Passing through downtown Houston along interstate 59, few would fail to notice the brightly lit cross that’s appeared on the former Communications Workers Association Local 6222 building, purchased by Houston’s First Baptist Church.
“There used to be a large cross on the top of Houston’s St. Joseph’s Hospital, but when that building was sold the cross was removed,” says Pastor Lee Hsia, pastor for this campus of Houston’s First Baptist Church. “That large symbol of Christianity which had been a part of the downtown Houston skyline disappeared. We wanted to add a large, lit cross not merely to our building, but to bring back that visible symbol to the downtown area.”
Houston’s First Baptist isn’t a newcomer to the downtown Houston area, however. “We were one of the first churches in Houston, back in 1841,” continues Hsia. “In the 1970s, the church moved to a western part of the city as the population shifted out of the downtown area. Then back in 2011, we decided to re-engage the now growing population living in downtown Houston and re-planted a campus there.”
They re-planted as a satellite campus in rented space in the basement of a downtown skyscraper, and eventually reached the point where it made sense to acquire their own space.
“It was a miracle of God that we were able to locate a building like this,” says Hsia. “We became beneficiaries of the cell phone industry. As landline services decreased, the telecommunications union members decreased, and the union building in downtown was out on the market for sale. We bought it with the goal of making it a beacon of light to the downtown community.”
In considering how to transform the new building into their downtown church facility, Catherine Callaway, a senior architect at Kirksey Architecture in Houston, comments the former union building had several advantages that one might not normally expect to find in an existing downtown property.
“The building already had an assembly space,” Callaway says, “as well as parking and office space for staff. This was an exceptionally good feature combination for the church.”
The building as purchased was not a particularly inspiring piece of architecture. “The building was rather plain and drab,” comments Callaway, “with a buff-colored brick exterior, minimal windows, and a very plain façade. We needed to transform this building into the church’s vision for their downtown campus. They wanted it to speak to people living in an urban core, who are often on the younger side and includes a large student population.”
To that end, first impressions mattered to the church, and first impressions start at the entrance. “We wanted a very welcoming front door—to say to the community that we are an open, welcoming church,” says Hsia.
Kirksey removed the flagpoles that were positioned in front of the entrance and created more of a garden feel. A drop-off space was created for allowing children and those with mobility issues easier access to the building. “That front space was important to us,” says Hsia, “and they did a great job with that.”
Inside, the building experienced significant transformations. “We brightened the entire space by painting it white throughout,” describes Callaway. “The original building had significant amounts of office space for the union staff; we transformed much of that space into classrooms for children’s ministry, youth, and college students. The public spaces saw the most significant transformation: we removed the drop ceiling, gaining four to five feet of ceiling height, and painted all the exposed building structure above the old ceiling grey. The vinyl tile that covered all the floors was scraped off and we left the concrete floors exposed. These changes give the building a more modern, urban feel.”
“In the entry lobby there's an elevator,” Callaway continues. “We brought in some of the visual lines from other parts of the building into an art piece around the elevator created by a local artist and fabricator. Within the piece there's LED lighting that changes color over time. It was nice to bring in local talent to add character to the interior design.”
With a significant college population in downtown Houston, it was important for the church to provide space that would reach that demographic.
“We have between 60–100 students who are present on each weekend,” states Hsia. “We needed a room that was appealing to them.”
To that end, part of the second floor was transformed into a space with comfortable seating like that of a living room. “It is fun, and many Sundays after church students stay and do their homework or talk. We host study nights on Sunday evenings, providing that necessary study fuel: coffee!” Hsia adds. Large windows facing the downtown skyline bring in daylight and allow the students a view of the city they’ve made their home.
Callaway adds, “Off the lobby we put in a social stair that also serves as a seating space with built-in bookshelves and phone chargers. This provides another area for social connection for the children, youth, and college students.”
The union building had a kitchen and café that was able to be repurposed for the church. “In the café,” Callaway says, “we stripped off as much as we could to expose the structure and open up the space more. We brought in plywood as a feature and installed built-in tables and seating areas for people to gather.” Houston skyline line-drawing artwork adorns the wall behind the counter, reinforcing the church’s connection to the city and community.
To transform the union building’s meeting room into a space more suitable for the church’s worship service, the ceiling tiles were also removed to increase the ceiling height and contemporize the space. Carpet was added which helps with sound absorption, and acoustical tiles to tame the liveliness of the acoustics were manufactured in geometric shapes, tying in the geometry of other building elements.
Leading from the lobby/café area into the worship center, a large glass segmented door (similar to a garage door) was installed. The church lowers it to close off the larger entrance into the worship center when the sermon is being delivered while maintaining visibility into the auditorium. A smaller, standard doorway off to the side is still available for ingress and egress.
For the children’s needs, they were able to create an unusual feature for a downtown urban location. “We had room to create an outdoor play area on this tight urban site, consisting of a fenced-in area with some grass next to the building with direct access from children’s area,” Callaway describes. Despite space allocation being challenging, the children’s space was placed on the ground floor for safety and security.
The exterior cross, however, remains the feature of this renovation that the church is most pleased with.
“The cross outside wasn’t originally in the design,” describes Callaway. “It’s shaped from corrugated metal and acrylic. Adding it was a challenge—we had to open up the side of the building to get back to the steel structure to support the cross, and then re-seal and re-bricked the exterior wall. The lighting designer for the project worked with the architects to provide the dramatic lighting.”
“At the end of the day,” says Hsia, “we wanted a building that says we are welcoming. Looking at our congregation, it is as diverse as our community, and the building helps make that happen.” And the community seems to agree—the Houston’s First Baptist Church downtown facility has been nominated for the 2019 Houston landmark awards.
Exterior cross: internally-illuminated, frosted acrylic, painted aluminum frame, 40-feet tall, anchored by structural steel supports; corrugated, perforated metal panels as faceted orange accent around the cross
Elevator accent: clear-lacquered Advantech Oriented Strand Board (OSB), CNC-milled with custom perforated design, color-changing LED lighting, designed/fabricated by Mak Studio
Interior feature millwork (Lobby social steps, benches, café seating area, Huddle room): Oriented Strand Board (OSB) – sanded and clear-sealed
Carpet: Shaw, Engage Tile, and Mohawk, Zip It Tile
CONSULTANTS & CONTRACTORS:
Architect: Kirksey Architecture
General Contractor: Tellepsen Builders
Structural Engineer: Pinnacle Structural Engineers
ME Engineers: ME Engineers
Landscape Architect: Kudela & Weinheimer Landscape Architects
Acoustical Engineer: SLR International Corporation
Graphics & Signage: Ulrich Diederich Design
Civil Engineer: H2BLighting Design: Gandy Squared Lighting Design