By Steve Schwolert
I’m not an archivist. I am an artist. Well, that sounds a little pretentious I suppose. I’m the Exhibits Coordinator here at the Austin History Center. I get to make stuff, and my job is quite unlike the other staff here, all of whom are amazingly able and passionate about their work in the archives. The point of this distinction is that when I came here almost ten years ago I was barely aware of what archives were, what they did, how they functioned, and most important, why they mattered. I’m still learning the answers to these questions and I doubt I will ever get tired of learning about the work of my colleagues and the value their work brings to our community.
There’s a story I love to tell others when I am trying to convey my own enthusiasm for the History Center and its collections. It is a story about a personal connection I made to this place and its holdings as I sat in my chilly basement work area one winter day. A little background is in order. Stay with me. . .
I come from a long line of Lutheran pastors – dad, grandpa, great-grandpa. Beyond that is fuzzy, and I’ve yet to do a proper genealogy. But who knows? It may extend all the way back to Luther himself, whose digs were not too far from where my ancestors lived in Germany. You can imagine that I might have more than a passing interest in that religious heritage.
On that chilly winter day alone in my work space, where I spend most of my time figuring out how to present our materials in an interesting way through our exhibits, I was chasing the details related to a drawing from the architectural archives that we were considering for a display. This was early in my career here, and perhaps the first time I had ever really done any research myself (I rely on the much more capable archival staff to do that when it comes to exhibits). But in this case I was intrigued, and so I started poking around (okay, mostly Googling around, I confess).
The drawing was of the interior of a church in north Austin – Gethsemane Lutheran – built in 1962. It showed the stained glass windows and a very modern-looking chancel (the area around the altar). I looked up the artist who did the windows. His name was Gabriel Loire. His work, mostly in churches, can be found all over the world. If you’ve seen the spiral windows at Thanksgiving Square in Dallas then you’ve seen his work. Spectacular. A few days later when I slipped into the Gethsemane sanctuary to see the windows, the effect of the blue glass was like swimming underwater in the sunlight. Beautiful!
To make a long story longer, I started reading the history of that church on their website. It was then that I discovered that this congregation had its beginnings in a church that was built right here at 9th and Guadalupe St. I suddenly realized that over a hundred years ago, just above my basement digs, a small gathering of stodgy, stoic Lutherans sang the same hymns I grew up on. At that point, I just had to see if we had a photograph of it. As it turns out we did. The photo seen here was taken from the capitol building around the time it was built in the late 1800s. In the photo you can see not only the Lutheran church, but two other churches that once stood where the History Center and the Faulk Central Library are today. The two other churches were the Metropolitan African Methodist-Episcopal church and the First Negro Baptist Church, one at either end of the block, with the Lutheran church in the center. What an interesting Sunday morning that must have made!
There’s much more to the story of these three churches – how they moved to other locations, one of them doing so brick by brick to build a new church in east Austin, another re-establishing itself two more times until it ended up in far east Austin where it still is today. And as it turned out, the Swedes who formed the little Lutheran congregation on this property moved to a new church building at 16th and Congress in 1883 built from the bricks of the old state capitol after it burned in 1881. They sold their old building for $900 to the AME church, which would go on to establish the seeds of Anderson High School in that little clapboard chapel.
So that’s my little story, the one about how I found a piece of myself in the story of others I never knew. Maybe that’s a stretch, but at the time it was exciting to discover that story and learn the history of the very spot on earth where I spend most of my time. For anyone who has ever looked for their house on Google Earth, perhaps you can understand. The places where we live have a history. Sometimes it is one more personally meaningful than we ever suspected. Archives allow you to get very close to that history, maybe closer than you’ve ever been, through the materials they preserve. In an archive you can actually touch the materials that tell those stories and imagine your own connections to them. Come and see for yourself!