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When Everything Old Can Be New Again

One of North Texas' leading preservation architects, Marcel Quimby does a very un-Dallas thing. She gives old buildings new life.

by Jerome Weeks 12 Jan 2017
Marcel Quimby

In a city that prides itself on supposedly 'having no history,' Marcel Quimby has worked on preserving such Dallas landmarks as the Hall of State at Fair Park, the Majestic Theatre and the old Municipal Building, soon to be the downtown campus for the UNT School of Law. She and Nancy McCoy - her partner in Quimby McCoy, preservation architects - aren't fussy antiquarians. They often don't simply restore period pieces. They make them useful again. And that's a very different design challenge.

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

There are the arts of creation – music, painting, dance, sculpture – and then there are the arts of re-creation and re-interpretation.

Like preservation architecture.

 

saegling-house-front

The Saigling House’s renovated exterior, including the entire front porch rebuilt and restored. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Inside the Saigling House in Plano, the sound of hammering and vacuuming is almost deafening. But these are actually beginning to fade — it’s the final days of a complete overhaul of the historic home, and Marcel Quimby walks through, checking items off on her punch list. Businessman George Saigling built the house in 1904, a handsome, two-story structure made of cream-colored brick with white stone trim. But after the Saigling family sold it, the house became a prep school and then an intervention center for teens. Its entire front porch was torn off, its second floor was made into dorms, the fireplaces were boarded up, the first floor became offices. But because the house backs up onto Haggard Park in downtown Plano, the city eventually decided to buy it.

And in 2012, they called in the firm, Quimby McCoy Preservation Architecture.

“They said, ‘We have this old building and we don’t know what to do with it,'” recalls Marcel Quimby. “‘Can you help us?’ We evaluated the building, said ‘Yes, it’s important. Yes, it’s got a great history. We’ll try to get it listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.’” That actually gives zero protection to a historic building from being torn down — only state or city ordinances will do that. But it can be an important signal, a way of getting the word out to residents about what they might know they had and the history they could possibly lose.

marcelstair

Final check-up on the Saigling House interior. Photo: Jerome Weeks

“And we looked at several things they could do with it,” says Quimby. “They could use it for city offices. They could rent it out. One of the options was to turn it into an events center.”

At 60, Quimby is clearly still energized by her work. She’s quick and eager to show off details of the house or answer last-minute questions from workers. After four years and some three million dollars – not just for the house but the landscaping, adding a sweeping concrete deck on the back for events, plus a plaza with a fountain and an entire additional building for public restrooms – after all that, this week, the ArtCentre of Plano will start moving in. There now are galleries and a catering kitchen — with restored fireplaces and wooden floors throughout — and offices on the second.

Oftentimes, preservation architecture is like this. It isn’t some fussy antiquarian project to delight the history buffs, turning back the clock on a building and making it a museum relic. It’s about making that building useful again.

Willis Winters is director of Dallas Parks and Recreation Department: “Something that a lot of people don’t realize is that’s one of the difficulties in preservation architecture,” he says. “Adapting a historic building towards modern uses and modern expectations.”

Or as Quimby puts it: “Nobody wants to live in a historic building without air conditioning and heat. But you’ve got to add that to a building and it needs to be done very sensitively.”

That means much of Quimby’s restoration work is figuring out how to squeeze heating and air-conditioning systems, temperature and humidity controls, sprinkler systems, security systems, wheelchair ramps, even entire elevators into buildings that weren’t built for them. And she has to hide all these newfangled mechanical and electronic contraptions out of sight while also keeping them easily accessible for maintenance. Quimby and her business partner Nancy McCoy have done this with incredibly detailed, beautiful, even iconic buildings like the Hall of State at Fair Park, the Majestic Theatre and the Newton County Courthouse in East Texas. The firm got Fair Park’s Esplanade working again as a water-and-light feature, and they compiled the Historic Structures Report (HSR) on the old Municipal Building, providing recommendations for what needed to be done to help transform it into the downtown campus for the UNT School of Law.

great-hall

The Great Hall in the Hall of State at Fair Park. Photo: courtesy Marcel Quimby

But this can make preservation architecture sound like figuring how to slot the pieces into a giant, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Quimby has another way of thinking about her work.

“I like country music because there’s a story in every song,” she says. “You know, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, all those old guys. And it’s kinda like buildings. I always try to find the story in every building and understand every building.”

Every building has a story. Who built it. Why it was built the way it was built. Even an ordinary home is an interconnected system of functions — from the deep porches the Saigling House once had to shield its windows from the sun to the way Texans operated transoms and doors and tall windows to catch breezes in the summer or let in sunlight during the winter.

Quimby chalks up her interest in history to her father’s career in oil. They spent ten years in places like London and North Africa. But she credits studying in Louisiana for her appreciation of what buildings have to say.

“I went to school in Lafayette, that’s in the heart of Cajun culture,” she says. “And their buildings have a unique heritage. And I was lucky enough in college to understand that the buildings relate to their location and their community. And I think that’s a major tenet of preservation architecture.”

Newton County Courthouse

The Newton County Courthouse in East Texas. Photo, courtesy Marcel Quimby.

