Texas lawmakers have voted to move control of the French Legation in East Austin from one state agency to another. But, perhaps more significantly, the change could mean a reduced role — or full au revoir — for the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the nonprofit that’s operated the historic home since 1956.
At the core of the problem addressed by House Bill 3810 is the fact that the house/museum/event venue has structural problems — significant ones, according to everybody involved — and the DRT is in over its financial head in trying to address them.
First, Franco-Texas History 101: In 1839, King Louis Philippe of France sent Alphonse Dubois to Texas, then a nation. Dubois recommended that France recognize the Republic of Texas and establish diplomatic relations. Dubois was named “chargé d’affaires” and, as the French Legation website tells us, “when Dubois was unable to find a suitable house (in Austin), he hired builders to construct a fine cottage.”
“However, in December 1841, Sam Houston was re-elected president of the Republic and the capital moved from Austin to Houston,” we’re told. “Coinciding with this move, Dubois encountered political and personal difficulties in Austin and sold his house to a Catholic bishop, Father Odin, before the house was even completed.”
It changed hands a few times after that, eventually being sold to the state in 1949, and it’s been in the DRT’s custodianship since 1956.
During the recently ended legislative session, lawmakers and state officials said, as nicely and respectfully as possible, that the DRT, through lack of resources, has let the historic building fall into disrepair. Some of the assessments sound pretty dire, and that led to the legislation — assuming Gov. Greg Abbott doesn’t veto it — that moves the building from the Texas Facilities Commission to the Texas Historical Commission, whose portfolio includes a broad variety of historic structures.
Already in the hopper is a request for $1.5 million in state funds for emergency repairs for the French Legation. That request remains pending.
Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, sponsored the French Legation legislation, which was carried in the Senate by Kirk Watson, D-Austin. Both legislators praised DRT for its efforts, but said it’s time for a change.
This echoes what happened at the Alamo. In 2011, over DRT’s objections, lawmakers ended the nonprofit’s 110-year custodianship of the Alamo, which now is operated by the General Land Office.
At a House committee hearing in April, Cyrier said the French Legation is in “poor condition” and faces “many structural issues.” Texas Historical Commission Chairman John Nau testified the building is “facing significant challenges” and needs “costly repairs” as well as what he called a “significant improvement in the visitor experience.”
Nau said his agency has the expertise to get the needed work done and the ability to raise private money to do it.
Harvey Hilderbran, the Facilities Commission’s executive director, told lawmakers the building is “in such poor state of condition that it’s now not stable and it’s got very serious problems that really rise to emergency.” The needed fixes, he said, are “beyond (DRT’s) means.” And he said the emergency $1.5 million state money is needed to get the building “out of its endangered status.”
Cyrier told me the damage includes roof deterioration that has allowed water penetration that’s damaged the walls.
“The first thing we need to do is secure the house and make sure it doesn’t deteriorate any further and then let the Historical Commission take over and do what they do best,” he said.
Cyrier said temporary repairs that have been done are “not historically correct” and”were done to just do temporary repairs to keep it safe.”
The DRT acknowledges it’s been unable to raise the needed money. But DRT President Betty Edwards told the House committee her organization’s members “do not understand why our custodianship has to be rescinded with this bill.”
And she talked about the DRT’s purchase of two lots next door to the French Legation and its plans move its headquarters and museum to there from East Anderson Lane, where the current building will be torn down at some point for a highway construction project.
At a Senate committee hearing, Alice Nowotny, DRT treasurer general, said her group did not oppose moving the French Legation to the Texas Historical Commission, “but we don’t see that our custodianship needs to be changed simply because we report to a different agency.”
“We did have some problems raising funds and we brought it to the Facilities Commission’s attention saying this needs more money and attention than we can give it,” Nowotny testified.
DRT has said its financial woes stem in part from legal fees incurred in challenging the state action on the Alamo.
The fate of DRT’s planned new facilities next to the French Legation could turn on its ability to secure parking for it. In an April letter to a legislator, Edwards asked for 10 things, including “complete operations management,” “a management agreement that only DRT can terminate,” “complete control and all revenue of gift shops” and the “deed to the parking lot or 1,000/year lease.”
“Our long-term viability depends on the above requests,” the letter said. “If DRT and THC cannot come to an acceptable agreement, we will sell the adjoining north lots.”
The bill wound up saying the Texas Historical Commission “may enter into an agreement with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas regarding the management, staffing, parking facilities, operation and financial support of the property known as the French Legation.” The parking language was added late in the process at the DRT’s request, Cyrier told the House as the bill won final approval.
But “may” is not “shall.”
“We’re fortunate for the daughters and their caretaking of the French Legation,” Cyrier said. “I believe that will continue,” he said. “There will be some type of role for the daughters to continue to play with the French Legation.”
What that role is, if any, will be up to the Historical Commission, where no decision has been made, according to spokesman Chris Florance.
The French Legation, Watson said, is “one of the most underappreciated assets in Austin.”
“It needs a lot of work right now,” he said.
Let’s hope the legislative action was the first step toward getting it done.