Developer honors heritage of former church building

Developer David Spence renovated the building where Davis Street Baptist Church met in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. He organized a Sacred Plates exhibit to honor founding pastor Virgil Hunton. (PHOTO / Courtesy of David Spence)

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DALLAS—A funny thing happened after real estate developer David Spence bought an abandoned church building, intending to demolish it and create a parking lot to serve nearby storefront property he was renovating. 

plates renovation425Workers scrape the exterior of the building originally occupied by Davis Street Baptist Church, preparing to repaint it. Eventually, developer David Spence hopes a restaurant will lease the building. For now, it houses the Sacred Plates exhibit as a tribute to the church’s spiritual impact on its community. (PHOTO / David Spence)“I fell in love with the building,” said Spence, founder of Good Space, who grew up attending First Baptist Church in Waco. 

While builders were salvaging floorboards from a former Sunday school classroom, they discovered a sheaf of papers, including fliers from 1941 inviting Oak Cliff residents to attend a revival meeting at Davis Street Baptist Church led by Pastor Virgil E. Hunton. 

Curious about the church’s history, Spence searched the Internet and found a 1936 newspaper article about Hunton. He learned Hunton, who worked days as transportation manager at the Alolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas, built the church—both the congregation and the structure in which it met—himself.

plates spence425David Spence created the Sacred Plates exhibit, on display in the building originally occupied by Davis Street Baptist Church in Oak Cliff, to pay tribute to the congregation and offer a “spiritual snapshot of the community.” (PHOTO / Ken Camp)Spence tracked down Hunton’s sole surviving son, B.J., age 90, in Mesquite. He described how his father started a church at a storefront in the Cement City community in what is now the Chalk Hill area of West Dallas. In time, that congregation purchased property near the intersection of Davis and North Tyler in Oak Cliff.

Hunton, his sons and other volunteers labored at the property after work each day as long as daylight permitted, digging holes for foundation piers and erecting the building. Once he and his helpers completed the structure, Hunton set out to build up its membership, his son recalled.

plates hunton program newsp425Pastor Virgil Hunton founded Davis Street Baptist Church, and he and his sons—together with other volunteers—constructed the building where the congregation worshipped in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas. Also shown are a newspaper clipping about his ministry and a 1941 revival program. (PHOTO / Courtesy of B.J. Hunton family)“He said that whenever his dad saw a moving van coming into Oak Cliff, he would follow it and invite the family to church,” Spence said. 

Hunton, who died in 1972, went on to build three churches in New Mexico. Davis Street Baptist Church continued to grow and eventually relocated to the south, becoming Bishop Avenue Baptist Church. Several other congregations—Tyler Street Baptist Church, Tyler Heights Baptist Church and Iglesia del Señor—later occupied the structure at Davis and Tyler.

Instead of leveling the church building, Spence looked for creative ways to honor the congregation that worshipped there, the pastor who founded the church and the spiritual heritage of the surrounding community.

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plates single425The Sacred Plates exhibit in the building originally occupied by Davis Street Baptist Church features Scripture verses and other “favorite soulful words” from Oak Cliff residents. (PHOTO / Ken Camp)He enlisted Brent McDougal, pastor at Cliff Temple Baptist Church, to lead a brief “decommissioning” service for the building. 

“We offered a word of thanks for all the good that had been done there, and we prayed it will continued to be used for kingdom work, even if it no longer will be a church,” McDougal said.

Although the building no longer provides a practical meeting place for a congregation, Spence recognized the building could be renovated and leased to a restaurant, offering community residents a place to gather and enjoy life together.

“I just can’t bear the idea of somebody putting a bar in here,” he said, joking he feared for his eternal destiny if he allowed it. 

plates front425Developer David Spence originally planned to demolish the building where Davis Street Baptist Church met. But after learning more about the church’s history, he determined to pay tribute to the spiritual impact the congregation had on its community. (PHOTO / Courtesy of David Spence)When boutiques and galleries that surround the property scheduled a street festival in mid-October, Spence put together an exhibit linking the church building’s past and future—Sacred Plates.

He distributed paper plates at a variety of gathering places in Oak Cliff and invited people to write a Scripture verse, song lyrics, quotation or “favorite soulful words” on the plates. 

Spence solicited involvement from three Oak Cliff churches—Cliff Temple Baptist; Kessler Park United Methodist, where he is a member; and a nondenominational congregation. He also sought submissions from students at Dallas Baptist University and patrons of local businesses, including a pie shop, a bookstore, an art gallery and a yoga studio.

plates inside425David Spence hopes whoever leases the property originally occupied by Davis Street Baptist Church will continue to display the tribute he created to honor the congregation and its founding pastor, Virgil Hunton. (PHOTO / Ken Camp)He arranged more than 300 plates into displays in the church building’s stripped-down sanctuary, combining it with effective lighting and accompanied by a soundtrack that includes music ranging from Southern Gospel songs, to Gregorian chants, to soul music, to selections from Handel’s Messiah.

“The result is a lovely spiritual snapshot of the community,” Spence said. Reflecting on the seasonal TV classic, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, he added, “Oak Cliff is a sincere pumpkin patch.”

He is opening the church building from 7 to 10 p.m. every Monday until Thanksgiving, allowing local residents to view the display and add a plate with their own message.

Spence won’t require any prospective restaurateur who leases the building to maintain the Sacred Plates exhibit, but he hopes the proprietor at least will maintain the small tribute section he created to honor the church’s founding pastor. 

Ideally, Spence would love to see a family-style home-cooking restaurant or soul-food restaurant inhabit the space. 

“Wouldn’t it be a great place for a Gospel brunch?” he suggested.

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