By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Attorneys Catherine Coulter and Deborah Keyser were having their regular Thursday lunch date with friends from court. As they got ready to order, Deborah's engaged sister, Sheila Wells, shared her complaint.
Sheila couldn't believe how hard it was to find a reception hall for her upcoming wedding. Everything was either too big, too small, too expensive or booked. Other friends who were getting married ran into the same problem: not getting enough for their money.
So Sheila came up with an idea: Why not open an event hall of their own?
Deborah tossed around the venture with friends. Nothing came of it. So without telling them, she and her husband, attorney James Stafford, stayed on the proposal, looking at various properties. The two of them had planned to buy something moderately priced, something nice, but nothing too spectacular.
Instead, they found the church.
The lonely but venerable structure near the corner of Binz and Almeda had been vacated years earlier by Christian Scientists. But budgets be damned. This was the building they had to resurrect.
In the 1920s Houston mounted its big push southward from downtown. Rice University was under way. So was Hermann Hospital, the first of the Texas Medical Center complex. Hermann Park graced its flank, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston was already established.
Stately homes dotted the area, as did graceful Mediterranean-style buildings so dominant in that period. Also expanding south from the center city was the Church of Christ, Scientist, which needed a larger facility for its growing ranks. For the design, members selected the architectural firm of Henry F. Jonas and Tabor, the latter renowned for his design of Sidney J. Lanier Middle School.
The new site was along the developing Almeda strip, which was then a principal route from downtown. Built in 1928 just off Binz, the building was modeled in the Mediterranean Byzantine style that was popular during the time in that thriving corridor.
It is a peaceful, calm respite away from Houston's hustle and bustle, although it's located in the heart of the city. At more than 8,000 square feet, the structure features a 35-foot-high dome that makes it especially distinctive. Paired with arched windows of beveled glass, five sides of cream-colored stucco surround the building. Lights hidden under a cove illuminate the dome from all angles, making for a spectacular sight at night. The reading room contains an original bookcase and intricate tiles that are worth up to $150 apiece, as well as a pivoting round-top window, which builders say isn't available anymore.
Most unique is the spatial arrangement. The sanctuary isn't the ordinary rectangle filled with long rows of pews. Instead, it has a circular shape that parallels the roundness of life that Christian Scientists sought.
"It's different from the hall-type spatial organization of the 1920s," says architectural historian Stephen Fox. "It's very open. There's light coming in from side windows and the top, from the skylight. It has a really big spatial presence on Almeda, and it's heartening that the present owners have preserved the building while finding a new use for it."
The church was once attended by prominent Houstonians such as the MacGregor family and Niels and Mellie Esperson. It was said to be the second building in Houston to have air conditioning; Elizabeth Stevens MacGregor reportedly lent the church $4,000 to purchase a unit. It was also one of the first to have a chilled drinking fountain.
For decades after that, the church and its fashionable neighborhood both flourished. Additions were made in the 1950s, but then the gradual decline of the area spread. After decades of operation, and a steadily decreasing congregation, the Third Church of Christ, Scientist building locked its doors.
In 1999 Deborah Keyser and her husband looked beyond the deteriorating neighborhood at the promising find, the forlorn old church vacated three years earlier. "As soon as we saw it, we knew we had to have it," she says.
At $400,000, it was way over the couple's price range, but Keyser was so awed by its beauty that she refused to give up. Ultimately she pulled her friends into a partnership. The five- person group -- three of them criminal defense attorneys -- closed the deal for what they now call "the house that crime built" on July 15, 1999.
They had no clue about the overwhelming amount of work ahead. Not surprisingly, changing the structure and purpose of a building more than 70 years old was a difficult task.
With the help of ex-congressman Craig Washington and former judge Andrew Jefferson, the group got neighbor Hubbard Coleman to sell his gas station so they could add a parking lot required by new city codes.
Central power and air conditioning were insufficient, and bathrooms were not wheelchair-accessible. Before they could remodel, however, the contractor and architect had to be approved by the Texas Historical Commission if their building was to gain historical status. The state eventually approved Byrlan Cass-Shively, Coulter's architect of 15 years.
"It was a big responsibility to guide clients to try to respect the building," Cass-Shively says.
Cass-Shively and contractor Kevin Corkery tiered the main room by filling the slanted floor with cement. The team made improvements to the building's infrastructure, but they needed the historical commission to approve variances for some of the property regulations that they were not able to meet.