Q&A with Tere O’Connell, AIA

When the City of Austin decided to use East Austin’s historic Dedrick-Hamilton house as the basis for a new African American Cultural Heritage Facility, the job fell to Austin preservationist Tere O’Connell, AIA, to unearth details of the home’s history and how best to preserve it. O’Connell spoke with Texas Architect about the ever-changing priorities that drive demand for preservation work, and the challenge of preservation in a community where so much history either is lost or was never officially recorded. The interview was conducted by Patrick Michels.


Historic preservation architect Tere O'Connell, AIA – photo courtesy Tere O'Connell

From a preservation standpoint, what makes the Dedrick-Hamilton House so special?

I’ve been involved with this house for much longer than the duration of the project. I started becoming involved with historic preservation issues in the neighborhood in 1990, back when I was with the Texas Historical Commission. I fought for a very long time to keep houses in the neighborhood from being demolished and had many contentious meetings, and I even got called into a state representative’s office and was told to stay out of East Austin.

So I knew about this house from all of that work. We lost so much in all of the surrounding neighborhood, and that house just miraculously stayed present. When we were doing some identification work, I think James Hamilton was still living in the house. It was in really bad shape then, so I think the city condemned the property and took it over. When the city decided to make it part of the African American Cultural Heritage Facility, that just made a tremendous amount of sense to me because I really believe that it’s important to keep historic buildings integrated with the community. I think it’s a better solution than moving them to a collection of buildings that might look okay together at the moment, but they’re kind of a fabrication of what was there historically.

So I thought it was really cool that they wanted to preserve this house and build a new facility around it. I’ve known Al York for years and I knew [McKinney York Architects] would do a fabulous job of designing the new building, and they asked me to consult on the historic building. It was just a great opportunity to keep a historic structure integrated in its original location. It’s basically a representation of what was there all along the street originally, a reminder that this used to be a row of single-family houses.

Dedrick-Hamilton House before restoration – photo by McKinney York Architects

You wrote the report for the city on the house’s history. How did you research that? 

Most of the research came from the Austin History Center. The rendering of William Dedrick that’s in that report from the Knights of Pythias Parade on Juneteenth — that was such an incredible find. I don’t know how I found that. It was such an incredible stroke of luck. There aren’t adequate resources on African American history and you have to really scour any potential documents to see if you can find something that you’re looking for. I just really lucked out in finding this rendering of him, in a children’s book of all things. I remember the feeling when I found it. Doing historical research, especially in an underrepresented community, you just have to dig in a lot of different places to see what you can find. I feel like I got really lucky for both his rendering and the photograph of Sarah Dedrick in the Community Welfare Association photograph from the J. Mason Brewer book "A Historic Outline of the Negro in Travis County."

We did find historic wallpapers, and we found historic patterned linoleum under the plywood floors that was very colorful and very vibrant. Very deteriorated. But all of those artifacts were saved, and they tell us the way they decorated the house. The house was extremely deteriorated at the time when we started the work, and there weren’t any documents from the family in the house. Architecturally speaking, of course, we had the physical clues from the house. I could tell the age of the materials based on the window profiles, an older profile that was typical of the period when it was constructed. They analyzed the paint history of the building and found that yellow color down close to the surface in many locations. That’s how we came to that color [for the exterior paint today]. Patterned linoleum was a really popular thing at the turn of the century, and it’s hard to find somebody who can recreate that now, but it would be really cool if they wanted to go back and do that.

Austin's African American Cultural and Heritage Facility, designed by McKinney York Architects working with Tere O'Connell – photo by Thomas McConnell

I heard a story about having to chain the house together for support when the time came to move it to install its new foundation. Structurally, what were some of the challenges this project presented?

The structural integrity of the house was really compromised. It was probably the most deteriorated building, starting out, that I’ve ever worked on. The floors were completely caved in. The roof had been breached for a long time, a lot of water had come into the building over the years. There was a lot of rot, a lot of deterioration. Fortunately, the contractor who did the work, James Nolan, has a lot of training and experience working with historic structures. That’s another key factor in a successful restoration — having a contractor who is not dissuaded by the challenges that a historic building presents. Fortunately, we had that in James. A lot of times, a contractor will look at a building like this and say, “I can’t do anything with that.” When really, we all know that you can. So attitude is a good part of the solution.

The bracing system that the structural engineer designed to support the house while it was being lifted and the foundation being replaced was also really important to its success. There was a lot of structural intervention that needed to take place because it had just taken on a lot of water for so many years. Historic wood is naturally more resistant to decay and rot than modern wood — if the house had been built of the kind of wood you can get today, it would’ve sunk into the ground with the kind of exposure to the elements that this building survived.

How often are you working with a public client like this, and when you work with a private client, what’s different in terms of how much leeway you’re given or the resources you get?

It’s pretty hard to generalize. I just made the transition to private clients last year and started my own firm, and now I do only private clients. They hire me because they want to preserve their house. Public architecture restoration is a whole different ballgame. There’s different sources of funding and different goals for the project depending on the sources of funding, and a different level of responsibility to the taxpayers, making sure that things are a good value and a good expenditure of public funds. It just has a whole different character to it than working in the private sector.

Midcentury modern architecture in Austin is gaining appreciation, says O'Connell. Pictured here is the Charles Granger home, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. – photo by Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commona CC BY-SA 3.0

What preservation and restoration work out there right now is especially interesting to you, either in Austin or around Texas?

In Austin, one of the things we’re really focused on is increasing interest and appreciation for midcentury modern architecture — A.D. Stenger and Fehr and Granger and the architects of the 1950s and 60s. That style of architecture is just coming into a new level of appreciation when for the last 15 years people have been demolishing those houses. Now I think a new appreciation of that architecture is forming, and that’s the way it is with every cycle of architecture. It’s kind of like fashion, things go in and out of style. A building that is 40 to 60 years old is the most out of style, and if it can survive that time period and get to the other side, then there’s an increased appreciation from that next generation for that architecture.

We’d really like to see, in Austin, a lot more opportunity for local historic districts to preserve the character of our neighborhoods. In Austin they’ve been very good at recognizing individual landmarks — all the big grand houses, or a lot of them, are recognized as Austin landmarks — but what we’re losing is the fabric of our neighborhoods. If you go to any landmark commission meeting in Austin, there’s just one demolition after another of these cute little average houses that form the fabric of our neighborhoods.

How much of your work comes down to the tastes and the demands of the time we’re in right now, and how much are you able to affect preservation based on your own sensibilities and long-term planning?

To really affect change, you can work through making public comment and meeting people and trying to inspire them to appreciate the architecture that they have. And we’ve had some success with that. There was a big case a few years ago, the Red River House on 38th Street, and the owner really wanted to tear it down. And we garnered the whole community to come out and say why this house was so important, why it was such an icon. Engaging the community and helping to convince owners that their house is worthy of preservation, that’s something I’ve been really involved in, but I haven’t really garnered enough chutzpah to go stand in front of a bulldozer or something.

This interview is online content for the May/June 2016 issue of Texas Architect.