During the 1970s, Reverend Don Gebert, the first Executive Director of Interfaith of The Woodlands, literally knocked on every incoming resident’s door to help gather the necessary information to establish support services in The Woodlands. That information would also help religious leaders decide when they had enough people to start up a new congregation. Fast-forward and The Woodlands is now home to over 60 religious facilities and places of worship. There is a variety of religious architecture commonly found in newer communities, and they all serve a common purpose which is to express religious beliefs and aesthetic choices. They also are built within the constraints of economic capacity.
An educational film produced in 1958 by the American Institute of Architects and designed for church building committees was titled A Place to Worship. It puts the building of more recent religious facilities into perspective and says, “Since the beginning of history, man has devoted his best creative ability to building his place for worship. In each period of his history, he has built his temple in the spirit of his time.” The Woodlands is fortunate there are so many wonderful options and different faiths found in the community. Here, we visited just four examples of very different religious building types and spaces.
The Woodlands United Methodist Church
As one drives through The Woodlands, it’s hard to miss The Woodlands United Methodist Church. The site was selected along Lake Woodlands to promote visibility and accessibility within The Woodlands community. Dr. Ed Robb was called by George Mitchell to be founding pastor of the church in 1978. Since then, it has become one of the fastest-growing churches in United Methodism with present membership exceeding 12,400 and an average worship attendance of 5,200. Architect Ted Lancaster of Lancaster & Associates credits the success of the design to his great relationship and collaboration with the committee and Robb who had a specific vision for a Mediterranean-style church. The site selection and orientation of the plan were decided in order to preserve the view of the church from the lake coming over the bridge from Lake Woodlands Drive. Ceremonial entrances and moments of contemplation are dispersed throughout the well-manicured campus that is also home to several other buildings offering different worship styles and an education center. The main cupola was designed to sit 115 feet up, on top of the sanctuary, and can be seen from the approach at Grogan’s Mill Road and is also now visible from the Hughes Landing mixed-use development. Stone wainscoting details around the base of the building were designed to provide an inviting sense of warmth and character. Fountains and arches lead you through the main building which was built in phases – the last of which was just completed, a worship chapel and expanded coffee shop and restaurant with a book store. The interior hosts a large variety of community activity throughout the week and was programmed around organizational strategies to accommodate both playing children and quiet adult worship. Open spaces feature warm green and brown tones to offer a gracious and welcoming environment. The main sanctuary has the capacity for 2,200, has built-in video projections and accommodates acoustical variety for both contemplative and larger-scale worship. Within the main building, there is also a smaller 300-seat worship chapel and a small prayer chapel.
Congregation Beth Shalom
As you enter the wooded property at Shadowbend Place off of Woodlands Parkway, you are greeted with two buildings set in a peaceful natural setting. Meditation gardens and an expansive outdoor leisure area surround the original structure. The original building, which houses the sanctuary, offices and education wing, was first purchased in 1998 and later renovated under former Rabbi James Brandt. Rabbi Brandt studied architecture and, therefore helped establish and set the tone for the “village square” concept for which the layout of the sanctuary is modeled.
As the congregation expanded throughout the years, the original building could no longer solely support the growing social services and large gatherings. According to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, “Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands addresses the diverse backgrounds of all its member families. The membership works to integrate Jewish values into daily life while interacting with the greater community to promote a relationship of common purpose and understanding.” The need for a larger, community-driven space was a natural progression for the congregation to plan and build. The stone clad social hall was built in 2005 with the help of Huffco, a design build firm, under the guidance of the dedicated members of the building committee and many fundraising campaigns. Rabbi Jan Brahms was hired in 2003 and strongly supported the capital campaign and helped realize the mission of the new building. The newer structure now houses the social hall, library, conference room, youth group lounge and kitchen. It was noted by the committee at the building dedication in 2004 that the process of fundraising and planning was just as memorable as the moment of the ribbon cutting.
There is an abundance of holy art that finds its way throughout both buildings that sets the tone and unites the multi-purpose campus. Barbara Andes, the chair of the Art and Architecture Committee, helps curate all of the pieces that come mostly through the generosity of its members. When a congregation is so generous and willing to donate on so many aspects, that is when an Art and Architecture Committee is needed. “We all want decor and adornment that adds to our spiritual and emotional experiences that take place there, and many people have been willing to dig deep into their pockets when called upon to make that happen,” Andes shared. One donated area of work is inside the ark in the sanctuary where the Torahs are housed. Andes said, “We commissioned both a Torah cover and a curtain to close the ark. We commissioned all of the furniture on the Bimah, the raised area in the sanctuary.” Within the social hall, there is a full-scale mural painted by acclaimed artist Natalie Rottet from Houston. The mural depicts the Wailing Wall and Lions Gate, an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Art provides a backdrop for
High Holy Day services, social gatherings, and meetings. “The sanctuary’s stained glass windows which symbolically represent kedush, which means holy, were named and conceived with the help of Rabbi Brahms,” Andes shared.
