The Byrne-Reed House—Humanities Texas's headquarters—embodies our organization's commitment to history, culture, and education. In 2010, we uncovered the century-old home, returning it to its original character and distinction over the course of a year-long restoration. Located in downtown Austin just a few blocks from the State Capitol, the Byrne-Reed House provides a central venue for our programs and events as well as those of other cultural and educational organizations. This month, in honor of our fiftieth anniversary, we provide a brief summary of the discovery, purchase, and restoration of the special building Humanities Texas now calls home.
Prior to relocating to the Byrne-Reed House, Humanities Texas began operations on the campus of The University of Texas at Arlington. The organization moved to Austin in June 1980 to be closer to other statewide organizations and to state government. In 2005, Humanities Texas began searching for a centrally located office space that would provide both visibility within the community and a venue for programs. Size, location, and price were important considerations, but the council also wanted to find a historic building that would reflect Humanities Texas's mission. After looking at a dozen buildings, we settled on the only one that met all of our criteria: the Texas Oil Building at 710 West 15th Street.
The building's appearance in 2005 was hardly distinctive. Its 1969 stucco facade gave no indication of the home's original grandeur. However, from the first time Humanities Texas staff toured the building at 15th and Rio Grande, we knew we had found something special. Careful observation showed that the best of the Byrne-Reed House was under wraps. Peeking above the drop ceilings revealed original door and window openings and historic trim. Pulling up layers of carpet and padding uncovered original flooring. Historic photographs depicted an elegant exterior adorned with nine arches still intact underneath layers of stucco.
Built in 1907, the house's first occupants were Edmund and Ellen Sneed Byrne, a prominent and widely respected couple who commissioned well-known Austin architect Charles H. Page to design their home. In 1915, the house was purchased by the David Reed family, who lived there for the next thirty-six years. The Reed family sold the home in 1951 to an insurance company, which subsequently remodeled the building for office use, enclosing the terraces and subdividing the interior rooms. During a major renovation that began in 1969, the entire building was wrapped in a white stucco façade that stood until Humanities Texas bought the house in 2006 with the goal of restoring the home to its original character. You can read more about the history of the Byrne-Reed House and its residents in the About section of our website.
The Humanities Texas board took several Olympian leaps of faith in purchasing the building in December 2006. The difficulty of completing a restoration of this scale, matched with the significant financial obstacles, presented a daunting challenge. The extraordinary leadership of then-Executive Director Michael L. Gillette and our volunteer board, led by Capital Campaign Chair Julius Glickman, enabled us to reach our fundraising goal of $5 million. Glickman honed our case statement into a compelling appeal and developed a statewide fundraising strategy, enlisting current and former board members to take the lead in their communities. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded Humanities Texas a $1 million Challenge Grant—at that time, the endowment's largest single awarded grant in Texas—which gave the initiative credibility and additional incentive for individuals and foundations to participate. Hundreds of individuals contributed to the restoration, along with more than twenty Texas foundations.
Striving for the most accurate restoration possible, Humanities Texas conducted documentary research in order to collect evidence of the house's historical appearance. We obtained valuable historic photographs, many of which came from the descendants of the Byrne and Reed families.
Architectural historian Gregg Free, who authored the Historic Structure Report, first advised us that much of the hidden original structure was intact and that the stucco façade could be easily removed. The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture faculty also provided early guidance. Larry Speck and Wayne Bell served on our Architectural Advisory Group, along with noted architectural historian William Seale. A group of historic preservation graduate students from UT Austin even used the Byrne-Reed House as a case-study in their preservation studio course.
After additional research into the history of the building and its existing condition, Humanities Texas engaged HS&A for restoration project management services, led by David Stauch, managing principal, and Bill McCann, project manager. With their guidance, we chose Clayton&Little (now Clayton Korte), headed by lead architect Emily Little, as the architectural and engineering team. We selected Journeyman Construction as the general contractor.
"The restoration of the Byrne-Reed House was one of the most exciting and unique projects of my career, and I am always thrilled to return to the house for the annual holiday book fair or the next interesting lecture presented by Humanities Texas," said Little when we reflected on the ten-year anniversary of the restoration in October 2020.
In order to restore and preserve extant materials and recreate important, documented architectural elements, a number of skilled and knowledgeable subcontractors worked on the project. For example, Louis Hayn and the team at Looking Good Masonry did an extraordinary job repairing and restoring the exterior façade. Their work included replacing areas of lost brick, repairing columns and porch skirts, rebuilding the porch railings, and recreating the chimneys. They used a combination of new brick and historic brick culled from less public areas of the building to seamlessly integrate old and new materials.
With similar diligence to ensure the historic integrity of the house, remarkable craftsmen oversaw the restoration and reproduction of plaster elements at the Byrne-Reed House. The team at Professio, Inc. reproduced the molded ornamental plaster elements of the Byrne-Reed House, including the exterior frieze and column capitals and the interior dining room ceiling. For those pieces that needed to be reproduced, the Professio team gently removed pieces of the original plaster and took them to their studios in Lubbock where they made molds of the originals and cast reproduction pieces.
Although the restoration of the Byrne-Reed House took only a year, it was the culmination of almost a decade’s work. Learn more about the process and people that made this remarkable transformation possible on our Restoration and Project Team pages.
The grand opening of the long-awaited restored Byrne-Reed House took place on October 29, 2010. The restoration has since captured the public's attention, receiving eleven architectural awards and significant coverage in national and statewide magazines. Perhaps most importantly, the Byrne-Reed House has allowed Humanities Texas to better fulfill our mission and serve the population of Texas by providing an unparalleled space for programs, workshops, and public events.
Watch a time-lapse video of the building's amazing transformation.