An elegant 1907 house entombed in '70s-era stucco stands revealed once again

When Michael L. Gillette, executive director of Humanities Texas, was tasked with relocating headquarters eight years ago, there were a few requirements. The building had to be in downtown Austin and close to the capitol; it had to accommodate a growing staff and serve as a suitable meeting place for board members. Above all, says Gillette, it had to be historic.

"We didn't want a glass box or a lifeless office building," he says. "We wanted something with real character, something that would tie us to our heritage."

As a result, Gillette paid scant attention to the white stuccoed pile at the corner of Rio Grande and West 15th streets.

"It looked like something built in the '70s or '80s," he says. "We only decided to inquire about it after we hit dead ends with other buildings. That's when the listing agent told us it looked like that because it had been remodeled."

Gillette was shown a photograph of the building taken in the early 20th century. It looked nothing like the property for sale. The original structure had Mission-style terra cotta roof tiles, ornate iron railings, and Prairie-style porches. And the entrance stood in an entirely different location.

Taking what he describes as "a leap of faith," Gillette decided to purchase the building in December 2006, still uncertain "what was underneath all that plaster and stucco."

Humanities Texas named its new headquarters the Byrne-Reed House, after the families that had occupied the residence prior to its conversion to offices in the 1950s. Then, planning for restoration began in earnest.

"We started by looking through old city directories, reading the genealogies of the Reeds and Byrnes," Gillette says. "And I made a cold call to Noelle Paulette," great-granddaughter of David Reed, who owned the house from 1915 to 1948.

"I knew immediately what he was talking about," Paulette says. His documentary evidence revealed to her the form of a family home that had simply disappeared. Her relatives would never even talk about the house: Its burial beneath layers of stucco and plaster was too painful. "They decided never to discuss it again," she says.

Paulette decided it was time to press them for details.

She went to San Antonio, Houston, and Austin, collecting photos and memorabilia from relatives. Gillette headed to Fort Worth to scan other photos of the original residence. The two gradually compiled an archive, and the photos they discovered proved invaluable in guiding the restoration.

Ken Johnson, project manager at Clayton & Little architects, says, "We'd overlay historic photographs overtop current ones, and label unique portions of the building based on what we'd found. It was helpful to confirm some of our suspicions about what was still in there."

The photographs offered clues about everything from long-obscured arches on the south terrace and tile beneath concrete in the foyer to hidden railings on the stairs. Two-by-two-foot holes cut in the stucco confirmed the presence of the details.

After a year, work on the nearly $2.5 million project ended last summer. It was an "unveiling," Gillette says. "Nobody even knew the building was here … It's a historic building we added back to the inventory. And that adds a dimension that made this project very exciting."                

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