Pass by the historic First Baptist Church in downtown Tyler, and it is immediately clear change is in the air.
Dark shrubbery that once shielded portions of the sanctuary's exterior is gone, shining light on forgotten architectural details.
A few windows are missing.
Screen fencing and caution tape bar the front door.
Stone steps are absent and much of the interior is gutted.
To the passersby, the familiar downtown icon will change little; only portions of the interior are changing, said recreation minister Scott Richardson, a 24-year member.
“The outside of the structure is being preserved,” he said, noting also exterior tweaks are minor and comply with historic preservation standards.
But absent from those expansions is a sense of cohesiveness, resulting in a somewhat awkward layout in some areas and no defined welcome area on weekdays.
Many in the congregation dreamed of renovations.
Pastor Pike Wisner, who has been with the church for little more than a year, inherited the project that's unfolding around him.
“To the people's credit and provision from the Lord, we are moving forward,” he said. “I think the church understands we have a mission — to this point, the renovations are creating more excitement than inconvenience.”
In spite of its age, the 164-year-old entity is no stranger to change.
The current location of First Baptist Church is not the original, records show.
“It started out in a log cabin with dirt floors,” said historian Mary Love Berryman, 79, who grew up in the church.
At its inception, the entity, located near the downtown square, was believed to be the 53rd Baptist Church in Texas.
As the years passed, the congregation grew. Around 1855, members started work on the first house of worship in the 300 block of East Ferguson Street, but the building burned a year later before it was completed, according to the church's sesquicentennial yearbook.
The determined congregation tried again.
Members rebuilt the one-room church in about 1859 on the same spot, but it also burned around 1882, records show.
Tyler's early growing pains would apparently factor into the congregation's next move.
It seems that the railroad moved some of its passenger and freight operations near the church to be close to the city's hub — the ensuring noise was so disruptive the 11 a.m. service was often interrupted by switching operations.
Rather than the rebuild amid the noise, the congregation opted to purchase a new location on North Bois d'Arc Street.
The third church was completed in 1886 and served as the primary place of worship until 1913 when the sanctuary, at Ferguson and Bois d'Arc, was complete.
As attendance rolls swelled, additions were added in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980sto create a type of campus in downtown Tyler that today encompasses about 195,000 square feet of space. The church also maintains a campus in south Tyler.
After so many years, members said last week it's time to tweak the downtown facility to meet the needs of current and future members.
The finished product will be family friendly and more accessible for older members as well as those who need assistance with mobility, members said.
Worship minister Billy Bob Dempsey said the church has benefited tremendously from the artistic eye of Tyler architect and member Mike Butler.
“Everything he's adding looks like it should have been there all alone,” Dempsey said.
As with any renovation, however, there are challenges.
Longtime facilities and maintenance director Rick Deason seems to understand the historic building inside and out, including the aging plumbing system.
Some portions of the system date back to 1912. A hefty 6-inch supply line that dates to 1955 helps supply ample water to some of the upper stories, he said.
Experience has taught him to expect the unexpected.
“It's been a little difficult,” he said with a grin. “Last week, we turned off water to an area that's never been turned off. … While everyone was worshiping, I was turning off toilets.”
A recent tour of the work area reveals an abundance of change.
Some of the preschool rooms are slated for removal.
Common areas are getting a facelift: updated flooring, color combinations that look less “institution” and more “cozy.”
“My office was here,” Dempsey said, pointing at an exposed brick wall.
Although void of finishes such as Sheetrock and flooring, the updated interior will feature a coffee bar, modern seating, trendy lighting and bathrooms that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We're also going to have a very recognizable entrance,” Dempsey said.
Children's minister Amy Hendricks is in charge of shuffling tiny tots ahead of the construction.
Her objective is ensuring a smooth transition amid the upheaval.
“This (renovation) will help us reach more people, more families,” Ms. Hendricks said. “There are exciting changes to come. We want the families to know we are taking care of their children, and we appreciate their flexibility.”
Amid the dust, Pastor Pat Mallory, a longtime member, is preparing to swap her day job to oversee the planned Gateway to Hope day resource center, but she is retaining her membership.
“I believe God has a plan for our life,” she said. “He opens doors and closes them. God opened the door. … He needs me to be there.”
New arrival Casey Cockrell, the student minister, has been with the church just three months, long enough to unpack and then pack again.
He found it impressive the congregation didn't just talk about the need for change, they followed through.
“This is not just a church that's hunkering down,” he said.
Ms. Berryman agreed, saying it's exciting to be a part of a church that's investing in its future at a time when there seems to be a decline among downtown churches.
Wisner said he's been inspired by those who gave so generously for the renovations, knowing they will never see the long term benefit of their gift.
“Sometimes the Lord gets a hold of your heart,” he said. “What happens from there can be amazing.”