Texas church designed by state’s first Black architect granted rare landmark status

Although a building's age and architecture are noteworthy, its designation as a state landmark also considers the full story, including the congregation and design team.

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A church designed by Texas’ first licensed Black architect has received a designation that will aid in maintaining the institution’s long history of serving the Black community.

The Houston Chronicle reported that Boynton Chapel Methodist Church, which started in Houston’s Third Ward in the 1880s, has been designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, the most significant distinction the state can bestow upon a historic building.

John S. Chase designed the current structure in 1957, coming up with a one-of-a-kind design that featured stained glass windows and a unique profile with a cross-gable roof. Today, the church has 225 members; about 90 attend Sunday services each week.

Boynton Chapel Methodist Church, designed by John S. Chase in 1957, has been designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark. (Photo Credit: Screenshot/YouTube./com/Boynton Chapel Methodist Church – Houston)

“My dad would be pleasantly surprised at the attention his work has gotten 10 to 12 years after he passed away,” said Chase’s son, Tony Chase, of Boynton Chapel’s new status. “This church was early in Dad’s career, so it was special to him. They were one of the earliest to embrace him, and once he proved himself with those early jobs, he got commissions to do all sorts of buildings.”

Walker Shores, a University of Houston student volunteer who has since graduated, assisted in making Boynton Chapel a Protected Landmark of the City of Houston in 2021. Sam Osemwingie, another UH graduate, helped Preservation Houston make the church a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark.

Although both are noteworthy, a building’s landmark status stems not only from its age and architecture, but also its overall story, congregation itself, and the design team.

In addition to a permanent position in the state’s recorded history, the designation opens the door to tax credits, grants, and other gifts that can be challenging for NGOs, particularly religious institutions, to get.

The church’s well-known members include Christia Adair, a suffragist and civil rights advocate; Madgelean “Mama” Bush, a civic figure who oversaw the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and established Boy Scout and Girl Scout units in the Third Ward; and Dr. Forde B. McWilliams, one of the state’s first Black veterinarians.

Because of segregation, the church stepped in to provide access to public swimming pools and other social activities for Black people. Boynton built a pool, a gym, and classrooms where they taught people employment skills in the following decades. In the 1930s, the neighborhood’s community hall became a kindergarten for children of working women.

At a time when no firm would hire him, Boynton Chapel was one of Chase’s first clients. He also designed Houston’s Booker T. Washington High School, Texas Southern University’s School of Communications, and Thurgood Marshall School of Law. He contributed to the renovations at the Astrodome and the Toyota Center. He died in 2012 at 87.

“Dad’s honors thesis for his master’s at UT was about the Black church and the design and spirit of the Black church, so he was heavily invested in the development of the Black church, both physically and spiritually. It was also a practical matter,” Tony Chase added, “because, frankly, that’s the place in the Black community where there was capital and a lot of growth and construction going on.”

The church is working to raise its portion of a $180,000 matching grant from the National Fund for Sacred Spaces, which will go toward replacing the church’s air conditioning system, resolving drainage issues, and repairing the bell tower, which hasn’t functioned in 50 years.

They would have to spend $15,000 on an architectural building assessment survey to be eligible for another grant to assist with repairing and restoring sanctuary windows.

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