Future residents of booming Race Street might find themselves living in what’s likely to be the funkiest address in the neighborhood – an apartment in what originally was Riverside Baptist Church.

Austin developer Megan Lasch, CEO of O-SDA Industries, will partner with another woman-owned Austin company, Saigebrook Development, to convert the sprawling 84,000-square-feet church at the intersection of Race Street, Riverside Drive and Belknap Street in northwest Fort Worth – across the street from Haltom City limits – into a 91-unit complex.

“We enjoy taking a historic property like a church and giving it a new life,” Lasch said. “We’ll be preserving the church and getting a national historic designation for the building.”

Lasch said that although a free-standing church gym will be demolished for the yet-unnamed complex, the church itself will be preserved, albeit opened up with new windows. The old sanctuary at the church will serve as apartment complex offices. Other amenities will include a gym, business center and community center.

“It’ll be market rate apartments with units set aside for people working in the neighborhood with slightly lower incomes,” Lasch said.

Riverside Baptist was established in 1904 with 11 members, moving to its present location in 1941.

“The church was built piecemeal, different sections at different times over the years,” Lasch said.

Church members met in a brush arbor for 10 years until a one-room tabernacle was built in 1914. When the nearby Riverside School burned down, the church for a while also served as the community schoolroom.

In early years when the area was more rural, one of the church’s most successful fund-raising projects was fresh egg sales – members donated all eggs laid by their chickens on Sunday to the church. By 1930, church membership had swelled to 600 and continued to grow. By 1960, church membership was at its zenith – an estimated 2,500 members according to a church history.

The church became an integral component of the north Riverside neighborhood, hosting block parties, dinner theaters and toys-for-needy-kids’ programs, while also sponsoring creation of other Baptist churches. For a while, the area became noted for its proliferation of pink flamingoes on lawns everywhere in the neighborhood, a church fund-raising endeavor for Christmas projects.

Add to that more than a century’s worth of sermons, weddings, funeral services, Sunday school lessons and baptisms – tens of thousands of events in the neighborhood’s religious and social life.

But times and the church’s fortunes changed in recent years. Membership dwindled.

June Head, 89, began attending Riverside Baptist when she was 9 and remained a member throughout her life. In recent years, she said, Riverside membership diminished until only a core of around 50 regulars remained – few worshippers for such a vast space.

“I grew up in that neighborhood and my aunt kidded me that every time the church door opened, I was there,” Head said.

What happened?

“People moved out into the suburbs and left the church,” Head said. “New people moved in, of course, but they tended to be other religions, but mostly Catholic.”

Head, too, moved to the suburbs, first to the Meadowbrook area and in recent years to Keller. But she stuck with Riverside Baptist until the end.

One possible solution to the shrinking membership dilemma was a takeover of the church by a school run by Travis Avenue Baptist Church, the idea being to relocate the school there, while still allowing the few remaining Riverside Baptist members to use the facility for services. But conversion of the old church proved to be too expensive an undertaking.

The sale followed, with some of the proceeds going to Travis to cover its costs and about a million dollars left to the discretion of the Riverside congregation, though with limits about the use.

“We distributed 10 grants of $10,000 each to assorted non-profits, but still haven’t made a decision about where to put the rest of it,” Head said. “We haven’t decided whether to start a new church. We’re going to ponder it for a couple of years.”

In the meantime, Riverside membership attends the nearby Oak Knoll Baptist on Higgins Lane, mostly with combined services but sometimes with just Riverside events.

Riverside Baptist auctioned church contents in October.

Lasch said construction on the new apartment project will begin in May, a conversion likely to last about 18 months, with the first apartments going on the market in fall 2021 – in effect a new chapter in the Riverside neighborhood life.

O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.

okcarter@bizpress.net

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