St. John's Episcopal Church, Brownwood     

 

St. John's Episcopal Church

 

Inspired by the Early English Gothic cathedral form, the original edifice of Saint John's Church consists of a rectangular nave with narthex projecting from the north corner, sacristy projecting from the south corner, and sanctuary extended from the southeast wall. The nave features a high, steep-pitched roof with intersecting gables implying a transept. The structure is roofed with sheet metal, pressed to emulate shingles. The walls are constructed of load-bearing stone, both cut and pitch faced. Simple buttresses, also of stone, were incorporated to disperse the weight of the walls and allow for the large, imported stained glass windows which are a prominent design element on both the interior and exterior of the building. Tie narthex, originally conceived as a lofty spire, is a truncated tower, terminated with crenellations just above the transition from square to octagonal form. The sanctuary and sacristy repeat the high-pitched roof form on a smaller scale and extend from and intersect the nave, respectively. Additional elements which reinforce the Gothic influence are tall, narrow lancet door and window openings and stone gable crosses. The Gothic theme is carried further in the interior which features white plaster walls offset with dark wood trim, large stained glass windows set in deep reveals, and an exposed, vaulted ceiling supported by structural and decorative trusses. The furnishings of the church strengthen the theme.
When services were first held in the structure, the congregation worshipped in a church that was heated with wood stoves, illuminated with kerosene lamps, furnished with pine planks, and weatherproofed with heavy ducking stretched across the window openings. Stained glass windows were designed, assembled, and shipped from Belgium in 1894. The windows are a pleasing blend of abstract geometric and floral forms combined with religious symbols, and reflect the religious and artistic climate of Europe at the turn of the century.

A large, two-story, wood-frame Victorian home, featuring two octagonal turrets, was constructed on the church property in 1906 to serve as the rectory. In 1927 a parish hall was added to the original church structure. No effort was made to establish continuity between the original structure and the addition, which was attached at the sanctuary and sacristy. However, additional construction of a nursery and kitchen in 1951 covered a significant amount of the incompatible brickwork with a more complementary stone veneer.

As funds became available the interior of the church was furnished. At an unknown date the pine planks were replaced with oak pews featuring hand carved bench ends terminated with a tre-foil motif. A brass-fitted pulpit and marble font were added in 1928 and a brass "Angel" lecturn was added in 1940. In 1943 an oak rood screen to match the pews was installed and in 1945 a walnut alter was added.

With continuous use and maintenance, the church and rectory stand today in good condition. An outstanding architectural landmark in the city of Brownwood, Saint John's Episcopal Church, built in 1892 in the Gothic Revival style, is a fine 19th century representation of Early English Gothic construction, prevalent in the 13th century. Modest in size and detail, the structure incorporates Early English Gothic design elements and decorative motifs, skillfully produced with high quality materials and fine craftsmanship.

Although organized in 1857, the settlement and development of Brown County was slow due to the Civil War and the chaotic conditions which followed, and also to the presence of hostile Indians who occupied the surrounding areas until the 1870's. Following the eradication of the Indians, settlers slowly began to populate the county. Brownwood, located on Pecan Bayou in the center of the county, was designated county seat in 1857 and by 1875 boasted a population of 1200. At this time there was no organized Episcopal Church in Brownwood. With three known communicants of the faith, the town was visited annually by the Bishop of the district, and occasionally by visiting priests. In June, 1886, the Bishop approved a petition for the establishment of a mission at Brownwood to be called Saint John's. The Reverend Peter Wager of Salina, Kansas, was the first priest of the mission, dividing his time between St. John's and the neighboring communities of Comanche, Coleman, and Ballinger. The completion of the Santa Fe Railroad through Brownwood at this time increased the accessibility of the town and the population continued to grow. In September, 1888, the charter for St. John's Parish of the Protestant Episcopal Church was issued by the Secretary of the State of Texas. Church services were held in an upstairs room of a structure in the Brownwood commercial district. The room was furnished with plank benches and kerosene lamps and heated with wood burning stoves. Although large in neither enrollment nor financial means, the congregation decided to erect a church in 1892. Plans and specifications which allowed for the gradual completion of the structure were donated by Lovell and Hood, Architects and Builders. With funds donated by the congregation as well as generous non-members, the walls, floor and roof of the church were completed. In its skeletal form, the structure displayed the pleasing proportions, well defined lines, and simplicity in ornament characteristic of the Early English Gothic style, exemplified in the eastern portion of the Temple Church in London. The use of buttresses, lances windows, and crenellations reinforced this design statement.

Furnishings at this time consisted of the stove, lamps, and plank benches used in the previous meeting room. The congregation was unable to afford the specified stained glass windows, therefore the window openings were temporarily weatherproofed with heavy ducking. With funds provided through the efforts of the ladies of the church and donations of the congregation and interested non-members, the structure was fitted with stained glass windows imported from Belgium in 1894. Gradually the interior was furnished with decorative pews and various religious implements which contribute to the overall theme of the church.

In 1906 a two-story, wood frame rectory was built on the church property. The difference in proportions and style between the church and rectory provides a pleasing contrast and exemplifies the changing tastes and stylistic influences during the Victorian Era.

Although plans for the church called for the construction of a tower, the expense of building it outweighed its significance. Church enrollment continued to expand until the structure, which was designed to allow for expansion, could no longer meet the needs of the congregation. The original structure was enlarged in 1927 to include a parish hall and again in 1951 to include a kitchen and nursery.

The growth and development of Brownwood is reflected in Saint John's Church, which grew from infrequent gatherings of three confirmed members to full time community service from the present centrally located architectural landmark.

National Historic Register Listing