October 29, 2020, marked the ten-year anniversary of the grand opening of the restored Byrne-Reed House, the historic property in downtown Austin that serves as Humanities Texas's headquarters. While we had hoped to hold an in-person celebration, we are pleased nonetheless to commemorate the occasion by sharing the reflections of those who were integral to the success of the building's restoration.
When Michael L. Gillette became executive director of Humanities Texas in 2003, board chair Maceo Dailey Jr. encouraged him to develop a plan for obtaining a building in the heart of Austin that would provide both increased visibility and a venue for our programs. A year later, the staff defined the organization’s spatial needs and began to scout the local real estate market. After looking at a dozen options, we settled on the only one that met all of our criteria: the building now known as the Byrne-Reed House.
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 and began the restoration.
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. But with the leadership of Mike Gillette and our board, the guidance of our Architectural Advisory Group, and the expertise of our restoration project team, the Byrne-Reed House was successfully returned to its former splendor.
"How can we live without our lives? How will we know it's us without our past?"
— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The stucco enshrouding of the Byrne-Reed House from a misguided earlier renovation had always been a source of intrigue, and so I welcomed the invitation in October 2007 to lead a graduate historic preservation studio at The University of Texas at Austin to assess the potential restoration and adaptive reuse of the house by Humanities Texas. Now, we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the results of that investigation and the extensive restoration that followed under the direction of Austin architectural firm Clayton & Little.
Architectural artifacts, like other precious and historic artifacts, are usually exhibited in a museum setting, accompanied by photographs and commentary. On the other hand, architectural structures, like historic and archeological sites, scenic vistas, and natural landscapes, are best experienced in-person where the surrounding landscape becomes the "museum" for these real-life artifacts, be it a structure, a neighborhood, a city, a natural area, or a spatial phenomenon. These artifacts from our built environment have a distinct identity and meet specific qualifying criteria. Not all artifacts can or should be preserved and protected, but there is a cultural and societal need to recognize the past and incorporate it into future developments and planning.
The immaculate restoration of the Byrne-Reed House is a nearly ideal example of preservation research, documentation, and execution, recognizing the past while blending comfortably into a mosaic of harmonious compatibility with the present. It serves the requirements for office space for Humanities Texas while providing the city with an architectural artifact that recalls Austin's past. More broadly, the Byrne-Reed House has joined the other preservation projects that are scattered throughout the state's capital city that quietly define a balance of the old along with the new. As the city meets challenges of sprawl and density, the importance of these artifacts becomes more significant. Heritage sites like the Byrne-Reed House guide attention to the past and promote balanced retention of landmarks, thus contributing significantly to a rich and layered urban landscape of the old with the new—preservation embracing progress.
I distinctly remember standing on 15th Street in 2006 with a group of four or five Humanities Texas supporters, staring at the building that is now the Byrne-Reed House. What we saw then was a completely nondescript white stucco box of a building with seven square, two-story columns on the north side. It was dirty and in poor repair and looked like an excellent candidate for demolition.
The location would be perfect for a new home for Humanities Texas, with great visibility on a major arterial and close proximity to the Capitol Building. Of all the candidate sites that were being considered, this one checked the most boxes in terms of locational desirability.
But the really intriguing thing about this option was the presumption that under that banal shell there was a gorgeous century-old historic building designed by prominent Austin architect Charles H. Page. There was compelling evidence here and there inside the building that the beautifully crafted older structure had just been entombed in the cheap 1960s stucco box and that there might be enough of it remaining to conduct an authentic restoration to its former glory.
My opinion was that this had to be the new home for Humanities Texas. Bringing the historic structure back to life would make Humanities Texas a hero in Austin and in the statewide preservation community. How often does an organization get the chance to fulfill its fundamental mission at the same time as it acquires a practical headquarters for its operations?
But, of course, taking on such a challenge had far more potential pitfalls than other much safer options that were available. There were tremendous unknowns involved that could not become "knowns" until significant demolition could be done. Predicting costs was virtually impossible. It took real guts on the part of Mike Gillette and his board to make the decision to embark on this remarkable journey, and it took the deep knowledge and skills of trusted advisors and professionals like Wayne Bell and Emily Little to make it happen.
I pass by the Byrne-Reed House three to four times a week as I walk from my home downtown to The University of Texas at Austin campus. That gracious emblem of Austin's storied past gives joy and pride to our community beyond measure. Ten years later, Humanities Texas truly is a hero for having stepped up and delivered a bold and lasting contribution to the architectural heritage of Texas.