Clearly, Congregation Beth Shalom has come a long way from when it first began as a small gathering space to now providing an enriching educational experience for its members and visitors alike.
The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church
“A church building speaks. What it will say to the community and the world depends upon the studies and the conclusions of the building committee. The edifice may well say less, but it can say no more than the builders believe.” -Edward S. Frey in This Before Architecture
The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church resides unimposingly on a natural wooded site tucked in the middle of The Woodlands. The parish first worshiped in their multi-purpose building, which is now their Christian Education building, prior to the construction of their new building and sanctuary. The first worship in the new sanctuary took place in December 1996 and was initiated by a memorable sermon given by Rev. Charles Hendricks visually walking the congregation through their new space. His sermon can be found in the book The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church: A Twenty-Five Year History of Ministry and Mission, written by Reverend Hendricks and Sally Lichtenwalter that was released in September 2016. Co-author and original founding member of the church, Lichtenwalter recalls the experience, “The vision for the architecture of the church was first carefully examined by the building expansion committee and then thoughtfully executed by the architects Merriman/Holt of Houston. Expressing the Presbyterian faith through form, their aim would be to reflect both Christ’s presence and the community formed by Him in the architecture of our sanctuary. We wish to reflect both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the cross, the central Christian symbol.”
It is impossible not to acknowledge the success of their vision and the resulting feeling of inclusion reflected in every detail of the building. As one enters the wooded campus, a prayer garden, in memory of Keith Lichtenwalter, leads you to an exterior coffee bar, which was intended to encourage social contact before and after a service. As you pass through the Narthex, you enter the large but intimate fan-shaped sanctuary that comfortably accommodates up to 700 seats. Views to the front are preserved by the slight slope down all while creating ample room for children and elderly to have accessibility, flexibility and freedom of movement. Flexible chancel furniture creates a multi-purpose community space when needed. An abundance of windows are strategically placed to reflect the connection to the indoor and outdoor spaces while allowing natural light to fill the space. As noted in Hendricks sermon, “They allow us to see out into the world, even as we worship.” The light diffuses through the colorful stained glass that centers the sanctuary through a gesture symbolic of the creation.
StoneBridge is one of the most modern congregations in The Woodlands. Ted Lancaster of Lancaster & Associates also built the 51,000 square feet facility. He again cites that his working relationship with the client added to the success of the design. Lancaster shared, “Considerable credit must be given to Becky Canterbury, the children’s minister, who was a practicing architect prior to becoming a permanent member of the church staff. Becky was a great visionary, and much of the playfulness of the architecture can be attributed to her input.”
Prior to the new building that was completed in 2006, StoneBridge met at The Woodlands High School. The relaxed atmosphere the church provides is reflected in the contemporary design of the building that was modeled after the idea of a modern mall. Lancaster notes, “The church staff wanted a contemporary design that reflected honesty, transparency, and warmth.” These traits were achieved with the use of natural materials, building forms that were indicative of the use of space they housed, exposed structural and mechanical elements, and the creative use of color and natural light. “As a result, the interior of the building has a very relaxed and comfortable atmosphere, being unconstrained by symmetry, order or formality. I think this kind of atmosphere is attractive to younger families,” shared Lancaster. The 50-acre campus is on a long, rectangular site that can be accessed off of Research Forest Drive and Branch Crossing Drive. The site includes an existing pond, and most of the windows face east with views into existing woods. Exterior materials are metal and wood and shy away from traditional ideas of what church architecture looks like. Entering the church, you are greeted by exposed structural and mechanical elements that are intended to provide visual interest and stimulation. Unlike a traditional church, the space is fairly open and houses large common areas. The lobby and foyer areas are somewhat indefinable, incorporating variations in shape, color, materials and lighting. The children’s classrooms are more spacious than usual. In the middle of the large common space, there is a massive stone fireplace which provides an earthy feel contrasted by the neon art that is dispersed throughout the facility.
Article by: Carey Scasserra | Photography: Derrick Bryant