Born-Again Beauty

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.

For the team -- the financial partners worked alongside the laborers -- the most difficult aspect of the restoration process was remodeling parts of the church to meet requirements they felt were unnecessary. Ironically, because of fire codes, the cement wall that separates the auditorium from the old Sunday school room had to be torn down and replaced with a wall that was less fire-retardant.

However, the renovation also managed to make aesthetic contributions to the building without intruding upon the original work.

The old Sunday school area, which has been renovated with new slate tiles and French doors, had its acoustic ceiling replaced with a dropped cove ceiling, complete with elaborate stenciling and lighting.

Tensions mounted as the work progressed. The friends butted heads with the rest of the crew in conflicts between aesthetics and practicality. "There were a lot of temper tantrums, and a lot of sulking. There are enough strong personalities turning inside these walls for a small Midwestern town," Coulter says, laughing.

The one who oversaw much of the work was Corkery, and he eventually ended up playing ego mediator between the lawyers.

"Kevin's the perfect person," Coulter says. "He has the patience of Job to put up with as many owners, all of who are accustomed to having their own way, all the time, who will argue about anything, all the time."

Profit may have been an initial motive, but the project soon began to make a profound impact on their lives.

Rather than kicking back on weekends, the partners were working up at the site. They spent hours at the library researching the church's history and learning the fine points about surfaces and acoustical materials.

Along with other sacrifices, they poured their incomes into the renovation. The women joke about how they can't wait to go shopping again. They haven't bought new clothes in two years.

"If it doesn't stop costing money, I'm going to have to move in," Keyser jokes.

The sweat equity they provided proved to be rewarding in a way other than just saving thousands of dollars.

"It's a nice foil for what we do every day: talk and talk and talk," Coulter says. "We actually do something with our hands. It's something where we can see a change."

The group also felt a change, a sense that someone has been looking over the church to see that everything came out all right.

For one, the building was almost snatched up before they could get it. The day after the purchase, an antique toy dealer showed up with an offer to buy the church to make it into a toy museum. To this day, they say, he still drops by to show them his collection in the hopes that they might sell.

Replacing the roof was another close call. Gulf Star, the company that produced the original red clay roof tiles, no longer carried the model that was used in 1928, and the women couldn't locate suitable replacement tiles. Just when they began the roof work, Gulf Star called and said it had miraculously found 2,500 tiles. It was just enough for them to replace the entire roof, with a few left over.

After the intense work, the women feel the most difficult part will be letting go. Coulter knows that any scrape or dent she sees on the property will tear her apart.

"That's going to be a big emotional adjustment," she says. "It's going to be difficult dealing with the wear and tear on the building. But inevitably, if you have large numbers of people using a facility, things happen."

In fact, the women have a joke with the rest of the crew: They're not allowed on the site the day after the first event.

"We're hoping that this building fits the people [who rent it] and the people fit the building," Coulter says.

There's no uncertainty that, after 73 years, the building fits better than ever into the city's heritage.

Coulter says that following the recent razing of the Gulf Publishing building on Allen Parkway, she feels an increasing need to make Houston aware about efforts to preserve the city's old sites. For her, the older buildings will be rewarding to pass down.

"The building will probably be here after we're gone," she says. This project "is important in a place like Houston, where people don't value the city's history."

As Coulter sits, cleaning bronze-plated brass hinges for the front doors, she tells of their motto: If we remodel it, they will come.

Some already have.

Dawn Maack, the senior sales representative at eatZi's catering, was driving by when she noticed the building. She scheduled an appointment right away.

"I think it has all the needs that we want in a facility. It's priced right," Maack says. "I think the uniqueness, the oldness and the location are great, and the owners have been very neat to work with."

Patrons will now know the old church as the Parador, a name Coulter took from a network of Spanish inns. Their research has resulted in official state designation of the church as a historical landmark. The formal dedication was to take place Wednesday, June 27.

"There will be people who marry here who will look back 40 years from now and see the pictures and go, 'That was the most beautiful place,' " Coulter says. "And that's a joyous thought."

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