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Wayne Bell remains a preservation warrior for Austin

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

During his nearly eight decades in Texas, Wayne Bell has witnessed the state's struggle for architectural integrity almost in its entirety, and often on the frontlines.

As he looks back on those years before leaving the city to settle in the Pacific Northwest, Bell, one of the state's leading preservationists, now can see some of the mistakes made by those trying to keep Texans from bulldozing their heritage. But he also can view, in three-dimensional form, the triumphs of the movement, including some of Austin's most beloved buildings, from the State Capitol to the Governor's Mansion, the Paramount Theatre to the Driskill Hotel, and many more modest structures to boot.

Bell sat down with me among the antiques of the Neill-Cochran House, the Abner Cook-built Greek Revival mansion in West Campus that he helped renovate, to talk about the parallels between his life and the state's bumpy history of architectural preservation.

As a child in Luling during the 1930s and '40s, the future architect and professor became interested in the distinctive house his great-grandfather had built, at a time when Victorian architecture was out of fashion and its examples endangered. During those years, too, Texas celebrated its centennial with pomp and federal funding, which helped spark the statewide preservation movement.

As a student at the University of Texas in the 1950s, Bell navigated the philosophical divisions between the old and the new guards in the UT architecture department, often siding with the historians and preservationists against the modernists at a time when the nation as a whole was waking up to its receding physical legacy.

As a young architect for UT and the UT System in the 1960s, Bell worked on preserving the integrity of their campuses and their historic properties. He also joined the precursor of the Texas Historical Commission and worked closely with philanthropist Ima Hogg to create the Winedale Historical Center, which rehabilitated Texas structures, decorative arts and quilts on a site near Brenham.

In the 1970s, he was among those experts who wrote the City of Austin's preservation code, recently revamped after considerable controversy by City Council. Later, he provided architectural leadership for the Texas response to the countrywide Main Street Program, which salvaged the shapes and feels of dozens of Texas towns.

In Austin, his design firms rescued several local treasures, "Austinized" contemporary designs for out-of-state firms, and had a hand in perhaps 15 percent, by his estimate, of the current downtown buildings, including the Paramount Theatre and Tips buildings.

As a UT professor for three decades, he inspired generations (including me) working with their hands and minds to connect intimately with the state's past. Honored by the Texas Medal of the Arts, Austin Arts Hall of Fame and College of Fellows in American Institute of Architects, among other groups, Bell served as the voice of the Austin Heritage Society and often the ultimate source in town for the city's physical history.

Now, Bell, 78, though still a commanding physical and intellectual presence, has decided to relocate most of the year to Camas, Wash., a small town outside Portland, Ore. He and his partner, Eric Willems, will keep an apartment in the Cambridge Towers near the UT campus. Yet Bell's full voice on Austin preservation will go missing, just as the movement has been jolted by claims that governments have "over-incentivized" preservation, especially of high-dollar Austin homes presumably owned by folks who don't need tax breaks to keep their homesteads up.

Tall, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, Bell would make an alarming opponent in any city meeting or state hearing, were it not for his wide smile and gentleman's manners. His thundering bass brings to mind 19th-century orators deciding the fate of the nation, but it is usually pitched instead to a intense purr.

Digging deeper into his life story surprised even this former student. His father, Marion Bell, worked as a material superintendent for the outfit that was to become Mobil Oil Co. His mother, Margaret Johnson Bell, was a librarian. The Bells followed the oil business across Texas, with a bit of "foreign service," as the family called it, in Drumright, Okla.

His life's mission was not determined right away. "I was more interested in archeology," Bell says. His family, however, wanted a doctor, so the good son majored in premed, first at East Texas State University in Commerce, then at UT.

A fraternity member, Bell walked a lot among Austin's old neighborhoods, which fired an interest in residential styles.

"I didn't think about urban planning, growing up in a small town at the end of the Depression," he says. "For us, going to Seguin was a big deal. Going to San Antonio was a really big deal."

He joined the UT architecture program in 1957, where he met historically minded professors like Eugene George, Blake Alexander and Martin Kermacy. Lined up against this group were the "Texas Rangers," who adopted the new modern architecture from the East. The new guard took him to Houston, where he and fellow students dined with lecturers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, Richard Neutra and Mies van der Rohe — the biggest names in modernism.

