St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin – photo by Jason John Paul Haskins
St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin has announced that it is considering a demolition permit for their iconic and beloved church building as an option for the future development of their downtown site. Completed in 1960, the Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven — later known as Jessen Associates — designed church stands out among the many excellent, if not well-known, mid-century Texas churches. AIA Austin recognized the building with its 25 Year Award in 2007 calling the building “magnificent” and praising its “craft-like detailing, timeless quality, and reverent calmness."
St. Martin’s represents a crucial moment in the emergence of modern architecture in Texas. This period included the work of internationally celebrated architects like Philip Johnson and Louis Kahn, the indigenous thin-shell concrete and lamella roofs along the South Texas Coast, and the regional modernist architecture by O’Neil Ford, Fehr & Granger, and commercial firms like Jessen Associates. The latter firm contributed many prominent modernist public, institutional, and major office buildings, but it is St. Martin’s that held pride of place in their presentations. Their design team included a number of UT professors and prominent Austin artists and professionals, including Charles Umlauf (sculptor), Charles Boner (acoustician), and Fortunat Wiegl (ironworker). In addition, the church’s stained glass is one of only a handful of works in the United States by Dominikus and Gottfried Böhm, two of the most influential German church architects of the 20th century.
Architect Robert George Mather led the design of the new sanctuary and brought his unique vision to the work that built upon his diverse experience. Mather had studied under Mies van der Rohe, worked under Walter Gropius, traveled around the world with his wife Jean (a landscape architect featured on the cover of the May 1960 issue of Texas Architect), and ultimately practiced briefly in Sweden (when their money ran out) before moving to Austin. Mather was a long-serving interdisciplinary professor at The University of Texas at Austin and an infuential player in the planning of downtown Austin. St. Martin's is his only major public design project.
The church is home to a historic congregation whose members have contributed greatly to Austin’s history. The church’s gracious sharing of its space and its marvelous acoustics have made it an invaluable resource for Austin’s performing arts community. Its loss would be detrimental to the character of the entire city.
St. Martin’s remains a relevant example of the highest quality of architecture in Texas. Its preservation would represent a strong testament to the value of great design, to the need to sustain the inherited cultural capital of the built environment, and to the importance of creating beautiful places.