Daughters of the Republic of Texas' big vision: A new museum, headquarters in East Austin

Shonda Novak, The Real Estate Beat

More change is coming to East Austin. This time, it won't be a fancy new apartment or condo project reshaping the landscape, but rather a transformation meant to highlight, preserve and embrace Texas' Republic-era history.

It's all part of the vision of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to renovate four decades-old houses next to the French Legation Museum on San Marcos Street. The idea is to turn them into cottages that would house the nonprofit's headquarters and its museum, which is currently in an area notorious for criminal activity in North Austin off U.S. 183 and Interstate 35.

The group has assembled two fundraising heavyweights and advisers — Gene Attal and Dick Rathgeber — to help make its $2.8 million dream a reality. That amount would cover $1.4 million each for the land and renovations.

The Daughters' team includes its president general, Karen Thompson, along with project Chairwoman Nancy Shurtleff and members John Ellen Becker, Cindy Anderson, Betty Bird, Gayla Lawson and Ellen McCaffrey.

Carolyn Reed, chairwoman of the French Legation Museum Committee, said that to have the Daughters' headquarters and museum next door to the French Legation Museum "is a dream situation."

The Daughters operate the French Legation — a popular spot for weddings and other events — as a museum and fund its annual budget of about $200,000.

"We feel this location is an ideal destination for learning about Texas history and the ancestors who helped create that history," Reed said.

Attal and Rathgeber have already brought the group "back down to earth and into the 21st century," Thompson said, advising them that their original vision of $9.5 million was too costly. The costlier vision included plans for a much larger museum and tearing down the four houses, each of which sits on about 900 square feet.

Consequently, the group — which aims to preserve the memory and spirit of the Texas pioneer families and soldiers during the Republic days prior to Feb. 19, 1846 — scaled back, opting for a less-ambitious plan.

The Daughters have the three-quarter-acre site under contract for $1.4 million from the Franzetti family trust, with a Dec. 31 deadline to close on the sale. They hope to be in the new buildings by the end of 2013.

"The clock is ticking here," Thompson said.

The group's plan is to move the museum collection and archives — the oldest in Austin and one of the oldest in Texas, the Daughters say — to an area rich in history near other museums.

The new location would be more accessible to schoolchildren, Texans, tourists and other museum-goers whom Thompson said are missing out on several thousand pieces of prized 19th century treasures — artifacts such as Santa Anna's chair, a covered wagon, vintage rifles and historical photos and archives. It also would allow the museum, which has outgrown its current quarters, to reclaim some of its pieces that are on loan elsewhere due to lack of space.

At its current location — Thompson says she's had to stand in the street, wearing a bright red shirt, to flag lost visitors to the site — the museum is a "rough-cut little stone," she said.

But at the new location, "it's going to be a great jewel," said Thompson, a fifth-generation Austinite.

Officials said the museum, which once attracted 18,000 visits annually when it was housed on the Capitol grounds, now gets fewer than 1,000 at its current site. With arrangements in the works for off-site parking, the new site would be able to accommodate busloads of students and tourists, Thompson said.

The Daughters already have raised more than $600,000 in 1,000 donations from group members to go toward the purchase of the land on San Marcos Street. To raise the balance of the $2.8 million, they will sell naming rights to the cottages and individual rooms. Those donations would be tax-deductible.

"We call it a giving opportunity," Anderson said, echoing Rathgeber, whose calling card is offering prospective donors an "opportunity to be significant."

Rathgeber, a local developer and philanthropist, won't be helping raise money this time — that will be the role of Attal, former president of the Seton Foundations. However, Rathgeber will select a contractor and supervise the renovation project. He's working pro bono and said he'll see that the job is done right and at a reasonable price.

"This is something I know something about," said Rathgeber, who has supervised the renovations of about 300 houses over his career. "I want to help these ladies make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. I'll make sure they get a dollar-and-a-half worth of goods for every dollar they spend."

Rathgeber said he hopes the Daughters can raise the money so the project can proceed.

"One of the reasons I think they'll get it done is they're so enthusiastic about the cause, and their enthusiasm is contagious," he said.

Attal said the project, while not the largest he's worked on in his more than three decades of fundraising, is "one of the most exciting." He said the existing location "is kind of hidden" and doesn't do justice to a place filled with treasures like Santa Anna's chair and currency issued by the Republic of Texas.

"It will be a place where schoolchildren and adults alike will be transported to another era, the period when Texas was a separate nation," Attal said. "You're going to feel like you're there all of sudden."

He said many people recall going to a museum as youngsters and "you never forget that visit to that place and what you saw. It painted a picture" that reading about it can't always replicate.

Plans call for each of the cottages to have its own cultural style, with German and Mexican facades among them. Plans call for extending the rock wall surrounding the French Legation Museum to the new site, which would reorient the refurbished buildings to face downtown.

A second phase would have a pavilion, a vault and a room for wedding receptions and other galas, as well as a research center where history buffs could browse the records and historical documents supplied by some 8,000 current members of the all-women group. Members must show that their Texas ancestry dates to the Republic era.

To raise money for the second phase, the Daughters will put their existing building on the market. It is appraised at $784,370 by the Travis Central Appraisal District.

Monte Franzetti, a member of the family that owns the property targeted for the new museum site, said a museum would be a good fit and compatible with the area.

"I think it'd be wonderful," Franzetti said. "It kind of makes sense to keep (museum-related uses) close in, especially for tourists."

The move wouldn't be the first for the museum.

It has been at its present location since 1991, when the Daughters purchased the 8,000-square-foot building at 510 E. Anderson Lane that also houses their administrative offices.

The office also maintains the group's membership records, and houses all applications and related documents from 1891 to the present.

In 1903, the museum was behind the Senate chambers in the State Capitol, and later was housed in the old General Land Office building on the Capitol grounds for 71 years. In 1989, the collection was placed in storage for two years while a search commenced for a new location, which became the East Anderson site.

Thompson and Shurtleff said the Daughters are "on cloud nine" with Attal and Rathgeber on board.

"We know with their help we will succeed," Shurtleff said.

Contact Shonda Novak at 445-3856

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