Crews working for Magnolia Vacation Rentals LLC on Monday used an excavator with a claw to flatten the roof and walls of a historic church near downtown, drawing an outcry from the chairman of the city’s preservation board.
Magnolia officials are calling the work at the old Second Presbyterian Church at 510 N. 13th Street “deconstruction” rather than a demolition.
They are preparing to use salvaged materials from the church they bought three years ago to reconstruct a replica of it at the Silos complex, the home base for celebrity renovators Chip and Joanna Gaines.
“A permit was obtained to demolish parts of the church that were deemed utterly unsalvageable (e.g. the original foundation stem walls and the antiquated balloon framing that was literally on the verge of falling over), but the actual building was not demolished,” spokesman John Marsicano said in a statement.
Marsicano said the project’s architect estimates roughly 80% of the original building will be salvaged though he did not elaborate on what parts those would be.
Kenneth Hafertepe, a Baylor University preservation expert who serves as chair of the Historic Landmark Preservation Commission, sees it differently. The commission in November approved a “certificate of appropriateness” to disassemble the building, restore its components and reassemble it at the Silos at 601 Webster Ave. Hafertepe said he didn’t expect the roof and walls to be destroyed, and he was “very disappointed” to see it Monday.
“They said they were hoping for the HLPC to allow them to put up a marker at Magnolia marker saying that this is the old Second Presbyterian Church,” said Hafertepe, chairman of Baylor’s museum studies department and author of “Historic Homes of Waco, Texas.”
“If I had known the destruction was to be this thorough-going I would have spoken up about that,” he said.
Second Presbyterian Church was built in the Queen Anne style around 1894 and was one of the oldest church buildings remaining in Waco. Over the years it served a Seventh-Day Adventist church and a congregation led by radio preacher German P. “Dixie Fireball” Comer. It has been mostly vacant since 1989.
Magnolia announced last year that it is working with Heritage Restorations, a design and building firm affiliated with Homestead Heritage, to move and reconstruct the church to the expanded Silo complex. Heritage Restorations specializes in repurposing old timber-frame barns, one of which stands at the Silos. Marsicano said the end goal is to salvage whatever can be reused from the church.
“The parts deemed completely unsalvageable will be replicated to the exact standards and dimensions necessary for the church to appear just as it had for the past 123 years,” Marsicano said. “This is in-line with everything that has been discussed with the Waco Historic Landmark Preservation Commission to-date.”
Crews began restoring pews and hardwood floors inside the building late last year and removed its bell tower and steeple. The addition on the back of the church, which is not part of the restoration project, was slated for demolition.
Magnolia submitted plans to the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board last summer, which included renderings of the Gothic Revival style church, minus a later addition on the back of the building, as a space for guests to escape the crowds and heat.
In November, Historic Landmark Preservation Commission approved a “certificate of appropriateness” for the project in November 2019, though it warned that a relocation could cost the building an opportunity for historical status. The commission does not have the power to stop alterations or destruction of a building, though it can issue a temporary halt on demolition.
In its application to the preservation board, Magnolia stated: “The ultimate goal is to carefully disassemble the structure, restore every piece that can possibly be restored to its original glory, and reassemble the structure in its original size and shape on the Silos grounds located at 601 Webster Avenue, as part of the Magnolia Masterplan due to open in 2020.”
Hafertepe said Magnolia went too far, and he doesn’t support the commission recognizing the new structure as historic.
“Moving the building is always Plan B in historic preservation, because the original site of the building contributes to its significance,” Hafertepe said Monday. “This seems to be Plan C. Essentially we’re going to have a completely new building with a few salvaged fragments.”
He said in the course of the discussion, Magnolia representatives said they would reuse the pews inside but would adjust the floors to be wheelchair-accessible. He said the board urged the Magnolia team to preserve the stained glass windows, but Magnolia representatives were noncommittal, saying the expense could be a “deal-breaker.”
“It was becoming more and more apparent to me that the building was going to be by and large new, which made me think, what’s the point of demolishing this one?” he said.
He said he would not consider a new building with pieces salvaged from the old church to be historic preservation.
“This project has become the antithesis of historic preservation,” Hafertepe said. “It was a simple yet beautiful church that lost its congregation in changing religious tides. And now it is quite emphatically gone.”