A small crowd gathered in the parking lot of Lee University’s Communication Arts Building Tuesday morning to witness the removal of the steeple on the old First Baptist Church.
Eyes turned skyward at the first lift of the large crane. Hands immediately shot toward the steeple in an effort to block out the early morning sun. The tall structure lifted several feet and was suspended for several seconds over Church Street.
Onlookers pulled out cameras and cellphones in an effort to capture the slow descent.
“It was a big moment in our history 48 years ago in 1966,” said Cleveland businessman Allan Jones once the steeple was safely placed on the ground. “The whole town turned out to watch the raising of the steeple.”
He explained how he and his friends Scott Taylor and Jim Gibson rode their Schwinn bikes to witness the event.
Cason Conn of Tri-Con Construction explained the construction workers spent all of Monday unbolting the bottom section of the steeple. He admitted there was a little “trial and error” in the process. The large structure was completely unbolted by early Tuesday morning.
Conn said the entire process would have gone the same way regardless of whether or not Jones intended to preserve the steeple.
“[We would] still be very delicate about taking it down. We understand it means a lot to a lot of people in the community, and not just from a religious standpoint, but from a historical standpoint,” he said. “We always planned on taking it down the way we did today.”
Cleveland resident David Marr explained the process took two cranes when the steeple was placed in 1966. The construction crew quickly discovered one would not lift the 47-foot metal-and-wood steeple. Marr recalled a beam being placed through the center of the steeple and two cranes lifting from either side.
First Baptist, with its long columns and steeple jutting toward the sky, became the tallest structure in downtown Cleveland.
Ben Perez said he and his friends from Lee University also witnessed the raising of the steeple. The senior-level boys left their rooms at the Cherokee Hotel to join the large crowd in front of the church. The whole situation intrigued the former New York City resident.
He explained he was used to tall structures. It was fascinating for him to see the response of Cleveland’s residents to the steeple placement.
“It is history to me, so I was delighted to see they are taking care to bring it down,” Perez said. “I think Mr. Jones is going to put it some place and keep it and not scrap it. It is a good statement about Cleveland and the church.”
Jones acquired the steeple when the land and property were purchased from First Baptist and donated to Lee University. The college decided to use the old sanctuary as a performance venue for the School of Music. The church has been renamed Pangle Hall in honor of Jones’ wife, Janie Pangle Jones.
According to Jones, he offered the steeple to First Baptist Church. He was informed the church currently does not have a place to utilize the steeple. For now it will be moved to the Jones’ family property at Creek Ridge.
First Baptist co-pastor and Jones’ childhood friend Jim Gibson said the steeple may be used for a chapel in the future.
“It has just been a great memory time for all of us, you know, [those] who were here when the steeple was put up, taking pictures of it,” he said. “We all lived about six or eight blocks from here. There were no malls or anything like that. We came and watched it, and it was really cool.”
He explained the First Baptist Church of 1966 did not have some of the features it has today.
“The wings that you see right here were not a part of the original structure,” Gibson explained. “It was really just the width of the columns and the brick. These wings were added in about 1995 and 1996.”
He expressed his thanks to Lee University for its willingness to give life to the old church.
“What we are so thankful for as a church is great things are going to continue to happen here through Lee’s reusing it in a new kind of way, so that is just fantastic,” he said. “We would have hated if the [church] had been torn down.”
Jones watched the removal of the steeple alongside the curious onlookers Tuesday morning before explaining why he felt the need to preserve the structure.
“History is important. To know the future, you need to know the past,” he said. “By preserving the past, it helps future generations know what is going on.”