East Austin Churches

East Austin’s Iconic Churches

Five houses of worship that preserve architectural identity

By Graham Cumberbatch
Photographs by Leonid Furmansky

For the modern Texas city, defining an architectural identity ranges from the obvious to the elusive. San Antonio’s visual character is easy to name, for example, its Spanish Mission aesthetic of the 1700s and 1800s largely preserved and integrated into the city’s modern development. But in Austin—smaller in size, younger in civic maturity and where the influx of new money and corporate real estate continues to take a toll on the historic landscape—pinpointing a distinct identity is a different dilemma.

As buildings that denote a unified design aesthetic rapidly disappear, neighborhoods with the most distinct heritage face waves of gentrification, bringing in turn a deluge of generic modern development. Austin’s East Side has long been the poster child for this shift, and as home to many of the city’s vanishing historical buildings, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to piece together a cohesive architectural personality. But in a collection of neighborhoods largely populated by Black residents forced to migrate east by the city’s 1928 Master Plan and the arrival of Mexican and Mexican American families from across the Southwest, religious institutions are uniquely situated to tell the story of East Austin’s visual heritage.

A glimpse inside the sanctuary at David Chapel Missionary Baptist.

For Black American neighborhoods of the era, the local church was more than just a building for Sunday service: It was a multipurpose community hub that not only provided a space of refuge but also filled vital service gaps for its congregation. The church provided supplementary education for children stuck in underresourced public schools, social outlets for Black residents who weren’t allowed in private clubs and meeting spaces for community organizing and political activism.

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As the first Black graduate of the University of Texas School of Architecture and the first Black architect certified in the state of Texas, John Saunders Chase envisioned worship spaces that were both stylish and functional. For Chase, the complex role of the architect was to combine the many facets of church life into a single, modern structure, and his elegant solutions to these problems are on full display in two of East Austin’s most iconic churches: David Chapel Missionary Baptist and Olivet Baptist.

Colorful stained glass windows adorn the lobby at David Chapel, designed by John S. Chase.

This ethos of merging the civic and faith spaces is a unifying theme across churches on the East Side. Once the first structures built in newly established communities, today they stand as the last original buildings amid the chaos of change. Taking the time to study these buildings, developers might find clues as to what an integrated, historically conscious new Austin could look like. From the Lloyd Wright-inspired midcentury-modern precision of David Chapel to the spacious, sacred minimalism of Wesley United, the East Side harbors a quiet wealth of exceptional spiritual architecture that has as much to say about the present as it does the past.

David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church

Location: 2211 E Martin Luther King Jr Blvd
Founded: 1924 Built: 1959

After outgrowing multiple locations throughout the ’20s and ’30s, David Chapel purchased its current plot in 1958 and hired a budding young architect, John S. Chase, to design the new building. Unable to secure a loan from white-owned banks, the church received funding from the St. John Regular Baptist Association and secured the services of the Oliver B. Street Construction Company for fabrication, making it one of the rare entirely Black-run, Black-funded building projects of its time. Such was its impact that Ebony magazine featured the church in a 1960 issue.

The building itself is a marvel of modern church design: “Chase was ahead of his time,” says Rev. Joseph Parker Jr., David Chapel’s pastor since 1992 and a member since 1979. While very clearly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, as Parker notes, “there was a theological underpinning to his design.”

Like David Chapel, Olivet Baptist (pictured) was built by Black-owned Oliver Street Construction Company.

From its elevated sightlines, all pointing to the baptistery as a focal point, to the humble height of the pulpit, the main sanctuary is full of ideas straight from Chase’s graduate thesis. He even had opinions on the ideal placement of the choir: “The choir should be grouped and located in a way that it does not take center of interest…. Music in the service should give the impression of an indispensable and closely woven part of the service as a whole and should not impress one as a program number.”

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The resulting front stage sees the pastor flanked by singers on either side like a heavenly chorus. Inlaid skylights and ascending side windows set against high, angled ceilings flood the stage with light. When Rev. Parker describes the mise-en-scène as taking the audience’s gaze “up to the heavens,” that’s exactly how it feels from the pews.

Both David Chapel and Olivet Baptist bear the Chase’s trademark angled rooftops and soaring sightlines.

Separating the main hall from the education wing and lobby (which once featured an entire magnolia tree) is a kaleidoscopic block grid of stained-glass windowpanes—a modernist touch that creates a Bauhaus effect when sunlight pours through. On the foyer’s opposite side is more stained glass, an illustration whose palette and style evoke the work of Jacob Lawrence, a pivotal African American painter of the era. From the outside, the bell tower is the building’s trademark feature. Back when the electric carillon used to sound twice a day, its booming chimes served as a reminder of David Chapel’s presence in East Austin as a beacon of hope and support.

St. Julia Catholic Church

Location: 3010 Lyons Rd
Founded: 1957 Built: 1957

St. Julia is relatively young compared with other notable Catholic parishes in East Austin, and its midcentury-meets-1960s minimalism suits its age. Like many Mexican American Catholic churches in the Southwest, there’s more than a hint of Spanish Mission influence. Taking up the entire corner lot at Tillery and Lyons, the subtly sprawling campus includes a simple but charming two-story brick parish that still houses parishioners today; a serene, tree-lined garden that serves as the campus’s courtyard; and a U-shaped compound of classrooms and offices.

