Novak: Saving Austin’s landmarks, one image at a time

Seaholm. Green. Holly.

Many longtime Austinites, and even some relative newcomers, are familiar with the Seaholm Power Plant, the Thomas C. Green Water Treatment Plant and the Holly Power Plant.

All three were local industrial landmarks — for decades, key parts of the Austin landscape, with the Seaholm and Green plants along West Cesar Chavez downtown and the Holly Power Plant in East Austin.

Over time, as the city expanded and updated its utility services, these three facilities were retired, one by one. In recent years, each was dismantled — though in the case of Seaholm, the cavernous 1950s turbine building is being restored and retained as part of new development taking place on the site.

Though these historical public buildings have met their physical demise, they will be digitally preserved into the future, thanks to Bob Wynn and John Langmore, two Austin photographers who made it their mission to take extensive photographs of the structures before they became part of Austin’s past.

Wynn and Langmore considered Seaholm, Green and Holly to be significant parts of Austin’s history — symbols of a past they thought should be respected and treasured even as high-rise development encroached where factories, utility plants and warehouses once stood.

Wynn and Langmore say their photographs of the three plants — their “Public Works” project, they call it — evolved after a serendipitous encounter.

In 2004,a mutual friend Kerry Tate had been encouraging them to meet. She knew both had a passion for photography, both were runners and both were active in civic causes.

One day, as each left Pure Austin gym and headed for a run on the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail, they met by chance.

“We naturally fell in with each other for the run and during the course of it Bob mentioned he had recently been to Vietnam on a photo trip,” Langmore recalls. “That distinctly rang a bell with me. I then spoke of my own photography and that rang a bell with Bob. Then it struck us both that we were the ones Kerry had been talking to each of us about separately.”

The two became friends and found they shared another interest: watching the dramatic changes taking place in Austin and on its skyline as the city grew.

Given Wynn’s work in real estate — he’s a co-founder and partner at Oxford Commercial in Austin — and a photo project Langmore was working on at the time documenting changes in East Austin, “we both were keenly aware of how Green’s (planned) redevelopment was a harbinger of the dramatic changes taking place in Austin,” Langmore said.

“Neither of us lamented the change but we both feel a need to respect the past and to remain aware of our collective history, particularly given how fast things are changing in Austin,” said Langmore, a transportation and land use consultant.

With Green decommissioned in 2008 and destined for demolition, Wynn and Langmore decided to take advantage of the brief window remaining to capture the site on film.

“We knew it was going to disappear and thought it would be a unique opportunity to document what was there,” Wynn said.

They took their idea to Sue Edwards, an assistant city manager.

“She was behind it completely, 100 percent,” Langmore said. “She saw the merit in it and generously granted access.”

On their first visit to Green in late 2008, Wynn and Langmore walked the site, taking only a handful of images. Then they went back separately, each viewing it from their own vantage point and different photographic styles — Wynn with an eye to close-up detail focusing on angles, shapes and forms and Langmore with a wider lens to capture a broader landscape perspective. They took 200 to 300 photos apiece.

“He looked at it through his lens and I looked at it through mine,” Wynn said.

They expanded the project to include other industrial buildings that were being demolished or redeveloped, next pointing their cameras at Seaholm and Holly.

Each time, they took an artistic perspective, capturing elements like lighting and shadows.

Like Green, Seaholm also had been decommissioned and was slated for a major transformation.Wynn and Langmore photographed Seaholm in four or five visits during 2011 and 2012. At Holly, they were given just a single morning – March 31, 2011.

The two are continuing their Public Works project, with Wynn already having photographed the Seaholm Intake Facility across from the former power plant and their photographic sights set on Saltillo Plaza, another site slated for redevelopment in East Austin.

Today, the high-profile projects at Seaholm and Green are well underway. Cranes and construction crews dominate the area, where high-rise towers and other development will bring new housing, office, hotel, shopping and dining options.

In East Austin, the Holly Power Plant is gone and the 22-acre site is in the final stages of remediation to prepare part of it for parkland.

Wynn and Langmore said their Public Works project honors an integral part of Austin’s history — its original industrial complex.

“That was the lifeblood for what the city has become today,” Langmore said. “Both of us feel it’s important to respect the history of the city and pay tribute to it.”

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