• Photographs of a baptism from 1954 (left) and a morning worship service in 1957 depict Riverside Church in San Antonio in its heyday. - left photo copyright Joe Boyd; right image copyright Zintgraff

Photography by Herman Ellis Dyal, FAIA
Text by Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, NOMA

When we look,
not at the things which are seen,
but at the things which are not seen:
for the things which are seen are temporal;
but the things which are not seen
are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:18
King James Version

What follows is a collection of images excerpted from “The Things Not Seen Are Eternal,” a photographic monograph by Herman Ellis Dyal, FAIA, that documents a two-year period of the Riverside Church in San Antonio, which had been the center of his family’s life since the 1940s. In 2021, Dyal visited the church for the first time in 50 years. Believing the space to be out of use, he stepped inside and was surprised to be greeted by the pastor. The church that had once boasted one of the largest and fastest growing congregations in the city had dwindled to an attendance of only a dozen or so mostly elderly, longtime members. The congregation now gathers in one small area, and many of the rooms and spaces are no longer in use, without electricity and slowly deteriorating.

The book not only captures a slice of American religious cultural life but is a beautifully crafted object unto itself. Its simple burgundy cloth-bound cover, screen printed with a burnt orange rectangle onto its surface, calls to mind a Rothko painting or Turrell Skyspace, queuing up the reader for the similarly evocative — and hauntingly familiar — imagery that lies inside. Dyal’s detailed and carefully composed vignettes bear witness to a bygone era, the spaces themselves palimpsests of detritus collected over the second half of the 20th century. The thoughtful framing of each image underscores the discontinuity between the orthogonality of the church’s architecture and the haphazardly placed relics that occupy it. The period color palettes and naturally daylit spaces, expertly photographed and presented on a matte-finished paper, imbue the images with an ethereal, painterly quality. Devoid of people, the images instead rely on the cultural artifacts and spaces to convey what can be interpreted as a commentary on the increasing secularization of society. What results is an amalgamation of nostalgia, melancholy, and beauty, begging readers to interpret for themselves what truly is eternal.

Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, is editor of Texas Architect.

Leave a Comment