What does it take to repair a historic structure that is a bit worn? In the case of the Worth Hotel, it took a village, a charitable foundation, a social services organization, three generous corporations, a self-taught carpenter who used to fix trolley cars, and an unemployed history major.
The Worth Hotel was never intended to be a beautiful structure. Traveling salesmen looking for a place to stay did not expect much in the way of aesthetics. For the past few years, this humble structure has looked alarmingly bad. Siding fell off, and we had to cover the hole with black plastic, which is incompatible with Victorian structures. Paint peeled and wasps lived happily in the walls. Visitors helpfully pointed out the problems, as if we might have failed to notice. Schoolchildren thought it looked like a haunted house. And still we did nothing. Are we bad stewards of the historic buildings entrusted to our care?
I hope no one thinks so. We face some hard realities about the care of historic wooden structures. One, the wood can rot with exposure to the weather, and we have a lot of weather here in Dallas. Two, historic buildings cost more to fix than other buildings. The carpenter needs special expertise and an understanding of the need to keep the building authentic. We can’t just buy parts at Home Depot. Wooden pieces like the siding are often in a shape that isn’t used any more, so we have to have it custom made at a mill. With the hotel, we paid the price for past mistakes. Someone long ago replaced some of the siding on the ends, with material that soon achieved the texture of a store-bought sugar cookie, and that is how the building crumbled.
Repairing the building meant pulling off that material and discovering some ugly spots of rot in the structure beneath. Our team saved every bit of original building they could and replaced where they couldn’t. They fixed porch floors and window frames. A wooden attic vent fell apart when touched. They battled squirrels and wasps. They worked at night to avoid the summer heat, reaching dramatic heights in a boom lift and lying in the dirt to check the foundation.
The museum is duly grateful to those who contributed their wealth to the project, and I will thank them, but I would like to start with the people who worked on those hot nights and days. Jason Walthers is our carpenter. As a child, he got in trouble for leaving a school field trip to examine our Sullivan house—from underneath, when it had just been delivered to the museum. He perfected his carpentry skills repairing the cars at the McKinney Avenue trolley. Yes, he charges for his work–the man has to eat–but he takes half the pay he deserves, and the rest in the form of pride in maintaining buildings he loves.
Jason got some surprise help from a UT student who came home from the summer and couldn’t find a job, Max Painter. Max’s mother (that would be me!) informed him he was not spending the summing playing Xbox. Jason gained a sidekick, lunch partner and completely inexperienced carpenter’s assistant. Max gained some new skills, new muscles and an amazing degree of heat tolerance. Our resident painter, Pedro Sandoval, worked in the midday sun, under an umbrella. I stood in the shade, drinking iced tea and helpfully pointing out things they ought to be doing better.
We couldn’t have done it without many generous benefactors. The most versatile gift is, of course, cash, and that’s what we got from the Eugene Straus Charitable Trust. Since I only have one son to give to my museum, we needed
more free labor. The Stewpot sent us workers enrolled in their STEP program. Three for-profit entities decided to forsake profit for our benefit. Valspar gives us free paint, Davis-Hawn Lumber Company sells us that special historic lumber at cost, and Sunbelt Rentals let us play with a boom lift for a month at half price.
It is not quite done yet, but it will be, thanks to our whole village, including family and friends.