The close of the Historic Waco Foundation’s 50th anniversary year finds the organization looking to its future in preserving and recognizing Waco’s past.
At the same time, its former executive director Don Davis finds his personal calendar relatively open after retiring from the organization last month.
Davis, 74, stepped down after eight years as executive director. The work he and his board did to broaden the organization’s sense of Waco history and mission will continue as board members, led by interim director Jill Barrow, plan in the months ahead for the foundation’s future.
A Rice University-trained architect, he aims to spend more time with his residential design and interior design business, Davis Design Studio, and his wife, Tommye Lou Davis, who will return to the Baylor University faculty this spring after a sabbatical.
Davis put much of his design business to the side when he agreed to serve as Historic Waco Foundation director in 2009. The organization, created in 1967 in large part to maintain and promote four 19th century homes, was at a transition point. Repair and maintenance costs for the historic houses was rising, membership and revenues were starting to decline, and the foundation was fighting a perception that the houses and their family histories only represented a part of the city’s history.
The foundation also faced problems encountered by history museums across the country: a shrinking volunteer base, a graying of boards and leadership, and a public disinterested in museum attendance.
“Things weren’t quite where I wanted them to be,” Davis said diplomatically.
During his tenure, David and his board members added new fundraisers such as the Attic Treasures sale, and, with the money raised, were able to replace roofs on three houses. The foundation also tried new ventures to reach a broader, younger audience.
In 2013, the group brought in “In The Company Of Angels,” a touring exhibit of rare Tiffany stained glass windows with angels as their subject. The $100,000 price tag was risky, Davis recalled, but community turnout covered the foundation’s expenses, and the show’s integration with Waco churches with historic stained glass windows provided an opportunity to illuminate a wider Waco history.
“It was one of the best things we’ve ever done,” he said.
The foundation also worked with Baylor University’s Institute of Oral History to create a phone app that provided the history of dozens of Waco sights and locations. And it partially funded Christopher Charles Scott III’s documentary “What About Waco,” which looked at several chapters of Waco history, including the construction of the Waco Suspension Bridge, World War I’s Camp MacArthur, legal prostitution in The Reservation and the 1916 public lynching on Jesse Washington.
Don Wright, a member of the Central Texas African American Heritage Foundation, recently finished five years on the Historic Waco Foundation board. While the board grappled with budget issues most of that time, he felt overtures to Waco’s black and Hispanic communities were a promising start.
Wright helped organize the black history exhibit “Footprints of African Americans in McLennan County” displayed in the foundation’s Fort House. The foundation also worked with Louis Garcia in his efforts to recognize the city’s Hispanic roots in the exhibit “Historia Hispano” and a small museum Garcia helped create at the South Waco Community Center.
“We’re trying to show that the Historic Waco Foundation is not just about white history, but about all history,” Wright said.
Charles Walter, executive director of the Mayborn Museum and president of the Museum Association of Waco, praised Davis’ leadership from what Walter has seen in the two years that he has been in Waco.
“Don is a real statesman. He did a lot to bridge communities. … In a variety of exhibits he has been trying to honor the history of Waco in a broad sense. I’m very impressed with Don,” he said.
At the same time, Walter acknowledged the challenge history museums face today, caught between maintenance costs, increased competition for visitors’ interest and time, and a younger generation less inclined to visit museums than their parents and grandparents.
That’s the challenge Historic Waco Foundation is examining as it moves beyond its 50th year, board President Patricia Scott said. With Barrow, a former director of the Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center, in place as interim director, the board has a little breathing room as it considers its mission and goals before looking for a permanent director.
“We feel very lucky to have her,” Scott said of Barrow.
Foundation members want to increase membership from its present level of about 500 members, boost attendance at the four historical houses and offer a broad range of educational programs and lectures.
Board members also are keeping the door open for a single, unified Waco history museum, something Davis had pursued with the Helen Marie Taylor Museum of Waco History in 2009 before an agreement with museum founder and owner unraveled at the last moment.
Efforts to reopen that museum got a new start last summer, but Davis said other the foundation has other options, including repurposing one or more of the properties it already has.
Those discussions will take shape in the future, Scott said.
“We’re talking to other cultural organizations about collaborating on a Waco history museum. … We can’t just be showing the history of our homes as we have always done.”