- Associated Press - Sunday, July 20, 2014

WINEDALE, Texas (AP) - The three houses and two barns that date back centuries and dot a 225-acre historic site near Round Top offer a rare look into the lives of some of Central Texas’ earliest settlers.

Similar paintings in two of the houses, for example, tell the tale of an itinerant German artist, who in the late 1800s painted both homes in exchange for a place to stay. Such trades were common then, when many immigrants had more talent to offer than cash.

Ima Hogg, the Houston philanthropist and preservationist, loved the paintings. At the center of one is a parrot, a notoriously long-lived bird, meant to bring longevity to the family that lived here more than 150 years ago. In the 1960s, Hogg bought and restored the houses and barns and gave them to the University of Texas, wishing longevity to the small community and to the history it represented. She wanted Winedale to become a laboratory for UT students and others to explore history and culture.

For a time, it was. But now some fear the old Texas folk museum - home to a popular Shakespeare program - is on its way to dusty death, the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1nKzFmg) reported.

Over the last several decades, Winedale became a getaway for Houstonians. Visitors came to learn farming on weekends. They watched blacksmiths and bought crafts at festivals. They took in the students’ plays in an old barn, as they do now.

The Shakespeare program is still going strong, but in recent years, Winedale has become a less lively place. Control of the historic site has shifted, and many worry UT has all but lost interest in it.

“Miss Ima would roll over in her grave!” is the common refrain among those who know most about Hogg’s gift to UT.

The daughter of Gov. James Hogg, Ima Hogg was one of Houston’s most well-known and generous philanthropists. She and her brothers, Will and Mike, sold Memorial Park to the city for a small sum. Around the same time she gave Winedale to UT, she donated Bayou Bend to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

A faculty advisory council and a fundraising group, mostly made up of Hogg’s friends, originally helped manage Winedale, but both were dismantled years ago. The historical center has moved under the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, which manages Winedale from Austin, along with two other museums across the state. The Briscoe Center’s hands are full, and its budget is tight.

Aside from the Shakespeare shows, a historic quilt showcase and an annual Christmas festival, festivities at Winedale have become infrequent. Guests must make reservations to take tours, and the site is rarely open on the weekend, its staff gutted. Former directors and locals, who lament the loss of many of the center’s programs, say little remains of what Winedale once was.

Briscoe Center officials, however, say Winedale is still fulfilling its key mission: to preserve the history of Central Texas settlers by protecting the three houses, barns and other structures on site. And with withering resources, preserving the wooden structures is about all the center can afford to do.

“You put a quarter-million dollars into one of those houses, it doesn’t take long until you need another quarter million,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center.

When Ima Hogg was alive, and for a long time after she died in 1975, Winedale’s grounds were perfectly manicured. Roses and vegetable gardens, wooden fences and signs welcomed visitors.

Now, the gardens are mostly gone. The signs, recently rotting, have been taken down. Many of the fences have fallen and some of the structures are falling, too.

During the summer, Winedale is haunted by the voices of students in the Shakespeare program, who read The Bard’s works in the dogtrots of the old houses. “Out, out!” a young woman’s voice drifted from one on a recent afternoon. The students perform to large crowds - the biggest Winedale sees - on the weekends.

In the fall, visitors are rarer, Carleton said, looking over the property from the balcony of the Wagner House, the main building in Winedale. Built in the 1840s, it was the first house that Hogg bought back in the ‘60s.

Winedale is a calm place - meditative, even - but maintaining it on a shrinking budget and dwindling public interest is anything but.

Hogg’s initial $500,000 endowment, still the largest pot of money dedicated to Winedale, has grown to roughly $2 million and produces about $97,000 for the property annually. There’s another tiny endowment, about $125,000, that funds repairs to the Wagner House. Another, even smaller endowment produces just hundreds of dollars a year, and funds a small cottage where the director of the Shakespeare program stays.

The university also puts some money toward the center. In 2010, just before the deep state budget cuts of 2011, UT’s funding was at its height, sending about $238,000 to Winedale to pay for staff, maintenance and groundskeeping. That took a 20 percent hit in 2011. Staff reductions followed. Just four people work on-site, two of whom are security officers. The annual historical symposium, which with shrinking attendance had become unable to sustain itself, was held for the last time in 2012.

The Briscoe Center absorbed Winedale in the 1990s and was able to make some much-needed repairs at first, Carleton said, including fixing the collapsing McGregor House, built in 1861. But with budget cuts, such repairs are harder to make.

“The older the property gets, the farther away we get from renovations, the maintenance and repair costs increase a great deal,” Carleton said. “That’s where we lack the money.”

Those who have been involved in Winedale the longest say it is far from what Hogg envisioned.

“It’s just falling in disrepair, and it’s such a shame,” said Frances Harris, 82, whose husband sold Hogg the McGregor House, which boasts one of the German paintings.

Her disappointment was echoed by several others, including Wayne Bell, a former UT architecture professor who helped Hogg restore the properties and ran the center for decades, and Lonn Taylor, a Texas historian and one of Winedale’s first curators. Jim Ayres, who founded the Shakespeare program and still runs a summer camp there for high school students, said he and the community around Winedale have watched Hogg’s gift drift into disarray.

“There are other people in the community upset about it, and a lot of Houston folks who live around here who knew Miss Ima who are upset about it,” Ayres said. “If you’re visiting the place . and you drive up to it, you just don’t see something that is appealing. You don’t see something that is cared for, that is for sure.”

UT doesn’t have to care for the place on its own, many say. A fundraising group once held galas and other events on the property. When the Briscoe Center took over, that group, which had become less active, was combined with three others that contributed to the center’s other satellite properties. Representatives from each site make up the new council. The Briscoe Center, meanwhile, only has one person running its development office, seeking donations for all of the center’s properties.

Locals say recent efforts to start another “Friends of Winedale” group have been unsuccessful. Former staff members say the Briscoe Center has discouraged attempts to raise money.

Mary Evelynn Sorrell said she spent most of her career raising funds for Lawndale Art Center in Houston. When she tried to do the same at Winedale, after taking a job there in 2007, the center put a “heavy foot” down and told her fundraising was not her job, she said.

“I think there’s a total lack of interest,” said Sorrell, who was laid off in 2009.

Carleton denied that the Briscoe Center had blocked fundraising efforts. He said the last attempt to start a new “Friends” group was a “false start,” and he’s hoping to get a new group together, perhaps this fall. He also wants to bring the historical symposium back.

While Carleton said public interest in Winedale has dropped - the last attempt to put on the spring symposium didn’t happen, because nobody bought tickets, he said - some question whether UT could do more to gin it up.

“It’s the only museum in North America that I know of that’s not open on Saturday,” said Taylor, who has written two books about the historic furniture kept in Winedale’s houses. “I think the university has completely dropped the ball on it.”

Carleton said the Briscoe Center is doing its duty at Winedale, preserving the buildings and the history in them. The German’s painted parrot remains, so far successfully delivering the longevity it promised centuries ago.

Still, as Shakespeare himself wrote, “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in.” Time takes its toll.

The McGregor House’s coat is chipping. Its roof likely needs work, too. A good, hard rain, some fear, could do serious damage to the furniture and quilts inside.

The money just isn’t there to fix it.

“We have to let it go for a while before we have enough money to paint it,” Carleton said. “These buildings were not built to last. The task of preserving them is very difficult because of that.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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