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Saving Place: Historic preservation students find architectural jewels and restore their former beauty

“Keep Austin Weird.”

Anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes in Austin probably has spied that mantra plastered on everything from bumper stickers to T-shirts. To understand the heart and soul behind that cross between a plea and a command is to grasp what Jeff Chusid, director for the graduate Program in Historic Preservation in the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin, does for a living.

Jeff Chusid cleans a pendant from Battle Hall in the Preservation Lab

Jeff Chusid uses the School of Architecture’s spacious Preservation Lab to work on a restoration project.

Chusid, who began as a California architect and devoted his skills and creativity to contemporary projects, now teaches students to celebrate the value and uniqueness of already-existing spaces and to preserve the character and integrity of landscapes, communities and beautiful buildings. He encourages them to identify and then carefully restore what makes a space or place special, whether it’s the larger landscape of a city such as Austin or the interior of a chicken coop on a Johnson City ranch. In doing so, he sends many of those students out into the Austin area, into the Hill Country or sometimes abroad to test their theories and techniques in a giant laboratory.

“This past summer we even looked at the university,” says Chusid. “We offered a class called ‘Preserving the UT Campus’ in which students examined select buildings such as Littlefield Dorm and Battle Hall to evaluate their condition and note any problems that might exist. UT has one of the most important campus cores in the nation. The quality of the architecture and overall campus design is superior, and I think that the beauty of this campus is one of our finest recruiting tools.”

With the information that the preservation program students gathered, a campus preservation plan may be developed that will provide guidelines for material conservation, architecturally appropriate additions to buildings, the historically appropriate treatment of historic interiors in terms of color and furnishings and guidelines for required modernizations such as wheelchair access.

In their course of study in the preservation program, students are exposed to architectural conservation and documentation, historic site management, and preservation planning and development. Classes encompass topics ranging from history to restoration methodologies and research techniques. Students are taught to see the design opportunities and historical narratives contained within a structure or place and then how, technically, to restore and save that resource.

“With historic preservation, you increase the number of layers of interest and value found in a place,” says Chusid. “You look at the stories an old structure can tell and learn to appreciate the different ideas and elements of design that have come down to us from many different cultures and eras. The more richness and variety there is to a place, the greater the chance people will identify with some element of their surroundings. And the more people have a stake in a place, the greater the chance that what results, architecturally and urbanistically, will be good and pleasing.”

Exterior of Battle Hall

Historic preservation students examined campus buildings such as Battle Hall (above) over the summer to determine the structures’ restoration needs. Battle Hall is the only academic building on campus to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Most would agree that Austin is indeed one of those cities that cherishes and struggles to maintain the integrity of its ecosystems, old neighborhoods and stretch of downtown structures. What might be a little surprising, however, is that the preservation program’s students who venture out to work on projects in the community often become emotionally invested in the cultural identity of the area as well.

Hannah Swenson, who graduated with a master’s degree in historic preservation last spring, knew the minute she saw the old Austin swimming hole called Deep Eddy that she wanted to use it for a preservation class project. Situated on the Colorado River, Deep Eddy Pool is Texas’s oldest open-air concrete swimming pool, and the scenic site thrived as a resort in the early 1900s. It was the first tourist stop for many visitors to Austin, sponsored the first river parade on the Colorado and was the first Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in Austin. Named for a dangerous eddy in the river caused by a limestone outcropping, the bathing beach retained its moniker even after the rock was dynamited and the eddy disappeared shortly after the beach opened to the public in 1902.

In its heyday, the area where the pool now sits was a meadow full of tall trees, sunflowers and picnickers, with horses grazing on the far perimeter. Campsites could be rented on both sides of the Colorado, and, with a Ferris wheel, hobby horses, 50-foot diving platform and circus acts like “Lorena and Her Diving Horse” or Marcia Burke, the five-year-old “World Famous Diving Baby,” the spot was a very popular destination for families.

Hannah Swenson

Hannah Swenson

In the summer months, people swam in the Colorado River, and couples languidly floated by in rowboats. Children played on waterslides and skimmed over the surface of the river on a long cable pulley that stretched from shore to shore.

The area still is beautiful and typifies the laid-back, outdoors-loving allure of Austin, with a swimming pool that was built in 1916 sitting near the river’s edge, but the nearby bathhouse that had been constructed as a WPA project has suffered from disuse.

