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May 31, 2017 | Carol E. Barnwell

Friend’s Memorial Alters Course For Houston Architect

Late night wonder on the Appalachian Trail and a friend’s memorial eventually brought Houston architect Paul Martin back to church. A native New Yorker, Martin has called Texas home for more than five decades. His work has encompassed office buildings, commercial sites and today, more than a few churches.

Martin rode the turbulent Texas economy of the 1980's and '90s, which at times reflected his personal journey. The '80s saw millions of dollars made one day and lost the next. Restaurants that were bursting with customers one month were shuttered overnight when the oil bust hit. Plans for a new office park stalled at the bank and gathered dust on the drawing board. During the same time, Martin saw the award-winning firm he built with offices in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas, shrink, then close entirely.

During the same time, at a friend’s invitation, Martin and his wife, Cassie, began attending John Bradshaw’s lectures at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston. An author and counselor, Bradshaw enjoyed a large following for his weekly talks during the 1980's. The Martins sent their children off to Sunday school on those Sunday mornings, but didn’t extend their participation to worship. “It wasn’t the Presbyterian church I knew,” Martin said.

That didn’t mean that Martin’s faith was not being challenged. When he chaperoned his daughter’s school trip on the Appalachian Trail, he had a deeply spiritual experience. “It rained the whole time,” Martin said. “After [all the kids] were bedded down, I’d walk out onto the trail in the dark, compelled to experience that place. I couldn’t see a thing but I felt something transforming in me,” he said. “Being in that wilderness had a lot to do with what I went through later. I wrote about it in my journal, but I didn’t talk about the experience for months.”

At one of Bradshaw’s lectures, the Rev. Ted Boya shared his experience about the presence of God he found sitting on a rock in the woods. That gave Martin permission to name his own experience, he said.

Shortly afterwards, longtime friend Susan Franklin Keefe asked Martin to design a columbarium at Palmer in memory of her late husband, Ben Franklin. Martin was happy to take on the task, which eventually led to his return to a faith community.

Martin worked with and became friends with Palmer’s associate rector, the Rev. Jim Tucker, while the columbarium was under construction. As work continued to clear out the disused basement of the historic church and line the walls with polished limestone niches, the Martins began attending worship at Palmer.

Paul Martin’s columbarium design at Palmer Memorial, Houston, transformed the disused basement space—which once housed discarded machinery and broken furniture—into a serene and quiet room lined with polished limestone and soft lighting. 

“I realized there was a lot about Christ in my adult life that I didn’t know. I’d filed for bankruptcy in '85 and our son was murdered in '89, then Ben died,” Martin said. “We needed church.” Martin became a leader at Palmer, serving on the vestry, helping with the installation of the C.B. Fisk organ (2,976 pipes) to within a few inches of the painted ceiling as well as the ADA ramp. He later worked on projects at Church of the Epiphany Episcopal Church, the Houston Mennonite Church and Lilly Grove Missionary Baptist Church. His particular talent lies in a listening ear to make sure his clients’ needs are assessed and addressed in the design as with the Mennonite Church where there are no right angles.

“We have always been oriented around an Anabaptist understanding of peacemaking that is an alternative to the violent society around us, and we asked our architect to design a building that symbolized that,” said Pastor Marty Troyer in a news story about the 2014 completion of their new church building. “The floor plan includes a building that is not at right angles. We wanted a shape that reminded us of our calling to be different.”

Martin worked with Lilly Grove on a master plan and the construction of a new 3,500 seat sanctuary in Houston’s Third Ward. The expansion dwarfs the size of the original worship space, has room for a choir of 200 and a baptismal pool set under an 37-foot expanse of stained glass windows above the sanctuary.

“Construction is my favorite part of the work,” Martin said when walking through the cavernous foyer of Lilly Grove just prior to its opening. “When the ideas come to fruition and things that I started with a pencil and paper sketch turn into real objects,” he said, “I’m continually surprised it comes out like I thought it would.”

Pictured are (l-r) Victor Joe, Paul Martin and Crystal Granger of Urban Architecture Houston, Martin's firm.

Martin is quick to credit his diverse staff for helping to carry out their collaborative work. Crystal Granger, a member of Lilly Grove, initially presented the extensive plan to church leaders.

Martin has recently completed a four-acre park with underground parking in Houston’s densely populated Midtown area. In the Diocese, he has completed a new master plan for St. Peter’s/San Pedro, Pasadena, and is working with them and the Diocese to determine the scope of the first phase of their updates. Martin is helping to balance several goals—room for education and ministry, space for outreach and service to the community as well as facilities that also serve to generate revenue to help with sustainability.

“There is so much potential to their community,” Martin said of the San Pedro plans. The church currently uses its limited and outdated space for a food pantry, language classes and other educational offerings in a community that has a critical need for early childhood education. The growing congregation also needs a larger parish hall space. The expanded space will also provide a venue for expanded educational offerings, receptions and quinceañeras, which will bring new people to the church, Martin explained. “Pedro Lopez is incredibly creative and has done a great job discerning what is needed in the community that surrounds San Pedro,” Martin said.

“The church is very important in the lives of the members of San Pedro,” Martin noted. “That makes the work even more satisfying when all the gifts and the experiences of a lifetime come together to be able to build something that will allow them to serve their community and have a home where their faith can grow and deepen,” he added.

The nudge Martin received on the Appalachian Trail has come full circle for him. Not only has he found a community of faith in which to strengthen his spiritual life, he has found great satisfaction in using his gifts to provide inspirational spaces for others to do the same. “The irony of the columbarium is that my son Todd is there. I feel God was preparing me,” he said.

Martin said it was at least five years after his son’s murder that the “uncontrolled sadness was finally replaced with joy at his memory.” Todd’s friends planted an oak sapling in Memorial Park when Todd died “and it’s a very large tree today. It’s nice to see it standing tall and strong. That oak tree has been unbelievably important for Cassie and me,” Martin said.

The same is true for the ability to use the gifts that God gives each person. One never knows the eventual beneficiaries or the prayers that will emanate from the walls of sacred spaces imagined, designed and built for generations to come.