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Reconstructing the past: Baylor professor's book promises to be bible of Waco house history

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“Historic Homes of Waco, Texas” is the book Kenneth Hafertepe has had in mind since he moved to Waco 19 years ago to be a museum studies professor at Baylor University.

That is, a deeply researched guidebook to the spectrum of one Texas city’s pre-World War II homes, with 120 entries representing everything from Greek Revival mansions to shotgun houses.

But back then, such a project seemed like a bad career move for an architectural historian.

Who outside of Waco itself would care about its houses, which were pretty typical of other Texas towns? And there was the reputation of Waco itself — a minor city known nationally for only one thing: The Branch Davidian catastrophe seven years before Hafertepe arrived.

“If you went to a meeting (of architectural historians) and said, ‘I’m working on a book on Waco, Texas,’ they’d look at you and say ‘You’re kidding. You’ve lost your mind. You’re going to waste your energy on something where you’re not going to find anything significant at the national level,’ ” Hafertepe said.

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Kenneth Hafertepe descends the elaborate staircase in the Elihu Nash house carrying his book, “Historic Homes of Waco, Texas.”

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Prominent lumber supplier Elihu Nash showed off his woodwork with this staircase at the home at 1703 Sanger Ave.

Since then, he has gotten to know Waco and its architecture deeply as he has researched houses and advocated for historic preservation as a longtime member of the city’s Historic Landmark Preservation Commission.

Now his coffee-table book, published by Texas A&M Press, is dropping into a much-changed landscape, where interest in Waco’s old houses has been supercharged by renovations featured on national cable TV.

“In 2000, the idea of writing a book on Waco houses would probably be seen as academic suicide,” Hafertepe said. “And now, 18 years later, my dean wonders why it took so long to get along to writing that book. Part of that is being on the other side of the ‘Fixer Upper’ craze and knowing a lot of people are interested in Waco at a popular level.”

In the meantime, Hafertepe has seen a shift in his academic field toward more interest in the vernacular houses of “ordinary” people, not just landmark achievements of architectural innovation.

In his book, Hafertepe uses historical records to track down the details of design, construction and ownership of houses, many of which have been obscure until now. Those records include old city directories, Sanborn fire insurance maps, newspaper clippings and a heretofore largely untapped resource: 1920s-era bulletins of the Texas General Contractors Association, which described projects, contractors and architects.

Through that painstaking research, he documents long-forgotten Waco architects and provides a road map for preservationists, aspiring or otherwise.

“It’s phenomenal,” said Jill Barrow, interim director of Historic Waco Foundation. “Not only does it have the architecture of the house but the history of the house.”

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The James F. and Brunette Davis house, 1312 Dallas St., was built in the 1850s and is one of a handful of antebellum houses left in Waco.

She said Hafertepe has already been a resource for preservation efforts, and the new book will be indispensable for looking up information on old houses.

“I rely on him a lot,” she said.

Hafertepe found that Waco houses in the 19th and early 20th century were largely conventional for their time, though talented architects showed ingenuity within those limits.

“I think that’s one reason there hasn’t been any scholarly treatment of Waco before, because it is a typical Texas city, and houses evolve in a typical way, from Greek Revival to Queen Anne and other versions of the Victorian, to Arts and Crafts, Colonial and Dutch Colonial,” he said.

Hafertepe cast a wide net, looking beyond the mansions that have been studied in previous local history books. Entries include the skinny “shotgun” houses on North Sixth Street, remnants of what were likely hundreds of such houses for the Waco working class.

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A shotgun house built around 1909 at 527 N. Sixth St. is one of a few surviving examples of the once-common housing style, which consists of a series of rooms arranged front to back.

The book includes an entry on the circa 1926 “working-class rental house” that survives at 1123 S. Eighth St. and now houses Common Grounds coffeehouse.

While about a third of the homes are in the tony neighborhoods around Austin Avenue such as Castle Heights and Karem Park, a generous sampling can be found in the Sanger-Heights, Dean Highland and Cameron Park neighborhoods.

Nine of the houses are in East Waco, which at one time was segregated into white and black sections. Hafertepe said that with diligent searching he found several homes along Elm Avenue that were originally inhabited by black Wacoans drawn by the growth of Paul Quinn College.

“This book is unusual in that there are more African-American houses and ones that are more carefully documented than most architectural histories of American cities,” he said.

A notable example is the Samuel and Hettie Johnson house at 1003 Elm Ave. Samuel Johnson, born a slave in Alabama in 1857, ended up in Waco in the 1880s working for lumber companies. In 1904 he went to work as a driver or laborer for William Cameron & Co., putting him in the position to learn about construction and to buy building materials at a discount.