The men’s and women’s roofless, open-air dressing rooms, the octagonal reception area and the very distinctive, “floating,” four-tiered cantilevered roof of the once-bustling bathhouse lobby are what captured Swenson’s eye. Even with a crumbling roof and toppled walls, she could envision the limestone structure at the peak of its glory.

“When I saw the Deep Eddy bathhouse on the list of possible projects for my Historic Sites Documentation class, I jumped right on it,” says Swenson. “I have a great interest in WPA projects, and this place immediately drew me in. It was characteristic of WPA work that the builders used only local materials and that the structures were rustic, which is very charming. When people see the site now, they may not think there’s much to it, but, to me, it’s remarkable.”

The Historic Sites Documentation class, which is requisite for all graduate degree candidates in the preservation program, requires that students prepare a National Register Nomination for a site or structure of their choice. They may elect to nominate a neighborhood, district, archeological site or building, and the property does not have to have national significance, per se. It can be nominated for its association with an important person or event or for its local significance.

Copious research of the site or building is required for a nomination, and, in conducting the research and discovering the context for the structure or neighborhood, students often develop an interest in the project that extends well beyond a semester.

Deep Eddy Bathing Beach, 1925

In the early 1900s, Deep Eddy was a thriving resort area that offered carnival rides, circus attractions like Marcia Burke, the “World Famous Diving Baby,” a 50-foot diving board and campsites.

“There’s this community group called the Friends of Deep Eddy, and they’re extraordinarily dedicated to the preservation of the pool site—they’re avid swimmers and just good people who love Austin,” says Swenson, who moved to Austin from San Francisco in order to go to graduate school. “When I met them, went to their meetings regularly and saw how dedicated they were to doing what we as preservation experts want to do, I realized how this is all so much about people and not just buildings. Helping them became more and more important to me.”

For neighborhood groups or individuals who want to nominate a structure but have no clue what the process involves or where to begin, architecture students such as Swenson are a lifesaver.

“Deep Eddy is one of those places that makes Austin Austin, and you don’t want things like the bathhouse to just fade away” says Blake Tollett, a member of the Friends of Deep Eddy. “We’re so happy to have met Hannah and gotten the benefit of her skill and interest. She came in, knew what was required and did a mountain of research. She did legwork that we would not have had time to do or known how to do. We need funds in order to accomplish this restoration, so Hannah’s assistance has been extremely important.”

Much to her delight, the symbiotic relationship that Swenson established with the Friends of Deep Eddy yielded a National Register nomination that passed the Texas State Board of Review in January.

Deep Eddy bathhouse interior in disrepair

The Deep Eddy bathhouse may enjoy a full restoration, thanks to the efforts of individuals like Hannah Swenson, a historic preservation program graduate student who obtained a National Register of Historic Places listing for the structure.

Inspired by the enthusiasm of the Friends of Deep Eddy and her clear vision of the possibilities for the structure, Swenson forged ahead and spent her last semester in the preservation program working with Limbacher & Godfrey Architects on a preservation plan for the Deep Eddy bathhouse. A preservation plan describes how a restoration project should be accomplished—the concept, cost, specific materials that are needed, suggestions for the treatment of required modernizations, maintenance guidelines, code issues and conceptual drawings.

“Now that the site is on the National Register, they’re eligible for grants and money, which they badly need,” says Swenson. “And with this preservation plan, they will, I hope, be able to fundraise, get bids and start building.”

The success of projects like Swenson’s emphasizes the underlying philosophy and purpose of historic preservation—natural and cultural resources are important to a community’s identity, whether that community is a university campus or an entire city.

With the goldmine of student talent in the preservation program, Chusid has begun to look at more and more ambitious future projects and is negotiating to develop a preservation master plan for the City of Austin. Graduate students would survey the historical resources of the city, evaluate the needs for regulations and ordinances, examine similar ordinances in cities around the nation, hold public hearings with stakeholders, develop proposals for historic districts and then submit the findings to the City Council. All in two years.

If the project gets a green light and the School of Architecture’s Historic Preservation Program enjoys the honor of collaborating with other interested parties on the restoration of several historically and architecturally significant Austin-area sites, they will have joined the swelling ranks of those who work to “keep Austin weird.” They’ll be saving what matters.

Kay Randall

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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