Church Architecture

By: Willard B. Robinson

Type: Overview Entry

Published: December 1, 1994

Updated: March 23, 2021

In transplanting their native religions, immigrants brought to Texas particular requirements for houses of worship, as well as building traditions. Whether on a large or small scale, their chapels and churches were designed functionally to accommodate their practices in worship and aesthetically to satisfy certain values, within the economic means of the builders.

Spanish colonists erected chapels for their missions, presidios, and secular parishes. Regardless of size or location, a chapel invariably had a central hall either oblong or cruciform in shape, with a focus upon the altar. The naves were often flanked by sacristies or other rooms serving religious uses. The first chapels for the missions and presidial establishments were temporary palisaded shelters. However, at the missions that prospered, these were replaced by durable and handsome edifices reflecting the stylistic traditions of Spain and Mexico. While none of the ephemeral palisaded works remains, several durably built structures survive, including the chapel at San José y San Miguel de Aguayo Mission, a work in Churrigueresque style erected in 1768–82, and San Antonio de Valero Mission (the Alamo), a work in Baroque (Salamonica) style begun in 1744, both in San Antonio. The presidial chapels, mandated by official regulations, ordinarily were prominently located within a complex of shelters or an enclosure and were commonly of temporary wood or adobe construction. Some, however, were more permanent; Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio near Goliad is a durable masonry work that has been restored. Secular parish churches were erected in San Antonio (Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe Church) and Laredo (San Agustín Church) in 1728–49 and 1761–67, respectively. The former has been restored and is somewhat plain in appearance, but the latter is gone. (The present San Agustín Church was begun in 1871.)

Though the chapels surviving from Spanish Texas served the needs of residents of Mexican Texas, Anglo-American colonists brought Protestant religion-predominantly Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian-to Texas, along with customs for the construction of houses of worship. After meeting under trees, on porches, or in homes, they erected churches to serve basic needs. A church was often a simple box of logs, frame, or stone, with three or four openings per side and a gabled roof, above which rose a simple cross or belfry that identified the function of the building. Interiors were plain, often with only pews, benches, or chairs, a stove, a small piano or organ, and a pulpit. In time and with prosperity, numerous congregations and parishes began constructing churches with stylistic distinction. In imitation of early nineteenth-century fashions in the East, many edifices were in Greek Revival style. Although still on a simple rectangular plan similar to their predecessors, they were embellished with simple classical entablatures and porticoes. Among such churches built in antebellum Texas is the First Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in Marshall (1860–61), a brick-walled building that has been much remodeled over the years. The Gothic Revival style, characterized by pointed arches, projection buttresses, and steeply pitched roofs, also appeared in many churches both before and after the Civil War. Included among these were a number of Carpenter Gothic works, with board-and-batten walls, many of which are now gone; these were often built from plan prototypes developed in the eastern United States. However, numerous masonry-walled churches were also built, including St. Mary's Cathedral (1847–48) and Trinity Episcopal Church (1855–57), both in Galveston.

After the Civil War, African Americans, who previously had worshipped in makeshift shelters, also erected buildings serving their religious needs. Located in segregated neighborhoods and central to their societies, numerous churches were, at first, executed in plain box-like forms with frame constructions. Baptist and Methodist churches were common, although Cumberland Presbyterian congregations also constructed buildings, sometimes with assistance from the national church. Eventually, numerous black houses of worship were built with substantial masonry walls, but designs remained staightforward, with simple stylistic details.

During the prosperous years of the late nineteenth century, large new Victorian Gothic churches, often designed by prominent architects, appeared, although small buildings continued to be constructed by small or rural congregations and parishes. Ornate buildings with polychromatic stone or brick walls, high towers, stained glass windows, and large naves or auditoriums were common. Catholic churches generally had traditional long, narrow naves; so did Lutheran and Episcopalian churches, though other Protestant churches commonly had wide auditoriums designed for good acoustics and sight lines. Christ Episcopal Church, Houston (1893), is a fine example of the traditional plan with beautiful interior woodwork, and the First Baptist Church of Dallas (1890) is a noteworthy example of the new Protestant form. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries various ethnic groups also introduced their customs into church building. Particularly noteworthy are the edifices with painted interiors. Walls finished with wood were painted with patterns and forms representing architectural ornamentation and religious symbols meaningful to worshipers. Among the churches with painted interiors is the Praha Catholic Church (1891) in rural Fayette County.

Around 1900 the Richardsonian Romanesque style characterized many churches, particularly those of the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian communions. Round-arched openings, polychromatic stonework, and lofty towers were typical features. Among the fine examples is the First Baptist Church, Beaumont (ca. 1900), now the home of the Tyrrell Historical Library. During the early decades of the twentieth century, although Gothic and Romanesque churches continued to appear, numerous Classical edifices were erected. Conforming to national trends in design, buildings were commonly crowned with domes and usually were entered through monumental porticoes supported by Classical columns. After World War II modern concepts of space and form appeared. Rejecting traditional historical styles, architects used new forms, spaces, and decorative modes for numerous new churches. Nonetheless, traditional styles continued in popularity.

Rex E. Gerald, Spanish Presidios of the Late Eighteenth Century in Northern New Spain (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico, 1968). Marion A. Habig, The Alamo Chain of Missions (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1968; rev. ed. 1976). Historic American Buildings Survey, Texas Catalog, comp. Paul Goeldner (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1974?). Terry G. Jordan, "The Traditional Southern Rural Chapel in Texas, " Ecumene 7 (March 1976). Max L. Moorhead, The Presidio: Bastion of the Spanish Borderlands (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975). Willard B. Robinson, "Houses of Worship in Nineteenth-Century Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 85 (January 1982).


  • Architecture
  • Styles, Methods, and Technological Innovations
  • Religion

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Willard B. Robinson, “Church Architecture,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 22, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1994
March 23, 2021