being placed in, or heard that it was placed in.”

Related: Tampa’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church celebrates 150 years

Seminole Heights residents tried to save the building in 2020 by arguing it deserved local historic landmark designation. That would have prevented its demolition. But the city’s Historic Preservation Commission ruled that it did not meet landmark criteria.

“There are so many people that have a personal and emotional connection to the building,” Cinchett said. “This is the place where they were baptized, or their parents were married there, or the funeral of a loved one was held there. This is why there is so much of an emotional reaction by the community to such a loss.”