Imperiled architecture

Another Houston landmark headed for demolition: Church of the Redeemer, an East End concrete beacon


News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill
News_Redeemer church
Photo by Jenny Antill

The East End's Church of the Redeemer held its final service in its 1952-poured concrete building on Feb. 28. Notable as a locus of the charismatic revival of the 1960s, the church is a historic architectural landmark. Among the first cast-on-site concrete structures in the city, it was Houston's first windowless, air-conditioned church upon completion.

For over nine decades, the church channeled funds towards community programs rather than building maintenance. Following an assessment by Studio Red Architects and Tellepsen Builders, an estimated $7 million would be required to restore the building. Unable to pay for repairs, the congregation has abandoned the site that served as a spiritual haven for East Side residents.

The Church of the Redeemer was born in June 1919 when downtown's Christ Church donated $3,500 to purchase the triangle of land between Dallas Street, Eastwood Street and the diagonal Telephone Road. William Wilson, the developer of the Eastwood neighborhood, sold the land with the intent of providing a church that embraced all varieties of Christianity.  The original building was constructed of lumber salvaged from the World War I military facility, Camp Logan (now Memorial Park).

The organization became a beacon in the community, and attendance doubled between 1920 and 1923. More than a place of worship, the Church of the Redeemer housed a branch of the Houston Public Library, the city's oldest continually meeting Boy Scout troop, sporting events and a neighborhood kindergarten.

One of the church's most prominent members, Tom Tellepsen, foresaw the need for an expanded campus. Despite the Great Depression, he underwrote a new education building.

The 11-inch thick concrete walls of the Church of the Redeemer's post-WWII building were cast on-site to resemble Austin limestone. "That's part of the problem," explains parishioner Brooke Wallace. "When lightning strikes the rebar, it causes the concrete to crumble away." Water seeping into cracks freezes and expands, causing further decay and increased danger to churchgoers.

"The church was constructed based on a vision that Tellepsen had in a dream," says parishioner Louise Alexander. 

Tellepsen added a bell tower following the 1952 construction. "Tom Tellepsen's grandson said that when they put the bell tower up, Mr. Tom could see it from his home on Park Street," recalls Alexander. The tower features intricate fretwork cast in concrete.

A sign of the times, an awkward antennae was installed by T-Mobile two years ago. Demolition of the tower will be delayed because of the five-year contract.

Below the structure's imposing façade is a system of interlocking tunnels known as The Catacombs. During the Cold War, the area was designated as a bomb shelter, and stocked with food provisions. Later plans to add a columbarium were scrapped, and instead the subterranean hallways became a living museum of the church's photographic history.

A glowing mural by German artist John William Orth of the risen Christ overlooks the nave, which is lit by concealed fluorescent lighting. "That was popular in that era — indirect lighting," says parishioner Louise Alexander of the 1950s aesthetic.

Painted on a trio of plywood and masonite panels, the mural is entitled "Christ of the Working Man." "He worked on that for four months in the Tellepsen Construction Company mill buildling," recalls Alexander.

Orth is credited for channeling Old Masters and Gothic styling. Luminaries that sat for his portraits include Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and John F. Kennedy.

For a separate commission, Houston businessman Jesse H. Jones assigned Orth to depict each U.S. president. That series is now on display in the University of Houston's Anderson Memorial Library.

The characters in the mural resemble men and women who worked for Tellepsen's construction company at 1710 Telephone Rd.

Wrote Cherlene Warnken in an April 14, 1974 article in the Houston Post, "The visitor's artistic sense may be jarred by what at first seems to be an 'Easter card Jesus.' But as one becomes acquainted with the spirit of the church, the mural of Christ surrounded by men of various races and backgrounds seems a prophetic vision. For if at any church anywhere Christ is worshipped by a diversified group of parishioners, it is at the Church of the Redeemer, a unique parish composed of black, Mexican-American and white members from across the city."

The surrounding walls were painted with a forest scene, and a painting of a starry sky once covered the ceiling. When a new organ was installed, the peripheral paintings were recoated with beige paint.

"It is probably the only church building ever built without windows," says Wallace, suggesting that Tellepsen intended for the nave's mural to be the sole visual focus.

The Church of the Redeemer will now hold services in a neighborhood Lutheran church. Demolition of its former buildings will begin in the next three-to-five months. Laments Wallace, "It's out of our hands."