Mackie and Kamrath: Three Ecclesiastical Venues

The Kamrath architectural practice (a local example of the Prairie School) erected many churches and synagogues during its existence and a few of the more successful and well-maintained structures in Houston are here described. Builders often are said to avoid returning to see their creations for fear of what later administration/ownership has changed or neglected, but these three churches benefit from vibrant levels of activity and support.

Emerson Unitarian (later named Emerson Unitarian Universalist after the denomination’s reorganization) at 1900 Bering Drive shows the strong influence on Karl Kamrath of Willem Dudok (mentioned in Scott Reagan Miller’s Rice University thesis on the Kamrath practice and in my earlier articles at this site) in that problems of larger arrangements such as two-story church sanctuaries can be solved by large, mostly windowless massing. Where one-story Prairie methods provided no guide, Kamrath often looked to Dudok for feasible precedent. The original section of the structure closest to the street shows influence of both Dudok and Wright, with extensive, blank concrete central sides, but with tower-like vertical concrete masses at the corners and wood tracery that relates the two areas. And on the north end of the property (the north parking entrance), a low wall of concrete and plaster separates a courtyard area from street noise, in Wright’s Oak Park fashion that recalls the Edward Cheney and Arthur Heurtley houses. Also the lantern-like light fixtures of stained glass are a clear and traditional Prairie reference.

St. John the Divine Episcopal at 2450 River Oaks Blvd. at Westheimer (the 1953 main sanctuary) makes extensive use of a considerably different material popular in post-WW2 America, a kind of white limestone sometimes locally called “Austin stone” since it’s quarried in central Texas. It’s assembled in a Piet Mondrian-like right angle pattern that’s hard to describe but unmistakable when one sees it. The same material was used in later extensions of the church’s school, but the later builders didn’t quite duplicate the angles; the Kamrath structure, though, gets it right. From Palm Springs to Long Island, this pattern is still seen where the original fashion has been respected. A unique aspect of the 1953 structure is the west entrance, a Kamrath updating of stone-framed cathedral entrances. Large slabs of limestone form a pyramid-pointed doorway protecting a wooden door topped by a triangular frame point. Some engineers may question the rigidity of such an arrangement but I found no cracks or fissure movement visible; this would suggest a foundation unmoved after over 60 years in a notoriously muddy environment. If you ever pass by, note the separate chapel with the east wall done completely in stained glass, with a rustic roof of real cedar shakes (not wide tar paper shingles with the lower edge cut to resemble multiple shakes).

Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church at 11612 Memorial uses white limestone as well, but in a slightly different pattern which extends some “bricks” of the material closer to the viewer, suggesting the sort of cantilever effect that the bedrock at Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania inspired. The 1972 sanctuary, the triangular-prow structure visible from the main intersection of Memorial and Blalock, has more Wrightian detail such as clerestory windows (across the top edges of walls so as to allow light but afford privacy as well) with periodic vertical piers supporting the roof. This suggests Chicago’s Unity Church, which Wright built for his own congregation. And these wall-top windows come together at the corners, not obstructed by a support pier. The joining of two glass sheets where walls normally would meet was a method used by Wright to eliminate dark corners in rooms. And a wedding chapel along a corridor about 75 yards behind the main sanctuary is a tour de force of 30, 60 and 45-degree angles beneath a sweeping A-frame, fronted by a 2-story window which, true to Wright’s practice, in fact encloses a two-story interior space rather than concealing several one-story spaces as many contemporary architects do (which would amount to false advertising).

These three structures are among the most well-preserved of Makie & Kamrath buildings anywhere. This possibly is due simply to their distance from the Texas Medical Center, where the Kamrath firm did most of its major work. Since the TMC experiences such massive growth, many buildings fall to the changing needs of the area. The further into the suburban reaches of Houston one travels, the greater the chance of seeing an M&K building that’s surviving undisturbed.

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