The question was, Would it ever be resurrected? With the withdrawal of both potential buyers for its current headquarters, Humanities Texas had no way to fund the down payment. After recovering from the initial shock, Gillette called his deputy director, Yvonne Gonzalez. What would they do now? Gonzalez, however, had already secured a line of credit with a bank, and Humanities Texas was soon able to borrow $250,000 against their equity in the current headquarters building, which the owners of the Texas Oil building agreed to accept as a down payment. It would be a bigger stretch now, because they would have to repay the loan and raise more money for the purchase than they’d planned, at least until their headquarters sold. But the project was alive after all. In January 2007, the staff moved in and promptly rechristened the building as the Byrne-Reed House.
The old headquarters eventually sold for over $600,000, but it would take a lot more than that to restore the house to its original glory. The preliminary study of the project estimated a cost of $2 million for the reconstruction, plus $1.9 million for the purchase of the house—close to $4 million to transform the building into a working headquarters for Humanities Texas.
The first step to acquiring a new headquarters, Gillette knew, was to expand the board of directors, which included a number of academics who brought more intellectual than financial firepower. A few months before he’d toured the Texas Oil building, he’d found the perfect new candidate: an old college buddy who was one of the state’s most accomplished fund-raisers, Houston lawyer Julius Glickman. One of the nation’s top corporate litigators, the well-connected Glickman agreed to head the capital campaign and, fortunately, had a contact list that made hiring a separate fund-raising agency unnecessary.
“We needed somebody who knew how to raise money,” Gillette says. “He made a generous contribution and that got several others to contribute.” Glickman “could open doors that I couldn’t. It was inspiring to watch him work.”
Every board member contributed personally to the project, which made it easier to ask others to do so. They and former board members (fifteen in all) throughout the state headed up fund-raising efforts in their communities. “A lot of it is who you know,” Glickman explains. “I called on a lot of my friends, some of whom would listen and give money.”
One such friend was Jill Wilkinson. Gillette knew her Still Water Foundation was interested in arts and culture. He also knew that Wilkinson didn’t know much about Humanities Texas. He and Glickman took Wilkinson to dinner. Glickman didn’t waste any time. “I said, ‘here’s what I’ve given, and I’d like for you to give that same amount,’” Glickman recalls. “Mike just about died. Two weeks later, she called and said, ‘I’ll match what you match.’” That plus another early commitment from Glickman friend Mickey Klein and others soon gave the project a $1 million cushion.
Gillette credits Glickman and the other early contributors, but Glickman is quick to return the compliment. “Without Mike, we could not have gotten the money,” he says. “He and the staff did great work.” It was a frantically busy time, with the regular business of grant applications to process while researching prospects, sending out direct-mail pleas, and handling other correspondence with donors. The staff was also giving tours of the building, while under construction, to historical and student groups, which the preservation community lauded.
Teaching was a necessary part of the fund-raising effort. “None of us realized how difficult it was going to be to raise money for an organization no one had ever heard of,” Gillette remembers. Glickman, accustomed to raising funds for highly regarded institutions like the University of Texas, faced an unprecedented challenge. “I had to spend the first few minutes explaining just who we were and what we did,” he recalls.
Describing the architectural project was also challenging. In its current condition, the building itself wasn’t much of a draw, but the fund-raisers had props. Descendants of the first two families to occupy the house provided old photos of the interior and exterior, which Humanities Texas included in a slick brochure that became the fund-raising team’s calling card. Gillette often took prospective donors to the construction site, and explained how the torn-up stucco building would morph into something resembling the beautiful old photos.
“The other thing you have to have is the right message,” Glickman says. “We took a lot of time to think about what this building meant to us, and how it would change the humanities. We had good luck with people who valued what the humanities stand for. And people recognized our teacher institutes and lectures and exhibits that had gone to eighty-six cities or towns around the state and realized how much better we could do with this house as a headquarters.”
On Saturday morning, December 1, 2007, Gillette received a phone call from the National Endowment for the Humanities. As he stood in his front yard—his house had terrible cell phone reception—Bruce Cole gave him the best news imaginable. “I want to start your weekend on a positive note,” said the former NEH Chairman. “You’ve got your million dollar grant!” Thanks in large part to its demonstrated fund-raising capability, NEH was awarding Humanities Texas a $1 million matching grant—the largest it has ever awarded in Texas, and more than double what Gillette had allowed himself to hope for.
The grant arrived just in time. As the recession took hold in 2008 and 2009, donations slowed. “Those who turned us down did it because of the economy,” Glickman says. “We were the new kid on the block in a bad situation, so we had a harder hill to climb.” He estimates that they made twenty to thirty contacts for each donation they received. One foundation reneged on a six-figure pledge. But the fund-raising team was able to raise its game. “The more we did it,” Gillette recalls, “the more persuasive all of us became. It forced us to really articulate why Humanities Texas is important. That was very valuable in itself. It really mobilized the board.”
With money in the bank and research in place, restoration began in 2009 while the staff moved to temporary quarters. It was still possible that they had bought a pig in a poke, as Texans say. Because the building was in use until restoration began, the architects and contractors really didn’t know exactly what was left of the old building, what could be restored, and exactly how much it might cost.
Fortunately, Humanities Texas’s architects were as good as its fund-raisers. Clayton and Little Architects, led by Emily Little, and project managers HS&A had racked up years of experience in historical reconstruction. Faculty and students from the UT architecture school contributed expertise and effort. The Austin History Center provided “a treasure chest of drawings” by local architects of the Reed family’s early 1948 remodel.
