When Edwin Waller drafted the original plan for the City of Austin in 1839, he designated four blocks in the plan’s grid as public squares. Three of those four blocks still exist in the modern-day downtown — Wooldridge Square, Republic Square, and Brush Square. But one block, known as Hamilton Square, is missing.
Bound by Ninth, Tenth, Trinity, and Neches Streets, Hamilton Square was lost as a public space starting in 1900 after the city developed the block with the first permanent location of Austin High School, and later Allan Junior High. A fire destroyed the building in 1956, after which the city executed a land deal with Austin’s First Baptist Church allowing the congregation to construct a new sanctuary complex at the site in 1970, which has occupied the full block to this day.
Hamilton Square is now a little-known footnote in the history of Austin, despite its obvious absence when you look at the pleasing symmetry of Waller’s original city grid — but more than 50 years later, the 176-year-old congregation occupying the church at this site is looking to transform its property into a space that once again serves the public in the spirit of the original Hamilton Square. A press release issued this week by First Austin states that the church is seeking a development partner to adapt its full block and part of an adjacent block directly to the south currently occupied by a parking garage into “affordable community space,” which could combine the congregation’s existing operations on the property with expanded uses like childcare, arts venues, other worship services, and further public gatherings.
Even as First Austin opened its new building in 1970, nationwide church attendance had entered a steady decline that continues to this day — at the moment, the active congregation numbers roughly 350, in a structure designed to seat nearly 1,000. Using the remaining space for more active public service makes sense for the church, since the building has already been used for this purpose sporadically over the years:
Located on one of the four original public squares designated as civic spaces by Edwin Waller in his 1839 design of downtown, the church has long made its building available for community uses on a limited basis. Now church leaders are looking for a philanthropist, foundation, arts patron, or other partner willing to think creatively and invest in the renovations needed to re-purpose its 110,000-square-foot facility and adjacent land to serve the community on a larger scale while remaining a place of worship.
“The idea that this property should serve the public dates all the way back to Austin’s founding, and we take that very seriously,” said First Austin Senior Pastor Griff Martin. “It would be much easier to sell the entire property to a developer, but we are committed to fulfilling that civic vision as well as our faith-based values. We just need a community-minded partner to make it happen.”
— First Austin
Despite reportedly receiving a number of high-dollar offers from private developers for the block, the church says none of these proposals maintained space for its congregation or offered significant community benefits. It’s unclear precisely what a reimagining of this site might look like, but the large church building could be easily repurposed to host a greater number of community uses while maintaining worship space for a congregation of a few hundred. While the presence of a large building and only small outdoor spaces on the block might require us to slightly stretch the usual definition of a “public square,” nearly any public-facing adaptation to the existing facility would be more useful to the surrounding urban environment.
“We looked at the offers and just didn’t want to take the money and run to a safe space to rebuild,” Martin said. “We were called to be a downtown church, so we started thinking about what downtown Austin needs today — affordable childcare, more venues for live music and visual arts, and more public spaces for people of all faiths to join together in new ways.”
First Austin leaders would like to maintain part of the church sanctuary, but they are open to making major changes to the building as well as selling a partial interest in the full block and a half to individuals and organizations with aligned visions and goals.
— First Austin
While we can imagine a lot of uses for the sanctuary building itself, perhaps more intriguing is the possibility of redeveloping the parking structure that sits directly south of the First Baptist block. That garage has a history nearly as surprising as the former Hamilton Square itself, once occupied by the two-story stone chapel of Wesley United Methodist Church, a congregation of freed slaves founded in the Austin area in 1865 after the end of the Civil War.
Wesley Chapel relocated in 1928 to a building that still stands in East Austin, but during its time at the corner of Ninth and Neches Streets starting in the early 1880s the chapel hosted most of the classes for Andrews Normal College, the historically Black coeducational institution that would eventually become Samuel Huston College, and later Huston-Tillotson University in East Austin. Reclaiming the historical legacy of this site from its use as a parking garage is a striking possibility of First Austin’s vision — just as Hamilton Square might regain its status as a public amenity, the former Wesley Chapel half-block could once again serve the community, potentially even as educational space. It’s a feel-good story for downtown in the making, assuming the First Austin folks can find a like-minded development partner. Do you know anyone?