Art Center of Waco (copy 2)

The Cameron House, closed since October 2017 because of structural problems, will depend on donors for a possible rescue.

The days of the Cameron House, the former location of the Art Center of Waco, likely are numbered unless a donor with deep pockets and good will steps forward, McLennan Community College officials said.

The three-story structure, the summer home of the William Waldo Cameron family in the early decades of the 20th century, has not had an occupant since October 2017, when a sagging floor support beam forced the Art Center of Waco to evacuate it until repairs could be made. The art center’s lease was expiring soon anyway, and it decided to pursue a new home base.

McLennan Community College, which owns the 30,000 square-foot house and its surrounding property, has estimated tearing down the facility will cost more than $150,000. Repairing the wall, foundation and plumbing work could cost up to $400,000 with a full renovation approaching $4 million.

MCC President Johnette McKown told MCC board members this week that administrators could find no instructional or education purpose served by the building’s renovation. Other potential uses, such as meeting space, reception facilities or offices for the MCC Foundation, are already being met by other buildings on campus, McKown said.

In the months that followed the Art Center’s departure, the center’s board opted to look for a new location in downtown Waco rather than repair the Cameron House. Board and staff members found a former brick day care center at 701 S. Eighth St. that it secured to renovate for a new home.

McLennan Community College had leased the Cameron House on the edge of its campus to the center for more than 40 years for $10 a year, while also paying for utilities. That lease expired in September 2018, and MCC had no intention to continue the lease on those terms had the art center stayed, McKown said in a interview later in the week.

The Cameron family that originally used the building donated land to the city of Waco to make Cameron Park, which is close to the house. While the house is about a century old, its interior long has been stripped of anything historical, with numerous reworkings of rooms for art lessons, creation, exhibition, education and meetings, McKown said. Despite its connection to a major family in Waco’s history, it does not have a state historical marker and is not on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We have institutional needs, but none of them fit in that space,” McKown said. Some of the school’s donors and supporters who had backed MCC projects in the past were less than persuaded that funding Cameron House repairs would meet the school’s future needs, she said.

MCC trustees, in fact, recently approved revenue bonds for a $6.2 million renovation of the Business Technology Building, built in 1968. The project includes a reworking of classroom and office space, exterior improvements and a metal roof.

While the college is not inclined to repair and renovate the Cameron House, administrators would be willing to hear others’ proposals as long as they do not depend on money from the college.

“We can’t leave it vacant forever … (but) we want to make sure we haven’t overlooked anybody,” McKown said. “I say this with great sadness, but (the house) might have to go away.”

News that MCC does not intend to renovate the Cameron House is understandable, if a little sad, Art Center of Waco Director Claire Sexton said.

“We’re not terribly surprised … but we had kind of hoped that MCC could renovate it,” Sexton said.

Art Center supporters have raised a little more than a third of the almost $2.5 million needed to buy and renovate the Eighth Street building and a neighboring house for temporary offices, that later will be used for artist living and working space, she said.

Sexton said she hopes work on the house fronting Ninth Street can be completed soon for a summertime move of the center’s offices temporarily at the Cultivate 7twelve gallery on Austin Avenue. Once backers raise the money to finish paying off the property acquisition plus 50 to 60 percent of estimated construction costs, renovation of the 701 S. Eighth St. building will start, likely next year, she said.

The center also intends to move its Sculpture Walk artworks outside the Cameron House to the downtown location, including the towering “Waco Door” by Robert Wilson and Bill Verhelst’s gray concrete “Heartfelt Space,” Sexton said.

Table Toppers, the center’s annual fundraiser, scheduled for March 21 at McLane Stadium’s Baylor Club, will encourage donors to give to the center’s endowment, building fund or annual operations budget.

The Historic Waco Foundation, the city’s most visible organization for historic preservation, maintains and operates five historic houses, four of which are older than the Cameron House.

Historic Waco Foundation Executive Director Jill Barrow said no one has yet approached the foundation about the possibility the organization might buy it or work to save it. That would be a decision for the foundation’s board, Barrow said.

McKown said anyone interested in saving the Cameron House could contact her or Stephen Benson, vice president of finance and administration.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor

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