In 2006, our architectural firm was asked to submit qualifications for the restoration of an historic house located at the northeast corner of 15th and Rio Grande. This was an intersection I had traveled daily for years and could not conjure up an image of anything that vaguely resembled an historic structure. Soon, however, I learned that in 1969 the many-times remodeled home had been entirely encased in a steel framework covered in stucco. Earlier studies by architect Larry Speck and preservationist Gregg Free revealed what lay beneath the white stucco box and columns that were visible from the street: a handsome home built by Edmund and Ellen Byrne in 1907, designed by famed Austin architect Charles H. Page.
Our work began with the intense study of old photographs and architectural drawings previously completed by a historic preservation class at The University of Texas at Austin led by Wayne Bell. We had no idea what remained of the original design details and materials, and we were also faced with the challenge of working around the staff of Humanities Texas who, for budgetary reasons, needed to occupy the structure until the day construction was to begin on the restoration.
Once news of the project was announced, a descendant of the Reeds, Noëlle Paulette, appeared with a treasure trove of old family photos. These snapshots—some of them posed, others informal—proved to be exceptionally revealing and helpful. One great discovery was a bridal photo of Noëlle’s grandmother, Ruth Reed, standing on the grand staircase. This showed the lower portion of the staircase and the newel post design, architectural features long ago lost to well-intentioned remodelers. Through our discovery process, we learned there had been at least four significant renovations, all reflecting the design trends of their time, including glass block infill of the exterior arches on the porches.
We identified about twenty locations on the outer shell where we believed important details lay behind layers of renovation. The discovery phase began as the contractor skillfully opened these portals to the past. We based our assumptions regarding condition and materials on found evidence and methodically prepared a set of construction documents that approximated the quantities and design of materials that we expected to need once the shroud was removed. You can imagine that many drawing revisions were needed as the process unfolded.
We set up a time-lapse camera in the dormer window of the house across the street so we could monitor progress from our office, which was only a mile away. It was lucky we were nearby because several times a week we would receive calls from the contractor alerting us to a new discovery or unexpected feature uncovered in the shroud removal. All new findings required documentation and reanalysis.
Technical challenges were extensive, and a team of over thirty artisans was hired to recreate the varied historic details. Artisans from Lubbock were brought in to recast the plaster egg-and-dart style frieze that runs above the second-floor windows. The monumental, decorative steel bracket at the entry appeared in a photograph but was no longer extant, so we resorted to meticulously scaling the photograph to draw and fabricate a replacement. We found a number of broken roof tiles, discarded during a previous renovation, stamped with the name of the manufacturer, who, still in business, provided exact replacement materials to replicate the original barrel clay tile roof.
Based on Humanities Texas’s desire to keep the first floor of the house available for holding events, we worked closely with the Texas Historical Commission to restore the interior according to the 1948 remodel by Austin architects Jessen, Jessen, Millhouse & Greeven. The exterior was restored to its original 1907 splendor based upon historic photographs.
No project of this complexity is successful without a visionary and committed leader, and we had that in Humanities Texas Executive Director Mike Gillette, along with his dedicated and generous board of directors led by Mickey Klein and project management team led by Dave Stauch of CPM Texas (formally of HS&A).
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.
Its allure was irresistible: a hidden, century-old mansion five blocks from the Texas Capitol. The reemergence of the historic Byrne-Reed House was an exhilarating, five-year endeavor. When we first looked at the stucco-entombed building in 2005, we wondered if there was enough of the original structure to restore. A year later, in a leap of faith, we closed on the property, leveraging the purchase—as only Humanities Texas Deputy Director Yvonne González could—with a bridge loan and a balloon note. We moved in immediately.
The next three years were a blur of fundraising and grant-writing to pay for the building and its restoration. Humanities Texas board member Julius Glickman, a peerless fundraiser, chaired the capital campaign, recruiting prominent new board members and generous contributors like Mickey Klein and Jill Wilkinson. Other current and former board members expanded our fundraising to a statewide campaign. In 2007, thanks to an incredible effort put forth by our staff, Humanities Texas applied for and was awarded a $1 million Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—the endowment's largest single grant in Texas. We prepared and sent out scores of fundraising letters, arranged countless meetings with donors, and designed handsome print materials, including an impressive case statement.
Among the exciting moments during our five-year endeavor were a series of significant "discoveries" that ensured the restoration's accuracy. One was a postcard-sized photograph of the house from 1911. The architects, contractors, and craftsmen would use enlargements of this image throughout the restoration. Noëlle Paulette, a Reed family descendant, obtained marvelous old photographs of the building's interior and exterior that were also invaluable in the restoration.
By August 2009, with the architectural plans, construction contracts, and most of the funding in hand, we moved to temporary headquarters for a year. Melissa Huber, our lead staff member on the renovation, returned to the site almost daily to coordinate with the architect, contractor, and project managers. As the demolition progressed, it revealed exciting discoveries, including a section of the original wrought iron railing, two original windows with the glass and screens intact, and surviving plaster friezes that could be used to make molds for replacement of missing friezes. One of the most exciting revelations was the original encaustic tile floor found beneath a cement slab on the east and south terraces.
