The Chapel of the High-Speed Pass at the Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial (Photo by Kram Kran Photo)

There’s a new historic landmark that will soon be added to the record books. With the City of Jacksonville Council’s approval of Ordinance 2018-677 on Nov. 13, 2018, the Chapel of the High-Speed Pass at the POW/MIA Memorial at Cecil Field will be recorded in the official records of Duval County with local landmark status.

“The City now has a new historical landmark to be proud of that will serve as a destination site for the nation. This historic Chapel of the High-Speed Pass has a lot of history and memories associated with the former Master Jet Base, NAS Cecil Field,” said Michael Cassata, executive director, Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial, Inc. “The Chapel is very important to our overall mission and vision of establishing a National POW/MIA Memorial. It is the centerpiece and will honor our former Prisoners of War and Missing in Action service members.”

The building, formerly called the NAS Cecil Field Chapel, is recognized as the physical embodiment of the “Spirit of Cecil Field,” defined by service, honor, sacrifice and patriotism, according to a statement in the bill. Since 1966, the chapel has hosted hundreds of baptisms, weddings, memorial and funeral services, as well as Memorial Day and Veterans Day events.

The Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission recommended approval of the local landmark designation Sept. 26, 2018, finding that it had met three of seven criteria required for the designation. Those criteria found to be met include 1) its value as a significant reminder of the cultural, historical, architectural or archaeological heritage of the city, state or nation; 2) it has distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style valuable for the study of a period, method of construction, or use of indigenous materials, and 3) its suitability for preservation or restoration.

The 14,744-square-foot chapel was designed in a distinctive A-frame style by Jacksonville architectural firm KBJ Architects, a style popular in church architecture during the 1960s and 1970s. The firm, Kemp, Bunch and Jackson, has been identified as the oldest architectural firm in Florida, by virtue of having purchased in 1946 a firm that was established shortly after the Great Fire of 1901. KBJ designed 17 of the city’s 30 tallest buildings, including the first high-rise, the 22-story Aetna Building, which opened in 1955.

The Cecil Field chapel was the venue for an event in 1973 to welcome John McCain back after his release from prison in Hanoi, North Vietnam. McCain became Commanding Officer of a training squadron at Cecil Field in 1976 and won the squadron its first Meritorious Unit Commendation. In early 2017, McCain sent a letter to the Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial board of directors endorsing their work.

When Cecil Field was closed in 1999, the chapel was vacated and used for storage, with the wings of the building used as office space for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Division of Forestry. Due to issues with asbestos and lead, the chapel was scheduled for demolition, but strong public opposition resulted in removing it from the demolition list in 2001.

After Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial, Inc. was founded in 2016, the nonprofit began cleaning the chapel with plans to renovate it for use as part of a national memorial for prisoners of war and those missing in action.

To date, restoration efforts include restoring the exterior and interior doors of the chapel, replacing the roof, resealing some of the windows and repainting the interior. Yet to be completed are the installation of new pews and carpeting, and work on the A/C system. 

“One great addition to be on display is a Chair of Honor Pew. This is a single-seat pew to symbolize to our Missing in Action there will always be a seat and ‘You Are Not Forgotten.’ We believe this will be one of a kind!” said Cassata.   

“We are expecting to be opened and fully operational in early 2019. The Chapel’s usage will be used for military weddings, funerals and ceremonies. The general public will also have access to it,” he said. 

As a designated landmark, any activity affecting the exterior of the NAS Cecil Field Chapel, including additions, replacements, relocations, restorations or demolitions, will require a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) from the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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