"I couldn't have had more enlightened teachers," Bell says. "But there was great controversy between old-school and new-school. The students were caught in the middle."

After graduating in 1960, he worked for a while in Midland, then split his time among UT and state jobs. Meanwhile, Bell taught full-time at UT and started a series of design firms that worked on renovating the Paramount Theatre, the Donnan-Hill House for Texas Attorney General John Hill and his wife Bitsy, and, a special treat, the House of the Seasons in Jefferson

"Believe it or not, I'm still working on the House of the Seasons," he says of the 1872 home. "It's never over."

His firm renovated the two properties built by the prominent Tips family across the street from the Paramount on Congress Avenue, and made the news when they moved the Tips family's historical Victorian — pigeons and all — across the Congress Avenue Bridge after midnight to its present location at Oltorf Street and South Congress Avenue, where it has since served as a bank.

In 1995, Bell retired from UT. But such a warrior for preservation could not stay out of the fray, and in 2003, he helped the Historical Commission with the Main Street Program, where he lifted the looks of places from Gonzales to Van Horn, Del Rio to Bay City.

His preservation work was built on the shoulders of philanthropists like Hogg and Austin's Clara Driscoll, crusading librarians like Winnie Allen, and key architects like O'Neil Ford and Raiford Stripling helped popularize the fledgling movement. In the ‘50s the Texas State Historical Survey Committee and the National Trust for Historic Preservation were organized. This momentum culminated in the Preservation Act of 1966, championed by Lady Bird Johnson.

Back then, Bell was invited to a private, informal dinner in the family quarters at the White House. "Lyndon came in and took off his shoes," Bell recalls. "And we had a cozy conversation."

In the '70s, the City of Austin and the Austin Heritage Society got into the preservation business as urban renewal projects wiped out whole blocks of downtown buildings and our big town became a medium-sized city.

"We started losing buildings to development," Bell says. "We lost the railroad stations at Congress and Fifth, lost an Abner Cook building right on Congress Avenue at Sixth. The Society jumped from being ‘tea and blackeyed peas on New Year's Day' to being really quite militant."

Backed by late civic leaders Lowell Lebermann and Roy Butler, Bell served on the landmark ordinance committee, looking to other cities for best practices. One key win: Making sure the Landmark Commission's recommendations went directly to the City Council along with that of the Planning Commission.

"We just tried to stop demolitions," he said. "We didn't have any incentive. Now we have over-incentivized it (with tax breaks). But that happened after my tenure."

Facing a constant need to prove what was important enough to save, these leaders backed "adaptive use," which turned, for instance, homes in the neighborhood just west of downtown into single-purpose law offices.

"We adapted everything," he says "And in adapting, we killed neighborhoods as they had been known, for instance, as residential enclaves. As a result, we encouraged sprawl. The displaced older home dwellers moved to new subdivisions and beyond. Probably as damaging as the loss of architectural fabric, we lost the cultural fabric of a close-in heritage-rich neighborhood."

Rogue developers responded by tearing down some structures in the dead of night, so preservationists turned to zoning. That required a task force to study the city's map and designate areas "H" for historic. However, the ordinance had no teeth or incentives, at first, and owners revolted against the crimping of property values.

"There was a huge outcry that we were taking individual rights," Bell says. So the history-minded came up with a tax incentive if owners would actively preserve their historic property. "It was a delicious carrot to dangle, for sure. We had all sorts of preservation advocates rise from the ambivalent populace."

Eventually — as some predicted — the tax incentives were used for buildings that did not merit special efforts.

"Many of the properties were never anything more than a presence on a street in a neighborhood that may not have even been historic," Bell says. That led to the recent revolt against that preservation strategy, which in turn led to our conversation.

Bell followed up our long personal interview with several sets of e-mail comments, some frustrated, some hopeful, quoted in the accompanying box. From their tone, it sounds like the grand old man of Texas preservation, while moving to the Pacific Northwest, is not leaving the field of battle altogether.

Wayne Bell on historic preservation strategies, tax incentives and more