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'Kind and gentle': Remembering Texas preservation architect David Hoffman

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Architect David Hoffman in front of the Bremond House at 711 San Antonio St., an example of local preservation efforts. Hoffman died on Feb. 23.

When friends, family and followers speak of Austin preservation architect David Hirsch Hoffman, who died on Feb. 23 of Parkinson's disease at age 72, they almost uniformly describe him as "kind and gentle."

Hoffman, who helped transform Austin through his work on threatened historical treasures such as the Paramount Theatre and the whimsical moonlight towers, was a quietly charismatic designer and creative thinker.

"A finer man and a more gentle soul does not exist," said friend Wayne Bell, another pioneering preservation architect and once Hoffman's business partner. "With historian wife, Binnie Hoffman, the twosome guided the Paramount effortlessly through a sea of egos on its way to taking its place once again as the crown jewel of historic theaters in the nation."

Hoffman died at his home near Evant, a small town north of Lampasas.

Christopher Cross performs at the Paramount Theatre on November 4, 2021. Preservation architect David Hoffman took the design lead while restoring the gem on Congress Avenue.

Steeped in Texas culture

Hoffman was born on March 1, 1949, in Dallas.

He grew up in Dallas and Houston and graduated in 1967 from Memorial High School in Houston. Hoffman received his degree from the University of Texas School of Architecture, in the five-year professional practice program.

During his senior year at UT, he was the first recipient of the Texas Historic Resources Fellowship, for which he produced an architectural study of Roma, a Texas town on the Rio Grande now recognized for its unique historic buildings. Hoffman then served in the newly formed historic sites and restoration branch of Texas Parks and Wildlife from 1971 to 1973. 

Hoffman joined trailblazers Wayne Bell and John Klein as they formed the first architecture firm in Texas specializing in historic preservation in 1973. 

Hoffman restored the Lundberg Bakery (the spot on Congress Avenue helped kick off the modern preservation movement in Austin), Walter Tips Building, Hannig Row, Austin History Center and Elisabet Ney Museum.

His impact could be felt across Texas through projects such as Temple Emanuel in Beaumont, Sam Houston’s house in Huntsville and Judge Roy Bean’s home in West Texas.

Workers reinstall a moonlight tower at Speedway and 41st Street on March 21, 2021. Few people knew the historic towers inside out like late preservation architect David Hoffman, who also wrote a book about them.

Hoffman wrote numerous books, including "Moonlight Becomes Her: The Story of Austin’s 19th-Century Electric Light Towers."

He was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1992.

"What tremendous contributions he made to our historical landscape," said Dan K. Utley, former chief historian of the Texas Historical Commission, on Facebook. "We are in his debt."

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In 1986, Hoffman hosted a national conference on historic preservation in Austin.

"He set the tone for a great conference," Dick Ryan, former Main Street architect at Texas Historical Commission, said on Facebook. "I can still remember his welcoming remarks at the Paramount Theatre, promising there would be no garish displays of Texas pride — as a ceiling to floor huge Texas flag slowly dropped down behind him.

"I still have the beautiful poster he designed for that conference. David created many fond memories for us all — he will be missed."

An intimate graveside service was on held Feb. 27 at the Hoffman family cemetery on Gholson’s Cove Ranch. The family encourages donations to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

One more personal memory

Hoffman was one of my favorite teachers in UT's architecture program. When I was a graduate student based in the theater department during the 1980s, I took courses in architectural history and preservation as part of a wider study of historic Texas theaters.

Hoffman taught a crucial class in technology and historical building materials — wood, stone, brick, ceramics, aggregates, metal. We researched how each material was put together and employed during various periods in Texas, the better to preserve or restore them in the future.

Like Bell, his colleague and business partner, Hoffman loved taking UT students into the field. I remember one bitterly cold morning in downtown Georgetown. We huddled outside an abandoned building until Hoffman — as outdoorsy as he was creative — commanded us with uncharacteristic steel in his voice: "Alright, gut up! We are going in!"

I can't remember exactly what I learned that day, but I flash back to that moment whenever I'm inside an old or abandoned structure. I know where to look for stress on the building materials, and what to avoid when handling them.

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"Never paint or otherwise encase bricks, stones or other masonry. Trapped moisture will deteriorate the masonry. The same goes for hard mortar like Portland cement."

"Don't allow ivy or other pants to attach themselves to a building. They will tear the materials apart."

"Beware rising damp. It will undermine building materials from the ground up."

And so forth. All lessons permanently imprinted on my brain.

Thanks in part to a barked command more than three decades ago from a kind and gentle man.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.