Stop, Look, Listen

Beyond the Bible Belt: Sacred Spaces of Texas uncovers spiritual treasures across the Lone Star State

10, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Stafford
Photo by Joe C. Aker
01, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, St. Mary's Catholic Church, Fredericksburg
Photo courtesy of Mark Johnson Photography
12, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, Temple Mount Sinai, El Paso
Photo by Frédéric Dalbin, AIA
09, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, Houston First Baptist Church
Photo courtesy of Mark Johnson Photography
11, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, Vietnam Buddhist Center, Sugar Land
Photo by Joe C. Aker
04, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Galveston
Photo by Claudia Casbarian
08, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, Chapel of Saint Basil, University of St. Thomas, Houston
Photo by Gerald Moorhead, FAIA
07, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, Friends Meeting House, Houston
Photo courtesy of Hester + Hardaway Photographers
02, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, Mission San Jose, San Antonio
Photo by Gerald Moorhead, FAIA
06, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, Denton
Photo by Charles Davis Smith, AIA
05, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center, Sugar Land
Photo by Joe C. Aker
03, AIA Houston, Sacred Spaces, audio photo essay, November 2012, Rothko Chapel
Photo by Hickey Robertson

For a region that's often referred to as the "Bible Belt," where the assumption is that the majority of religious institutions lean toward conservative evangelical Protestantism, there's a myriad of ecclesiastical architectural treasures beyond churches. They include mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, synagogues, painted chapels, Spanish missions and non-traditional spaces.

When Architecture Center Houston and the Houston Chapter of the American Institute of Architects prepared for the photography exhibition Sacred Spaces of Texas, on view through Jan. 13 at Architecture Center Houston, curators Wendy Heger, Donna Kacmar, Nora Laos and Mort Levy were interested in examining the similarities, differences and patterns from building to building, from denomination to denomination.

Flip through this audio photo essay and hear from Heger, Kacmar and Levy explain what's noteworthy about 12 of the 36 sacred spaces featured in the collection.


For a structure that appears to be an architecture marvel, it's surprising to learn that there wasn't an official architect — not one — in charge of designing and erecting the Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Stafford.

Rather, the framework stems from a centuries-old masonry tradition. Stone carvers in India prefabricated 33,000 individual pieces to fit together like a complex puzzle. The pieces were shipped to Houston where members of the Hindu community collaborated to assemble the temple — one stone at a time.

An example of a crowdsourced building?

But how? Listen to curator Mort Levy tell all about how modern technology played an essential role in the construction.

Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Stafford, 2004 (1150 Brand Ln., Stafford)

Similar to the Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, the painted churches along the Hill Country region between Houston and Austin were decorated by members of their congregation who were trying to recreate the churches of their homeland, be it Poland, the former Czech Republic and surrounding countries.

The technique conveys materials and an organizational framework that were either too expensive or not available in the area. The exteriors are plain and somewhat quiet; the interiors are breathtaking.

As part of the exhibition, Architecture Center Houston and the Houston Chapter of the American Institute of Architects are offering a guided tour of the painted churches in Schulenburg on Dec. 15. More details can be found here.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Fredericksburg, 1906-08, Leo Dielmann Architect, Fred Donecker and Sons Artists (307 West Main St., Fredericksburg)

The growth of Texas' Jewish communities stems from immigration through the Port of Galveston, which many nicknamed "the Ellis Island of the West" in the 19th and 20th centuries.  From there they dispersed throughout the state, including El Paso.

Temple Mount Sinai is one of 500 or so synagogues built in the 1960s, many of which were influenced by German Expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), who taught at the University of California, Berkeley.

This temple evinces a duality in Mendelsohn's contemporary style: The sanctuary should be a high element surrounded by lower support elements. 

Temple Mount Sinai, El Paso, 1962, Sidney Eisenshtat with Carroll and Daeuble Architects (4408 North Stanton St.,  El Paso)

Iconography, imagery, symbology and aesthetics typically play an important role in the design of sacred spaces. Yet the Houston's First Baptist Church has little that indicates it's indeed a sanctuary, though officials of this church prefer too call their gathering place a worship center.

It's through spoken word, projections and music that this state-of-the-art building — which otherwise resembles a corporate, conference or academic setting — morphs into a house of God.

