What’s the future of historic church?

The old First Baptist Church on MLK was the hub of the African American community for years. Long boarded up, there’s a move afoot to restore it to be used as a community center. AERIAL PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAN LEONARD - AIR IMAGE AUSTIN

Community, owner ponder options for old First Baptist

It was the center of the African-American community in San Marcos for the better part of a century, home to a congregation that has been around since just after the Civil War. And though it appears to be abandoned, the old First Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Drive is the focus of new attention and a communal affection that has never entirely faded.

Last week, organizers held the second in a series of community meetings about restoring the nearly 110-year-old church. Ramika Adams from the Calaboose Museum, Splash Coworking owner Carina Boston Pinales, Shetay Ashford, Ph.D., from the Texas state University Department of Occupational, Workforce and Leadership Studies, current owner of the old church Kurt Waldhauser, representatives from the San Marcos Historic Preservation Commission, representatives of the faith community, university students and interested members of the community gathered at the Pentecostal Temple COGIC on Centre Street to begin fl eshing out the process needed to draw attention to the church and begin working to realize its potential. Right now, the focus is on three main goals: Visioning work to decide what the church should become, exploring funding opportunities and creating community awareness.

 

ʻIt was a hub for our communityʼ

Georgia Cheatham – one of the fi rst fi ve African-Americans to enroll at what was then Southwest Texas State University – has memories of growing up in the church. At last week’s meeting, Cheatham said, “My mother was one of the mothers of the church, who worked hard all her life. … I’m so regretful this didn’t happen years ago, when we fi rst tried.”

Cheatham said the original Baptist church was located on Guadalupe Street, where Tuttle Lumber stood, but the Ku Klux Klan burned it down in 1876 while searching for someone the Klansmen thought might have been inside the church. Th e structure on Martin Luther King was built in 1908 and served as the home for the Baptist congregation until the mid-80s, when Cheatham said the congregation relocated to its current building on Mitchell Street. Th e congregation had tried to restore the aging building but wasn’t able to pull the resources and support together.

“Part of the reason we moved was because of parking,” Cheatham said. “We just didn’t have the funding. We tried.”

The old First Baptist Church on MLK Drive. DAILY RECORD PHOTO BY RACHEL WILLIS

Cheatham said she remembered that when she was young, there was no air conditioning in the church.

“Everybody grew a lot of muscles from fanning themselves,” she said.

She also remembered an area across the street from the church that was known as “Th e Beat,” where men would often sit around and drink and listen to the music coming from the church.

“I can particularly remember Rev. Arnold walking over there, and they would try to hide their bottles, and he would say, ‘You don’t have to hide that from me. You can’t hide it from God,’” she said, adding that the pastor would sit and visit with the men.

She also remembered children sitting up in the balcony during evening services at the church because, “Our parents were down below and couldn’t see us acting up.”

Cheatham said that before the schools in San Marcos integrated, graduation ceremonies for the San Marcos Colored School took place there. Th e church also hosted state and national church conventions, for which the women of the church prepared meals.

At the meeting held last week, Pentecostal Temple COGIC Pastor Paul Th ompson, his wife and his son also shared memories of the old church.

“We got to rockin’ down there so hard sometimes, you’d think it would have fallen down by now,” Paul Th ompson said.

“It was a hub for our community,” said Pastor Wayne Th ompson, adding that he had memories of going to vacation Bible school at the church. “I can see Morris banging on the piano, I can see the choir rockin’,”

“They’re good memories,” Ora Th ompson said. “And I’d like to see us do something to bring the memories back.”

Preserving the stories of parishioners like Cheatham, the Th ompsons and countless other members of the Black community is a priority for those organizing the restoration eff orts.

“I became involved when George Forrester was looking at buying the place,” Pinales said of her role in supporting restoration efforts. “I then did some research and asked around to other locals about their experiences and the background of the church. Knowing the historical significance and the threat of gentrification that is already happening in the neighborhood, I felt obligated to be accountable for the preservation of the building – but more so, not just the structure, but what the church encapsulated and nurtured, which is a sense of place and community.”

