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Preservationists hope Magnolia can rescue 123-year-old Waco church

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Magnolia church

The Second Presbyterian Church building at 13th Street and Jefferson Avenue was built in 1894, making it one of the oldest churches in Waco.

One Waco’s oldest and most threatened historic churches now belongs to Waco’s most famous couple.

Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Vacation Rentals LLC earlier this year bought the abandoned Second Presbyterian Church at 510 N. 13th St., near Sul Ross Park on Jefferson Avenue.

The Queen Anne-style wooden church, featured in a 2015 Tribune-Herald feature on Waco’s most endangered historic buildings, was built in 1894 and has mostly been vacant since 1989. It has a soaring vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows and ornate woodwork inside.

Magnolia spokesman Brock Murphy did not return phone messages this week seeking comment on plans for the structure. Magnolia has already renovated two historic homes in Waco and McGregor into vacation rentals and is turning the historic Elite Café into a new restaurant called Magnolia Table.

Sterling Thompson, a Waco architect who sold the building to Magnolia in February, said he assumes Magnolia will renovate it and put it to good use.

“They’ve brought a lot of good things to town and created a lot of business with the things they do,” said Thompson, who was architect for the Magnolia Table project.

Thompson had bought the building in 2009 with the idea of a wedding and event venue, but renovation costs and limited parking were a barrier. Still, he said the building appears to be structurally sound aside from one slightly leaning wall.

“The inside of it is in pretty good shape,” he said. “It’s got nice beams and vaulted ceiling with original pews and balusters around the choir loft. … My worry the whole time I bought it was that there were a lot of homeless people that would get under there in the crawl space in winter. I was afraid someone was going to set it on fire.”

The 2,695-square-foot church and surrounding lot were listed at $25,150 on the McLennan County Appraisal District rolls. Magnolia has also bought a vacant lot and a modest fourplex across North 13th Street.

The old church is a valuable part of Waco’s architectural history, said Kenneth Hafertepe, a Baylor University museum studies professor and local preservation expert who is writing a book about historic Waco homes.

He said the only church building he could recall that’s older is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and he knows of no wooden churches surviving from that era.

“It’s an impressive survival to have made it into the 21st century,” Hafertepe said. “It has a characteristic church steeple and it’s a good example of the Queen Anne style. It’s not just mail-it-in Gothic Revival. It does express the interest of Wacoans at the time for keeping up with the times. … In terms of architecture it ties in with the style of other Queen Anne houses around Waco.”

Queen Anne is a subset of the 19th-century Victorian style, with ornate millwork, decorative shingles and prominent gables.

Hafertepe said the church is simple in design but has nice proportions and detail.

“It has a sweet simplicity that’s one of the most appealing things about late Victorian buildings in Waco,” he said.

The church was built in 1894 for the fledgling Second Presbyterian Church, headed by Angus R. Shaw, newspapers from the time indicate. In the 1920s it became a Seventh-Day Adventist church, and from 1964 to 1989, well-known radio preacher German P. “Dixie Fireball” Comer led the nondenominational Waco Community Church there. New Beginnings Church also briefly occupied the structure in the early 2000s.

Hafertepe said he hopes Magnolia will keep the building’s key architectural elements.

“From a historic preservation point of view the best thing is for an old building to retain its original use: if it’s a church, to have another church come along. If that’s not doable, which seems to be the case here, the idea to have it as a wedding facility is about as good as you can hope for. That makes it logical to retain the original floor plan and retain the distinctive features like stained glass windows.”


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Managing editor

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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