Herman: The Daughters of the Republic of Texas close down and pack up

It was a tired museum in a tired building tucked under a freeway in a tired part of town ripe for a reawakening.

Ditto, some might say, for the longstanding organization that ran the now-closed museum.

The Daughters of the Republic of Texas museum closed July 27 after being on East Anderson Lane, just went of the U.S. 183 and Interstate 35 interchange, since the early 1990s. Everything’s being packed up and stored as the DRT, at a moment of transition for the organization, raises money toward building a new museum and headquarters in East Austin on San Marcos Street just north of the French Legation.

The “for sale” sign is up on the now-closed museum in what had been a 7,000-square-foot bank building when the DRT bought it in 1991. The impetus for the move was the Texas Department of Transportation’s major project now underway at U.S. 183 and I-35. The state condemned a portion of the DRT property for the project.

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It was time to move anyway, says Julia Lopez, chair of the DRT’s museum committee. “Sometimes folks can’t find us,” Lopez said. “They’ll call and say, ‘I can’t find you,’ and they’ve passed right by us.”

The address is 510 E. Anderson Lane. In recent years, 200 visitors a month was a good number for the museum, but far from good enough.

So, with the money from the condemnation and related relocation funds, proceeds from the sale of the building (assessed on tax rolls at just over $1 million) and an ambitious fundraising campaign, the DRT is moving toward the planned new headquarters and museum in East Austin.

Lopez is eager to talk about what she sees as the DRT’s future and not shy about talking about its past challenges.

“We do what feels right in our hearts but we’re not museum curators, so we didn’t probably set the museum up in the smartest fashion,” she said. “We’re going to do things differently going forward.

“We didn’t pay attention to the early inhabitants of Texas in the museum,” Lopez said, adding, “I don’t think we paid attention to the big story.”

As its website says, the DRT was established in 1891 for the purpose of “perpetuating forever the memory of the Texas pioneer families and soldiers of the Republic of Texas.” Its museum collection features furniture, branding irons, documents and other artifacts from 1836 to 1846 when Texas was a sovereign state. “We have tons of guns,” Lopez said, noting that includes some now carefully-wrapped Santa Anna pistols. Some of the artifacts will be displayed in the new museum. Some won’t.

“We have a lot of fancy furniture and a lot of fancy things and some not so fancy, but we loved to show off the fancy things,” she said. “And I think in our new museum, we’re going to have to do a better job of showing how everyone lived, not just the fancy people.”

This, from a Yelp review of the now-closed museum offers a glimpse, captures the challenge faced by DRT as it plans its new facility: “They have plans to build a Republic of Texas history complex closer to downtown and move their headquarters and this museum to that location. Hopefully, their new venue will better represent the Republic of Texas.”

Yes, that’s the plan and the hope as the 7,000-member DRT moves forward. And Austin and Texas will benefit if it succeeds.

“I don’t think this is your grandmother’s DRT anymore,” Lopez said. “Obviously, I’m a Hispanic. My family has been here since 1731.”

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Recent years have been transformational, if not always voluntarily, for the DRT. Its century-long stewardship of the Alamo has been undone by the Texas Legislature. Ditto for DRT’s role at the historic French Legation on the same block where the organization plans to build its new museum and headquarters.

So the North Austin museum kind of became a final outpost for the daughters. Now, a sign on the door says “Daughters of the Republic of Texas Museum is temporarily closed. Visit our new location on San Marcos St. in the near future.”

“Near” and “future” are decidedly nonspecific terms. The DRT bought the land on San Marcos Street in 2012. The land is now vacant, devoid of four houses the new owner had torn down in anticipation of the museum project.

Lopez said the goal is to raise $4 million (including proceeds from the sale of the East Anderson Lane property) for the new museum and headquarters. Barbara Stevens of Houston, DRT’s president general, told me they’re about 70 percent to the goal.

The dual challenges now are money and city permits. Stevens said she hopes the new museum can become a reality in two years or so.

Sounds optimistic. Getting through Austin’s permitting process can be more challenging than raising a bunch of money.

Meanwhile, the area around the old museum on East Anderson Lane is in transition. Just to the east, an old hotel I remember as once being a Howard Johnson property has been torn down and a new SpringHill Suites is scheduled to spring up there. Construction equipment is parked under the U.S. 183 overpass as part of the $124.2 million project that includes 2.7 miles of main lane and frontage road reconstruction, as well as the addition of three new flyovers, reconstruction of the St. Johns Avenue bridge and other improvements in that bottleneck sector of the local highway system.

The anticipated completion date for the highway project is mid-2021.

At the DRT, all eyes are on the future, including a planned Sept. 23 event previewing the project at the San Marcos Street location.

“We really want to move and become a part of that community there,” Stevens said.

Done properly, the facility could become a valuable part of that community.

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