Throughout the year-long restoration, we conducted "hard-hat" tours for board members and other potential donors. One of these visits, in July 2018, was with then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. As Dewhurst toured the building, he became interested in our programs for classroom teachers and announced, on the spot, that he would add $2 million in state funding to support the teacher professional development initiative. There were also the thousands of silent "investors" who stopped at the intersection of 15th and Rio Grande on their daily commute and checked out the previous day's progress as they waited for the light to change. Whenever we've subsequently encountered those commuters, they've always emphasized how the project had become part of their lives.
Looking back, I marvel at how much the Humanities Texas staff accomplished through their dedication and extraordinary teamwork. In addition to three moves, countless tours, fundraising trips, grant proposals, and hundreds of building-related calls and meetings before and during the restoration, the staff not only continued to execute our regular programs of grants, traveling exhibitions, teacher awards, and workshops, they even added new initiatives to our work plan.
The successful restoration of the Byrne-Reed House earned eleven awards and generous publicity in state and national publications, including Texas Architect, Humanities, and Old House Journal. Our efforts brought us greater visibility, a spectacular, centrally-located venue for our programs, many new board members and donors from across the state, and, as a result, an expanded budget and organizational agenda. Thus, as we transformed the forgotten mansion to its original opulence, the endeavor also transformed Humanities Texas.
Looking back on ten years of the restoration of the house is heartwarming. Besides the excitement of seeing the transformation of the building, the staff and purpose of Humanities Texas couldn’t be a better fit for the building that was my great grandfather’s home. Dave and Laura Reed were proponents of education for all, and I believe they would be thrilled with Humanities Texas and their mission using the home to be such a place in our community.
I have fond memories of Mike Gillette finding some new gem uncovered by the exploration of the home in the early years. He might be on a ladder with a flashlight looking above a ceiling tile at an original window and eager to show everyone. Or the piece of original tile that peeked out from the surrounding concrete that covered it. I cherish the memory of walking through the house with my two aunts as they described to project manager Bill McCann, construction superintendent John Patrick, and Mike Gillette all of their own memories of the different parts of the house when they visited their grandparents when they were young. I know it means the world to all of us to see the home in its original state and all the great programs and community enrichments Humanities Texas provides!
In September 2010, with the restoration of the Byrne-Reed House now complete, former executive director Mike Gillette emphasized that it was the organization's responsibility to use the building to advance our mission. "The restoration's success," he wrote in our e-newsletter, "is only the first measure of the endeavor's merit. The real test will be the productive and creative use of the Byrne-Reed House to enable Humanities Texas to serve the citizens of Austin and Texans generally."
As we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the building's restoration, I am happy to affirm that Humanities Texas has indeed put the space to good and extensive use. More than a thousand Texas teachers have attended professional development workshops here to study with leading scholars. The spacious Glickman Room has been the setting for lectures by journalist Cokie Roberts and Pulitzer Prize-winning historians Eric Foner and David Oshinsky, not to mention readings by Texas literary luminaries including Naomi Shihab Nye and Oscar Cásares. Veterans and their families have participated in reading and discussion programs, gaining perspective on the experience of combat. Federal officials and leaders of the state's cultural institutions have met here to coordinate assistance to Texas schools, libraries, and museums impacted by recent hurricanes. And, each December, hundreds of local book lovers have come to meet and support authors at our Holiday Book Fair.
During this time, of course, the Byrne-Reed House has also provided offices for our staff. The building has frequently been the setting for our board meetings and receptions, while both the Lebermann Dining Room and the upstairs library have been used for smaller gatherings. The basement—a rare and valuable feature in an Austin property—houses our many traveling exhibitions.
The Byrne-Reed House thus serves and embodies our statewide mission, and we are committed to ensuring that it will be properly maintained over time. Those who have passed by in recent months know that we recently painted the exterior and completed repairs to the second-floor sleeping porch. This year, with the help of a visionary grant from the Still Water Foundation, we also established a permanent endowment dedicated to the building's preservation.
Looking ahead to the next decade, Humanities Texas will continue to make good use of the Byrne-Reed House. After all, the building is more than merely an office or a successful historic restoration. It is a resource for all Texans—a headquarters for the public humanities in the heart of the state's capital city. My colleagues and I look forward to seeing you here once the pandemic has passed.
Built more than a century ago, the Byrne-Reed House reflects a Texas vernacular style that combined popular architectural trends of the period. Learn more about our historic Austin home and the families that lived here.
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.
Watch a time-lapse video of the amazing Byrne-Reed House transformation.