Fifty years ago preservation meant only a trip to the Alamo or the San Jacinto Monument to most Texans. There were only a few statewide and local history organizations and their missions were mostly academic.
The Texas Centennial was celebrated in 1936 with the construction of the Texas State Fair Grounds in Dallas, the staging of a Billy Rose stage spectacular in Fort Worth at Casa Manana, and the placement of some 900 historical markers throughout the state.
Post-war Texas, however, was a wasteland for preservationists. Stately mansions were destroyed across the state without a second thought to be replaced by characterless modern buildings, planned subdivisions full of look-alike houses rather than traditional neighborhoods were massed produced to meet the needs of returning GIs, and the world of the Kleenex society became the rage.
Fortunately, the Texas legislature enacted the first enabling legislation establishing the Texas Historical Commission (THC) in 1953, along with the Texas Historical Foundation to raise funds for the agency. This group persuaded the legislature to require all 254 counties in Texas to organize a county historical commission with dedicated volunteers. A massive preservation program began which resulted in the placement of more than 11,000 locally funded historical markers, and the establishment of 562 history museums. Some 20 local preservation organizations grew to more than 720 in existence today.
Interest in Texas` rich cultural heritage was stimulated further by HemisFair, the 1968 World`s Fair in San Antonio. One of the fair`s leading attractions, and a permanent legacy for all Texans, was the Institute of Texan Cultures exhibition which celebrated and showcased the state`s many diverse cultures as it continues to do today.
In 1976 the influence of the federal government increased with the passage of the investment tax credits for the rehabilitation of historic commercial buildings. In Texas some three quarters of a billion dollars in such credits for more than 800 rehabilitation projects encouraged the redevelopment of many areas that once were thought hopeless.
The establishment of the Texas Main Street Program led to projects in more than 125 Texas cities resulting in the restoration and rehabilitation of some 9,000 buildings representing an estimated $582.9 million in investment and a new life and hope for these once-shabby small communities.
Today, a new coalition of statewide organizations is promoting heritage tourism as never before and has filled these small towns with visitors. In fact, the increase in heritage tourism is seen by many as a wave of the future.
Much of the credit for this renaissance is due to our state leaders who championed funding for a restored governor`s mansion and state capitol. More recently the state government has funded a state history museum, the restoration of the state cemetery, and Governor George W. Bush has recommended funding of $200 million to join with the local communities in the restoration of the beautiful county courthouses.
The next half-century will find a large change in the demographics of Texas and a greater interest in ethnic heritage. The success of the public-private partnerships in preservation foretells an even greater interest in this area.
The plasticized boom times of the 1950s, when we lost so many of our fine historic buildings, now may be contrasted to the boom times of the next century when we will see a phenomenal increase in the preservation of World War II buildings, the importance of NASA in Texas history, and the discovery of more ships like La Salle`s La Belle along the Texas coast. The current increase of interest in our heritage by our new generations of young Texans offers great hope that today`s history will be preserved for generations to come.
Publication Date: Fall 1999
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