Teasing out a building’s story can become a forensic investigation. Typically for a residence, the Saigling home had no blueprints on file. So to renovate its exterior,  Quimby had to depend on the single, grainy, black-and-white photo she could find of what it once looked like. The work crew had to recreate all the capitals — the stone tops on the porch’s brick columns — from a remaining fragment. On another project, Quimby helped renovate and reupholster the seats the Undermain Theater currently has that once were in the Kalita Humphreys Theater — seats designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. She had to track down photos and written descriptions of what they originally looked like. For the Hall of State in the future — when repairs will be needed — finding the right Indiana limestone may require locating not just the original quarry but even a particular vein of rock in that quarry.

On the other hand, working as a consultant on a huge project like the current renovation of the Dallas County Courthouse and Records Building complex – well, the county has nothing but records.

“Any time you do a project like that,” Willis Winters says, “you’re turning through page after page after page, and there may be a hundred volumes. It just takes the patience to do it and the commitment – and Marcel is one of the best at that.”

Seventeen years ago, when Quimby started her own preservation architecture firm, it may have seemed foolhardy. This is a city where historic homes and buildings are still regularly bulldozed with little consequence, few fines. New development still rules. But Quimby says when she moved to Dallas in 1978, “Fair Park looked positively bleak.” The park’s future remains very much up for grabs these days, but the fact that it even has a future that firms are bidding over is encouraging. And the fact that Dallas County is spending as much as $150 million to renovate its courthouse and records complex – that, she says, shows attitudes here are changing.

Dallas may be starting — finally — to appreciate our architectural history.

Provided it’s properly air-conditioned.

RESTORE a film by Mark Birnbaum from Ron Siebler on Vimeo.

In a way, you’ve never had to give up your day job to pursue your art. You’ve always worked as an architect. But how did you become, specifically, a preservation architect?

I’d always had an interest in preservation. At one point in time, I thought I’d go get a master’s in it and never did. So for the first twenty years of my career, I did commercial architecture, worked for large firms but always did kind of volunteer work on the side. My first house was a 1910 house in Winnetka that we almost gutted — this was in 1980 — and we took out the old, original wallpaper and the electrical.

So I always had an interest in historical community areas. And when I was working for the larger firms, I occasionally did preservation work but not very much. And then, I guess in the mid-‘90s, I decided it was time to move on and do preservation. And I worked for a medium-sized firm here in Dallas with the intent of getting involved in preservation, which I did for a number of years. And then in 2000, I opened my own shop — and I thought, ‘Well, we’ll see what happens.’ Did well enough that Nancy [McCoy] joined me in 2007.

So what about preservation and historic research has appealed to you?

Partly it was not losing that history. If it’s gone, it’s gone, everything that building once meant, everything that happened in it, what it represented to the community. You can’t really replace it. It’s uncovering that history so people can see it again, walk around in it.

And partly it’s important to me — when trying to figure out what to do with any older building — it’s important to understand how a building historically operated. It was a system, and it’s going to function best if you understand that and design with that system. Like old City Hall [the Municipal Building], it has an interesting history. It was built in 1914, and then in the ‘50s, they did that addition. One of the major problems with that addition is that they built it one-half a flight up. So the two buildings, you can’t connect them easily — they have major accessibility problems. And then, the old 1914 building, they just kept putting band-aids on it. They never really addressed what it needed.

Then in the ‘50s, when they finished the addition, they came back to old City Hall and added air-conditioning. And at that stage of the game, they dropped the ceilings everywhere in the building. So the historic ceilings either went away or were covered up. But recently, the city wanted to evaluate the building to be used again possibly for courts, and I was brought in. They needed someone to look at it from a historic standpoint. And I started wandering through the building, got above the ceilings and realized there was this wealth of historic fabric that was completely hidden. Some of it had been ripped out, it was so sad. There was a gracious marble staircase that led from the first floor to the upper floors. It’s just gone, just absolutely gone.

And on the second floor, there once had been a lot of murals done by Jerry Bywaters [the former head of what was then the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, now the DMA]. So we started looking for the Bywaters murals and discovered they’d essentially been covered up and destroyed too, a real loss. It just broke everybody’s heart. But no one had seen any of those things since the ‘50s, half a century ago. Nobody that worked for the city even realized what they had.

So that project was great because it was me discovering all this throughout that building.

City Hall Recommend

Preservation recommendations for the first floor of old City Hall. Courtesy Marcel Quimby.

Has it been hard being a preservation architect in Dallas? I mean, frustrating sometimes?

Sometimes. Like two years ago, when those buildings on Main across from the Joule were torn down. If you look at the details, some of them were remarkable buildings.  One of them was red standstone, the same material the county courthouse was built with [Old Red]. And there were just a couple of those left in all of downtown, and those were very significant buildings. There was a lot of history there.

In that block, you could stand there before the demolition, and you could look in every direction and understand what it was like to walk down that street in 1900 — you know, more than a century ago. In Dallas. That was pretty amazing.

So that was a huge loss. Horrible. I just don’t understand why property owners would care so little about the community in which they own property to want to do that. When those were torn down, it was like ripping out the historic heart of downtown Dallas.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

 

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