ʻItʼs the right thing to doʼ

The church’s historical value and importance to the community, in fact, is what inspired owner Kurt Waldhauser to want to restore the building rather than tear it down.

Waldhauser and his wife bought the church property earlier this year, after Forrester passed away before being able to purchase it.

“Our thought was we would use some of the materials to build a house with and sell the other materials to buyers on the West Coast, and then redevelop the lot” he said of his initial plans for the property. Th e church is made out of cypress wood, which is in high demand, and long leaf pine, which is extinct, and selling the materials could be very lucrative.

But then Waldhauser learned about the history of the building.

“Right after we bought the property … I reached out to Jane Hughson and Ed Mihalkanin,” he said, and they – along with fellow city council member Lisa Prewitt – looked around the church with Waldhauser.

“I told them, ‘You can see this needs a lot of work,’” Waldhauser said, “But in meeting with the three of them, Dr. Mihalkanin asked, ‘Do you know the history?’”

Mihalkanin told Waldhauser about the original church being burned down by the KKK in 1876 and the many civil rights meetings that were held in the church on Martin Luther King Drive, and it was then that Waldhauser realized he needed to save the church.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I really believe in the building, and I really believe it should be preserved.”

Waldhauser reached out to Th e Calaboose African-American Museum about spearheading restoration efforts, and Adams said the museum board was eager to get involved.

“We decided there was no way we could not do it,” Adams said. “We know it’s a huge task, but we don’t have to do it by ourselves.”

Adams said the museum board is making adjustments to make sure the museum can handle the project. After that, she said, the fi rst priority is getting the roof and foundation of the church secured.

At last week’s meeting, Waldhauser mentioned that there has been vandalism at the church. Homeless people keep breaking in to fi nd shelter, and parts of the church are unsafe. He said there is a leak in the roof toward the back and water penetration toward the front of the church that has made it unsafe. Th ose repairs would be the priority once restoration work begins, and the city has a grant program that could help.

Kevin Burke, economic development and downtown administrator for the city of San Marcos, said the Business Improvement and Growth Program grant, which could be up to $20,000, could fund what he called “life safety improvements” at the church even though it is typically for for-profit businesses working on their facades and signage.

“We recognize the historic nature of the property,” Burke said, adding that the city supports community efforts to revitalize the old church.

“Th e city’s very pleased to see there’s a community effort forming around the property,” he said. “Th e city has never had the resources to take that project on. … Th e resources we do have to offer are very limited.”

ʻIʼm hopeful that somethingʼs going to come aboutʼ

Ashford is lending her grant-writing knowledge and pursuing some of her own research goals in getting involved in the project.

“I’m soaking it all up,” she said of the stories connected to the old church.

Ashford explained that she has a tenuretrack position at the university, and because of her position she feels an obligation to serve the community. She said it is often a challenge for academics to get involved in their communities because of the pressures of the job, but she is excited to be involved in the restoration project.

“I consider myself as having an obligation,” she said.

Ashford said she has been talking to faithbased organizations, the school district and other entities in town to build partnerships. She believes that restoring the church is another opportunity for many groups to work together and support the Black community as the restoration process moves forward.

Adams praised Ashford for her efforts, and especially her knowledge of grant writing, which will be essential in acquiring the funding to restore the church.

“I know she is the person to partner with us,” Adams said.

Waldhauser has also been exploring grants and tax credits. He said the Texas Historical Commission has a program that will give 45 percent of restoration costs back in tax credits for building owners who grant leases that are 39 years or longer to a nonprofit organization and a for-profit, or corporate, partner.

“We’ve got Calaboose as the nonprofit entity,” he said. “If we had a corporate partner, like H-E-B or McCoy’s, it seems we could get something going. … I’m hopeful that something’s going to come about.”

More community meetings on restoration efforts are in the works, and plans are taking shape to hold events outside or adjacent to the church to begin drawing attention to it and raise community interest. For more information on getting involved with the restoration efforts, call 512-393-8421 or email adams.ramika@gmail.com.

San Marcos Daily Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666