"It's a container purposefully simple, removed from the outside world," curator Wendy Heger explains in the recorded audio.

Houston's First Baptist Church, Houston, 1976; renovation 2008, S.I. Morris Associates; renovation by Studio RED Architects (7401 Katy Freeway, Houston)

A 70-foot high statue of the Buddha welcomes guests to the Vietnam Buddhist Center in Sugar Land. It's surrounded by gorgeous gardens and meaningful sculptures, each a symbol carrying a sacred message about the tenor of this peaceful spiritual tradition.

Some statues are adorned with flowers, incense and fruit in tribute to the deities.

Vietnam Buddhist Center, Sugar Land, 1990 (10002 Synott Rd., Sugar Land)

The Reedy Chapel is exceptional because of its architecture, its history and because of what it represents in the larger sense of the growth of a community.

Located on Broadway Boulevard on Galveston, the chapel is the site where the Emancipation Proclamation was originally read in Galveston in 1863. The building has survived many weather disasters since it was rebuilt in 1870 after a fire claimed the original 1848  chapel.

Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Galveston, 1886, Benjamin G. Chisolm Architect, restoration by David Watson and Fred Huddleston Architects (2013 Broadway St., Galveston)

The Chapel of Saint Basil sits at the end of the campus at the University of St. Thomas, opposite to the library. The deliberate positioning dialogues on the congruences and frictions between sacred and secular, spiritual and academic, and epistemology and faith.

It's the light that bestows a mystical, otherworldly feel to the chapel, not dissimilar to the use of chiaroscuro of Baroque painters like Caravaggio and Rubens.

Chapel of Saint Basil, University of St. Thomas, Houston, 1997, Philip Johnson, Ritchie & Fiore with John Manley and Merriman Holt Architects (3802 Yoakum Blvd., Houston)

When the Quaker congregation meets, they sit in a central space facing each other in silence until a member is inclined to share something with their family, friends and colleagues. The public is always welcome to attend and partake in the practice.

The Skyspace is by James Turrell, and anchors the Friends Meeting House. The view offers a peaceful ambiance in which to assemble and share intimate, personal thoughts and experiences.

"At sunset, it's a beautiful way to see the time, the light and sun move," curator Donna Kacmar explains.

Friends Meeting House, Houston, 2001, Leslie Elkins, Architect, Skyspace by James Turrell (1318 West 26th St.,  Houston)

The Mission San Jose, the oldest building in this exhibition, is one of the many missions in San Antonio. The active congregation celebrates the heritage of Spanish and Mexican cultures in Texas.

When missions were originally built, they were thoroughly decorated with colorful stencil work. A small area of the Catholic center has been restored, offering a glimpse into how the structure may have fit into its landscape.

Mission San José, San Antonio, 1768-82; restored 1928-1937, Joseph Palafox and Antonio Salazar Spanish Colonial master masons, 1928-37 restoration Harvey P. Smith Architect (6701 San Jose Dr., San Antonio)

This simple and quiet building of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Denton nods to the essence traditional Romanesque Christian churches. Yet removed are all extraneous decorations that distract from the beauty and symbolism of the structure itself, which carries its own strong expressive prowess. 

First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Denton, 1961, O’Neil Ford, Architect (1203 Fulton St., Denton)

Buildings should support and fit into their environment, says the view of the congregation's spiritual leader, the Aga Khan. Among his ambitions: Eliminate poverty, the advancement of women, environmental sensitivity and celebrate Islamic art and architecture.

In this case, the low brick building is aligned with commercial construction around its site in Sugar Land. Yet it also includes many centuries-old features found in Islamic buildings, like gardens, geometry and domes.

Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center, Sugar Land, 2002, Ramesh Khosla Architect with ARCOP Group (1700 First Colony Blvd., Sugar Land)

To fully appreciate the detail and internalize the spirit of the Rothko Chapel, a visitor needs to slow down and allow the dimness to gradually unveil the subtle gradations offered by the monumental Mark Rothko panels that represent the Stations of the Cross, placed along the inside walls of the octagonal building.

Built as an all-denominational sacred space, the building stands as one of the symbols of the chapel's dual vocations: Contemplation and action.

Mark Rothko's alternate panels can be viewed at the Menil Collection.

Rothko Chapel, Houston, 1971, Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, Architects (3900 Yupon St., Houston)