By Nina Butts Austin “NEW, new, new!” George Russell walked alongside the newly restored Sam Houston Woodland Home in Huntsville, slapping its raw wood siding. “Virtually everything you see from every side is brand new.” He pointed to the eaves. “Did they in the nineteenth century spray paint the underside of cedar shakes? A quarter of a million dollars was spent to put this together authentically, but it was all done with power saws and drills and spray paint. It’s like going down and buying a log cabin kit almost.” The restoration of the little 133-yearold building had just been finished a few days before. Set in the middle of a wooded historical park, it looked like a virgin subdivision house. Plumb and square, it was freshly painted oyster white and smelled of sawdust. A shiny air conditioning unit sat under its new front porch. Russell, his friends on the fiftymember Walker County Historical Commission, and other Huntsville residents fought for a year and a half to stop the restoration of the house where Sam Houston lived from 1848 to 1858. Early records of the house are sparse \(the oldthey believe that changing it from the clapboarded Greek revival building they used to call the Mount Vernon of Texas to a white-washed, mill-sawed log house was wrong. The people they fought are not fellow Huntsville citizens, but the Texas State University System Board of Regents, a rather remote group appointed by the governor that happens to control the house and its park as part of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. The regents’ chairman, Robert Baldwin III, is an Austin beer distributor and key political supporter of Attorney General Mark Nina Butts is an Austin writer and artist. White. Other regents include Lee Drain, senior vice president of Republic National Bank of Dallas; Philip Warner, editor of the Houston Chronicle; and Bernard Johnson, president of a Houston engineering and architectural firm. The regents won. The Houston house was stripped to its log skeleton, according to the plans of Austin architects Bell, Klein and Hoffman. Some of the wood taken off the house was thrown away; some was piled in an open-sided shed in the park’. The Greek portico was removed, the dog trot closed up, and a new porch built. The foundation was replaced. The fireplaces and chimneys were torn down and false fireplaces and chimneys built. A new layer of wood was put over the original logs. “They replaced things that did not need replacing,” James Patton, cochairman of the Walker County Historical Commission and Walker County Clerk, told me. He believes that some of the removed wood dated to Sam Houston’s time, and is now “nowhere to be seen.” “It was not a restoration but a conversion,” Russell, who produces educational filmstrips, protested. “Local people have been denied any input.” In November of 1981, when work on the house was just finished, an editorial in the Huntsville Item read: “The university or board of regents will probably make plans to erect a sign that gives the history of the Sam Houston Home. . . . But the front of that new home is hardly the place to erect such a sign. Perhaps a more fitting locale would be the front gate to that shed of historic materials down the hill. ‘Here lie the ruins of the Sam Houston Home,’ the sign might read.” Sam’s House To understand the indignation of many Huntsville people over the alteration of the building that some of them call “Sam’s house,” you must understand their attachment to Sam Houston and his house. Like most people who live in a town that was once the home of a legendary person, Huntsville residents feel a kind of proprietorship about Sam Houston. They named their university and one of their main streets after him, and the park with his house and the Sam Houston Memorial Museum sits right in the middle of town. They consider themselves the keepers of part of his legend. “The house was pretty. Why did they have to change it up?” a Huntsville woman asked me. “Neither side could prove that it had been a certain way.” David Hoffman, the architect who researched and planned the restoration, believes that he discovered the way the house looked during the Houston occupancy. He feels that this authentic-aspossible restoration was right for the purposes of the park, despite the local people’s affection for the Greek revival house. The Walker County preservationists hold that any restoration of the house must be based on guesswork: “If you can’t prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Patton said, “leave it alone.” The conflict over the house, Hoffman said, “is a philosophical issue and it boils down basically to a difference of opinion . . . on what should be done with the house.” But the issue was not so small. The real difference of opinion was over who should have power over the house, not who had the better idea about what to do with it. Although the board of regents controls the budget for the house and the university hires its director, the Walker County Historical Commission, an arm of the county government, is responsible for protecting it \(along with other “approClearly the board of regents governs the house, but many people of Huntsville love it and feel responsible for it. Curtis Tunnell, the State Archaeologist and Acting Executive Director of the Texas Historical Commission, described the county historical commission: “Obviously they have spent years being concerned about that house.” They have spent the last year and a half being particularly concerned about it. The restoration of the house was initiated by Sue Flanagan, who was director of the park until she retired on January 3, 1982. When she came from San Antonio in 1972 to take over the park, Flanagan was determined to put things in order. She discontinued the Mrs. Sam Houston’s Birthday Party, which had been an enormously popular spring celebration at the park. “It was the tail that wagged the dog,” she explained, and “it had no basis in history.” Then she set out to “completely and properly restore” the park’s historic buildings. \(Besides the main house, there She spent three years tracking down a restoration architect, finally engaging “Sam’s House” Becomes Sam’s Cabin 8 JANUARY 29, 1982
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