Preserving the Past

The congregation of Wesley Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was established in 1869, four years after the Emancipation Proclamation. In its early years, the congregation met along the banks of the San Gabriel River and in congregants’ homes. In 1881, the officers of the church purchased the land on which the current sanctuary stands on W. 4th Street for $15.

For 23 years, until the chapel was constructed, church members met in a tiny wooden building on the lot. The chapel was completed and its cornerstone laid on October 22, 1904. That December, Georgetown’s mayor and representatives from Southwestern University participated in the building’s dedication held during the AME Tenth District Conference.

The church largely remains in its original state, but over the years, necessary renovations like the addition of interior restrooms and a study in 1942, a kitchen and dining hall in 1968, and a wheelchair-accessible ramp in 1998, attempted to modernize the building without compromising its architectural integrity.

When Wesley Chapel was added to the Texas Historic Register in 1984, the Texas Historical Commission described various architectural details such as the building’s Carpenter Gothic style with its corner tower and lancet windows, solid oak pews, and pulpit. The registration documentation disclosed that the building was sound, but some sections of the church needed immediate attention, including the steeple and some rotting window frames. These repairs were addressed in subsequent years as the church’s funds would allow.

More recently, church members have seen the need for restoring and upgrading parts of the building to maintain its use. Local architect and Georgetown Heritage Society (GHS) member Trent Jacobs says, “The economics of the modern day show that it would be cheaper to bulldoze and build a new facility than to try to maintain the historic building.” But because the congregation is determined to continue their long heritage, they sought advice from GHS. Concerns included the building’s shifting foundation, peeling paint, and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance.

Trent says, “With help from ‘the grapevine’ and a little divine intervention, professors and students from the Texas A&M University College of Architecture’s Center for Heritage Conservation (CHC) heard about this educational opportunity for their students and reached out to the congregation of Wesley Chapel to set up a long-term relationship to aid in the documentation, planning, design, and volunteer efforts to preserve the chapel.”

In addition to interest from GHS and Texas A&M University CHC, the project also piqued the interest of prominent African American architect Donna Carter, FAIA, of Austin, who has special experience in historic preservation projects. Donna says she got involved because “the collaboration of community leaders, regional professionals, and the educational community provides a unique opportunity to showcase the historical roots of African Americans in Georgetown and preserve one of Georgetown’s vernacular architectural treasures.”

Carter, church leaders, the president of GHS, Texas A&M professors and students, and members of the local press met in June 2016 to tour the chapel and to record existing conditions using advanced technology, including 3D laser scanners.

Noted preservationist and Texas A&M professor Bob Warden and Ms. Carter explained to church leaders how student volunteers could help in recording and documenting the historic building. They stressed the need for funding and professional volunteerism as well, since licensed structural engineers are needed to interpret the documents and create plans that professional contractors must implement.

In late September, Professor Warden returned to Wesley Chapel with another group of students to present the 3D recording of the interior and exterior of the building. They also climbed into all of the building’s inaccessible places to take detailed measurements and photographs and to make detailed drawings of features like foundation stones and floor beams, rafters, window trim, and even the cornerstone.

Back at the university, the students will spend several semesters assembling Historic American Building Survey (HABS) documentation. “This extensive catalogue of written and drawn documents is usually extremely expensive to produce but will be given pro bono to the Wesley Chapel AME Church,” Trent explains. “In return, the students will have received real-world experience documenting an important historic landmark and interacting with the local community.” The documents will be archived in perpetuity at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

In the next phase, Warden and his students will create and present a complete “Historic Structures Report.” This report, along with guidance from Ms. Carter, who is also providing her services pro bono, will allow church leaders to prioritize what to fix and understand what can be preserved in order to have more informed negotiations with contractors. Meanwhile, GHS has been working with Wesley Chapel to find ways to provide support.

Lifelong Georgetown resident and 75-year member of Wesley Chapel, 90-year-old Ethel Harrison believes that preserving the chapel is a way to also preserve God’s work and says to anyone interested, “We could certainly use all the help that we can get.”

Church PR coordinator Mollie-Patricia Sample adds, “When the Wesley Chapel sanctuary was dedicated 112 years ago, the Georgetown community recognized its significance and came out in support. Going forward, Wesley is hopeful that same spirit of caring is still alive to ensure that it remains as an iconic part of the Georgetown landscape for at least another 112 years”.

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