The exterior at St. Julia acts as a front entrance to the church’s campus of post-war classrooms, gardens and offices.

The garden’s centerpiece is a half-domed stone grotto donated by a church member in 1985—a brightly hand-painted shrine dedicated to La Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos and filled with votives and flowers. That’s just one example of the vibrant public-facing art that makes St. Julia a landmark: One exterior wall features a classically painted mural of Jesus, whose greens, whites and clay reds comprise the church’s palette.

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But the real standouts are the stained-glass windows, four on either side: Unlike the purely religion-themed stained glass at similar churches, these feature ancient Aztec imagery, battle scenes from tales of old Texas and famous Mexican American political figures like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Erasmo Seguín. When the sun sets and the late Mass starts, the sanctuary lights illuminate the glass murals from inside: the view from the street is surreal.

Three of St. Julia’s eight historic stained glass windows.

Wesley United Methodist Church

Location: 1164 San Bernard
Founded: 1865 Built: 1865

One of the oldest Black churches in Austin, Wesley United was established for freed former slaves around the end of the Civil War. Their first meeting place was just west of downtown at Neches and Ninth Streets, but when the 1928 Master Plan forced Austin’s Black population east to the city’s newly designated “Negro district,” Wesley was forced to move to San Bernard.

The simple but stately exterior facade of Wesley United Methodist stands in perfect harmony with its atmospheric interior architecture.

The beauty of the Wesley building is in its simplicity. A tall, no-frills, traditional pier-and-beam structure, it features some of the most well-preserved and deeply atmospheric architectural details in the city. The ceilings make the first impression—high but not overbearing, buttressed with gorgeous mahogany brown exposed beams, gleaming at the joints in brass patina and carrying all the original lighting fixtures at their corners. What would cost contemporary homebuyers a small fortune in today’s market was most likely a cost-saving measure—a subtle irony of the changing times.

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The second impression is the quiet. All empty churches are quiet, of course, but the silence inside Wesley sounds different: weighty, reverent. As church historian Arlene L. Youngblood describes it, “It feels sacred; you feel like you’re in a true sanctuary.”

“It feels sacred; you feel like you’re in a true sanctuary,” says church historian Arlene L. Youngblood.

The pulpit is humble but beautifully crafted, adorned with little more than a small wooden cross on the back wall and the words “Holy Unto the Lord” painted in gold leaf on the overhang. Purple and gold patterned stained-glass windows border the outside walls, anchored by a large, circular, bloom-shaped stained-glass window upstairs behind the balcony. Shiny brass pipes jut proudly from walls left of the altar, pipes that once bellowed hymns from the only pipe organ owned by a Black church in the city of Austin—gone now, unfortunately.

Despite its modesty in both size and flourish, everything about the building screams, or rather whispers, craftsmanship and attention to detail. They simply don’t make churches like Wesley United Methodist anymore.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church

Location: 1206 E 9th St
Founded: 1907 Built: 1954

Originally located at Fifth and Guadalupe, the church moved to East Ninth Street in 1926 to accommodate its growing congregation. At first convening in the schoolhouse already present on the land in 1953, the parish broke ground on the iconic midcentury-modern building that houses the church today.

The exterior’s clean lines, warm brick and subdued profile belie the ornate white columns and Old World arches of the interior: It’s a clever mix of modern and classical. Small palm trees accenting the outside landscaping and the domed steeple pushing high into the sky both link the building with the old Mission churches of San Antonio and California. At once proud and dutiful, pretty and functional, the building doesn’t let embellishment get in the way of the real work of the church or meekness from letting it be a place of worship worthy of the God it honors.

A peaceful garden behind Our Lady of the Guadalupe.

Ebenezer (Third) Baptist Church

Location: 1010 E 10th St
Founded: 1957 Built: 1957

There is no bigger influence on the architectural history and design of Austin’s Black churches than that of Ebenezer—more specifically the impact of its second and most notable head pastor, Rev. L.L. Campbell. Such was his stature in East Austin that Chase mentions him by name in the section of his thesis dedicated to the power of local pastors.

“The majority of Negro Baptist churches in Austin are direct reproductions of the Ebenezer Baptist Church design which was the brainchild of the late Rev. L. L. Campbell,” Chase writes.

Ebenezer’s Gothic style and iconic neon sign make it a must-see landmark in East Austin.

The building he’s referencing was the first constructed at Ebenezer’s current site on East 10th Street in 1915, a stucco tabernacle that was the spiritual predecessor for the 1955 building that stands today. It was Campbell’s vision that inspired the imposing Gothic style that came to define the early Black churches of the East Side. A towering brick structure on a corner lot just east of I-35, Ebenezer, with its iconic neon sign, is the closest thing to a “Welcome to East Austin” sign that’s still standing. In an era of uneasy footing for the city’s Black and marginalized communities, the building’s unshakable presence in the East Side skyline is a calming visual mantra. The message: We’re still here.


Read More From the Neighborhoods Issue | June 2021


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