Samuel and Hettie Johnson house

Samuel Johnson, a former slave who worked for the William Cameron lumberyard, built this house at 1003 Elm Ave. Across the street was Paul Quinn College, where his daughters attended before becoming schoolteachers.

The Johnsons built a one-story Victorian house facing the African-American college, where their daughters would attend. By 1910, five of the daughters were teaching in public schools.

“It was a strategy of the parents to say, ‘You girls are going to college, that’s where you’re going, and you’ve got your dormitory right here,’ ” Hafertepe said.

Hafetepe also fleshes out the history of the grander houses in Waco, most notably in tracking down the architects. Two of those architects from early 20th century Waco, Roy E. Lane and Milton Scott, are already well-known in Waco preservation circles.

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Robert Lazenby, founder of the Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Co., which made Dr Pepper, hired noted architect Roy E. Lane to design this grand house at 1525 Morrow Ave. in 1910.

Among other landmarks, Lane is credited with the famous 1913 castle at 3300 Austin Ave. and the Lazenby-Marshall House at 1525 Morrow Ave., built for a founder of the company that made Dr Pepper. Scott is known for the Clifton House at 2600 Austin Ave., Palm Court Apartments and many more residential, commercial, church and school buildings.

But Hafertepe also plucks some notable architects from obscurity. Nineteen houses in the book are attributed to Birch D. Easterwood, who also designed Brooks Hall and Pat Neff Hall at Baylor University.

Through the 1920s and ’30s, he built notable houses in the Austin Avenue and Colcord Avenue areas, including the imposing Tudor Revival house for Joseph and Maude Nash at 200 Castle Ave.

“This book is kind of a Birch Easterwood coming-out party,” Hafertepe said.

The author also tracked down the architect who built and lived in a house at 215 Dallas St. in East Waco. Sam Herbert and his wife, Helena, built the two-story Victorian house around 1900, by which time he had partnered with prominent Victorian-era architect W.W. Larmour, who designed Baylor’s Old Main and Burleson buildings, and with J. Riely Gordon, who designed courthouses in Waco and elsewhere. He went on to design the Texas Cotton Palace pavilion with Milton Scott.

Herbert house, 215 Dallas

Samuel Herbert, an architect who worked on notable Baylor buildings, designed this home at 215 Dallas St. for his family in 1898. A couple has bought the home with plans to renovate it.

The house was in need of preservation by 2017, when Chris Jones and Beka Falk-Jones bought it with plans to renovate it. The couple learned some of the history of the house when they invited Hafertepe on a tour of it, and they are looking forward to learning more from the book as they start restoring it.

“I think it’s so helpful to be able to honor the history of the home,” said Beka Falk-Jones, a bakery entrepreneur. “To know who lived there and who they were is significant.”

Stephen Fox, an architectural historian from Rice University, said he has started Hafertepe’s book and finds it “fascinating.”

“I think one of the values of looking intensively at the architectural history of a specific town is to understand how that history and the buildings that embody that history fit into the broader picture of regional and national architecture and artistic culture,” Fox said. “The tremendous value of Ken’s book is to demonstrate to people in Waco that there’s a rich cultural history of architecture.

“It’s very positive and wonderful that out of Waco come these media stars,” he said, referring to Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper.”

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Kenneth Hafertepe walks by one of the houses in his book. Elihu Nash Jr. built this house in 1911, about 14 years after his father built the Victorian house nearby at 1703 Sanger Ave. The Nashes co-owned Nash-Robinson, a lumber and hardware firm.

As a historic preservation advocate, Hafertepe has welcomed the recent upsurge in interest in Waco’s old houses, though he has urged people to avoid “unsympathetic” changes to historic homes. He has cautioned buyers to reconsider choices such as changing rooflines and windows and painting over brick.

“As far as ‘Fixer Upper’ goes, I don’t think it’s an unmitigated good or an unmitigated bad, but it’s important not to kill the goose that lay the golden egg,” he said. “The ‘Fixer Upper’ craze has given Waco a boost in its self-image, which was desperately needed.”

He said the show has caused people to value old houses and to consider moving to the neglected inner city.

“ ‘Fixer Upper’ has reframed urban life,” he said. “That’s a good thing, as long as they don’t do historical damage to the character of old houses.”

He said the Gaineses themselves have proven to be good stewards of historical properties such as the Silos and the former Elite Café, now Magnolia Table. He said he has reason to trust them to restore their latest purchase, the Austin Avenue castle, in a historically appropriate way.

“I take them at their word when they say they want to restore the house,” he said.

“Historic Homes of Waco, Texas” can be found at various retail sites including amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

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The John Wesley and Cemira Mann House, also called East Terrace, was built at 100 Mill St. in 1874, with additions in the 1880s. J.W. Mann built the home from bricks manufactured at his nearby brickyard, which also supplied brick for the Suspension Bridge.

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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