Part of Gainesville's history returns to lofty heights


A crane places a restored bell tower atop the First United Methodist Church, 419 NE First St., in Gainesville, Fla., Monday, March 18, 2013.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer
Published: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 6:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 6:39 p.m.

Tears began to fill 79-year-old Dodie Andrews' eyes Monday as a unique piece of Gainesville history was returned to its rightful home for the first time since 1941.

"Here it goes, here it goes," Andrews said as she clasped her hands and stared into the gray sky with amazement. "Gee willikers, would you look at that."

Inch by inch, a goldenrod-colored crane lifted the restored First United Methodist Church bell tower into the sky until it was carefully placed where it resided more than 70 years ago, on top of the original church. Whispers of excitement reverberated across the crowd and a sea of hands holding smartphones and cameras filled the air as spectators captured the moment.

Andrews was among about 50 spectators who gathered at 419 NE First St. to see the unveiling and raising of the parish's reconstructed bell tower on top of the new fellowship hall.

According to Sara McKinley, the church's senior pastor, the tower originally sat atop the 1887 sanctuary before it was taken down in 1941 due to deterioration. The same year, a new, larger church was built and the original chapel was turned into a fellowship hall.

A few years ago, the congregation came up with a multi-phase plan to renovate some of the buildings of the First United Methodist Church. More than 460 members, and community benefactors Judi and Davis Rembert, then raised more than $1.2 million to renovate the historical building and tower, restore the 140-year-old bell to the top of the church, replicate and replace stain-glass windows and build a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen.

Gainesville architect Jay Reeves spearheaded the project and made it his goal to replicate the original bell tower and hall as close as possible. He used original photos to capture the French, gothic revival style of the original structure.

Reeves included elements such as a central spire, four mini spires on each corner of the tower and multiple fleur de lis on the structure to reflect the time period. He also used woodwork, stained-glass windows and flooring collected from the original church in the renovation.

McKinley said workers started constructing the 70-foot-tower in November on the ground before it was completed and raised by crane Monday. Inside the tower is the historic bell that was taken down with the tower in 1941 and kept inside the fellowship hall.

She said a representative from the manufacturer of the bell, Joshua Regester & Sons Bells, recently visited Gainesville to examine the condition of the piece and provide instructions on its installation. McKinley said the representative was surprised because the bell was more than 100 years old, yet still in great condition.

She said he noted how unusual it was to find an old bell in such outstanding condition, and therefore believes it is a unique piece to the history of the church and Gainesville.

"The restoration is important to more than just our church," she said. "It is important to the community. Judi and Davis Rembert, who funded a large part of the tower, aren't even members of our church. That speaks about how important this project is for Gainesville. It's all part of the downtown revitalization."

McKinley believes the project is vital to the preservation of Gainesville's heritage, especially because many of the chapels downtown have been torn down.

"There's something about this that symbolizes renovation, new life and a new start," she said "It's a symbol that we are here, we've been here and we're going to be here for another 150 years, so come join us."

The senior pastor also hopes this will encourage more people in the area to join the congregation.

"We are more ready now for more people in the community to come, more so than ever," she said. "Everyone is welcome at the church, we tell everyone we have open hearts, open minds and an open church."

The congregation plans to have a celebration open to the community once the brickwork and finial detail of the tower are complete. The bell will be rung, by hand, before services and on special occasions.

McKinley is personally excited to be reminded on a weekly basis of her childhood in England.

"Having a bell to ring before church, brings me back to my childhood roots," she said. "The small English villages still ring their bells on Sunday mornings, and I don't know what it is, but there is something about it that just brings the community together."

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