As workers painstakingly removed each layer of anachronistic encrustation, the architects made new drawings, using “those fabulous historical photographs” as guides, Little recalls. “It couldn’t have happened without them.” Her team members played detective one day, archaeologist the next, poring over enormous enlargements of the photos (occasionally resorting to magnifying glasses) to count the scallops on the arches and the bricks in the old chimney, and recover myriad other details. They studied “the ghosts in the walls,” impressions left by bookshelves, mantelpieces, and other fixtures that had been painted around.
As the careful demolition proceeded, the house’s hidden wonders began to emerge: iron-flecked decorative brickwork, parts of the roof-plaster frieze, porch columns with some plaster capitals nearly intact. The second-floor stucco removal unveiled two historic windows in their original wood frames with original glass and screens. The recovery of the home’s original brick walls provoked immense excitement. Clearing out Texas Oil’s rabbit warrens revealed a generously spaced first floor.
While blasting away four inches of poured concrete slab from the covered-over old porch, workers exposed the original encaustic tile, bearing the stamp “Ludowici-Celadon Co.” Little discovered that the manufacturer was still in business in Ohio. She sent them the originals, and arranged for a return shipment sufficient to replicate the original roof.
Some discoveries weren’t so pleasant. To run air-conditioning ducts through the walls, the 1970s renovators had used sledgehammers to smash graceful arches. Plumbers had chiseled and chopped through wood floors, walls, and anything else in their way.
To find a balance between preserving history and making the building work for twenty-first-century users, the architects sought advice from the Texas Historical Commission. Modern safety codes required balconies have railings higher than the two-foot-tall wrought-iron originals, so a contractor made a new, simpler, taller railing to sit behind the historic railing, which was fabricated from a segment of the original railing found embedded in a plaster wall. The team installed contemporary heating and air-conditioning units outside the house and in the basement and attics, preserving the original high ceilings. To give wheelchair users access to the upper floors, a new elevator was placed on the outside of the building in an area hidden from most street views. Damaged or missing brick and plaster features were replaced with reproductions almost impossible even for a professional like Little to detect.
While they couldn’t afford every last authentic touch, unanticipated items—exact replicas of the original windows, copper gutters and downspouts, finishing the third-floor conversion from attic to additional office space, and the adjoining carriage house (which would have required re-permitting if saved for later)—added up. By the time all the restoration and wiring and mechanical improvements were completed, the total budget was around $4.9 million—almost $1 million more than the original rough estimate.
“They did a masterful, exquisite job of bringing it all up to code and the performance standards we expect while keeping the spirit of the older building beautifully,” Speck says. To architect Little, it was all worth it. “I’ve been doing restoration for twenty-eight years,” she says. “This is the best one I ever worked on.”
For Glickman, the ribbon on the package was tied at a board meeting last fall after the staff had moved back in. He urged the members, some of whom were new, to finish the job of raising funds. “We’re almost here,” he told them. “We’ve worked long and hard on it. Let’s finish it.”
“How much more do you need?” spoke up a new member from San Antonio.
“About $80,000,” Glickman replied.
“Hell!” the new member exclaimed. “We’ll take care of that right now!” And he did.
When the building opened in August 2010, visitors were astonished by the light and airy feel of the porches and the interior, all furnished with donated period antiques. The building makes an attractive work space for the Humanities Texas staff, nearly all of whom have windows in their offices. The sprawling basement houses an exhibit workshop that also provides storage space for the organization’s fifty-plus traveling exhibits. The ground floor, which boasts a working kitchen, provides a congenial setting for social gatherings, receptions, screenings, lectures, and conferences. And the shaded porches furnish ample space for schmoozing. “We hope to make this a gathering place for the kind of activities and people Humanities Texas needs to influence,” Glickman says. “It’s going to be a beacon for the humanities.”
Although it has been open less than a year, the Byrne-Reed house has already secured for Humanities Texas a far higher profile than even Gillette could have imagined. “When I go to speak with members of the legislature or their staff, all of them know about the building,” he says.
“A lot of them saw it under construction.” The restoration has attracted widespread press attention and already garnered seven architecture awards.
“It’s made a big difference,” Glickman says. “Most people didn’t know what Humanities Texas was, and now everyone sees the house and the sign. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst came to the building and was so impressed by one of our teacher institutes that he got us $2 million in the legislative session. I don’t think it would have happened without that building.”
For architect Speck, who’s worked on NEH-supported projects before, it’s especially appropriate that his profession was so heavily involved. “I love to see architecture embraced as part of the humanities,” he says.
The restored mansion also constitutes a civic and cultural treasure for its community. “So few buildings of that era are left in Austin,” says Speck. “It’s unique architecturally, and because the families were prominent in Austin, it has social significance.” He believes that if Humanities Texas hadn’t acquired the house, one of the next owners would likely have torn it down. “It’s not often that someone has the desire to go in and restore a building and alter their use of it to meet the historic integrity of the house,” he says.
“It keeps alive a connection to the development of Austin itself,” says Bell. “It’s a great asset for the city of Austin and makes a strong statement across the country about what an agency with historic integrity can do.”
“I told them at the beginning: ‘If you do this project and do it right, you will be a total hero in this community,’” Speck says. “And they are heroes. They did it right.”