By Tracey Silverman, Texas Historical Commission Planner
February was "I Love Texas Courthouses" month and we celebrated in style with several whirlwind tours of county courthouses, two courthouse rededications, a website where folks across the state are still sharing their courthouse photos and stories, and a capstone recognition of courthouses at the Capitol steps for Preservation Day. We thought this would be a good time to catch up with Susan Tietz Gammage, assistant director of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program at the Texas Historical Commission (THC). Get to know Susan and be inspired by her passion and her perspective on why courthouses and historic places are important to preserve.
How long have you been Assistant Director of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program? At the THC?
Two months! Eleven years at the THC.
Did you have any other positions at the THC before this one? What were they and what did you do?
Before taking over the assistant director position, I acted as a project reviewer for the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program for the regions of north and northeast Texas. As a courthouse reviewer, we review all proposed work on courthouses in and out of our grant program for compliance with the Secretary of Interior Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, and manage the construction and grant paperwork for projects that receive grant funding. We travel to our projects about once a month and typically manage about five or six grant projects at a time.
If you meet someone at a party and they ask you what you do, how do you describe your job?
I tell them generally that I manage the restoration of historic courthouses in Texas and more specifically that I initially perform sleuth work in order to “read” the building’s history and the changes it’s undergone. Our goal is to restore the courthouses to their original appearances, and that takes a lot of research within the building itself but also online, using historic photographs, county histories, commissioners court minutes, etc. Once we find enough evidence that we feel confident knowing the building’s original appearance, the challenge is to then integrate all of the modern systems into the structure in a way that they are concealed as much as possible. I also consider an important part of my job to be about educating people about preservation and persuading them to come on board.
What all does your job entail?
Investigation and research of the building’s original layout, design, materials, and finishes; review of architectural drawings and specifications for best preservation practices within a functioning courthouse; review of construction work on site; and work with architects, contractors, and counties to achieve best possible project results. As assistant director, I also help Sharon Fleming (the Director of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, as well as Director of the Division of Architecture) plan, implement, and coordinate the courthouse program and staff reviews, as well as promote our program by making presentations to counties.
Tell us about your experiences and education that got you to this point.
I obtained my Masters in Architecture from Texas A&M University in 1998 after studying historic preservation under David Woodcock and receiving my Certificate in Historic Preservation. I moved to Austin and worked for two private firms for 4 years—the Bower Downing Partnership and FAB Architecture, neither of which focused on my love of historic preservation. So in 2002, when the reviewer position for the courthouse program became available, I jumped on it, and I’ve been here ever since. I love this program and what it does not only for these treasured buildings, but for communities around the state.
What do you love about your job?
Oops. I think I already answered that, but I will tell you that for me, historic buildings create a sense of belonging and an understanding of the places where I’ve been. I think we can all relate to the story of returning to a place where we lived many years ago and not recognizing it, and feeling instantly out of sorts. I believe that historic buildings and landscapes provide us all with a sense of belonging and comfort, of feeling part of our community and place. A lot of people use the word touchstone, and I certainly relate to historic buildings as touchstones. I also believe historic buildings are so beautifully crafted and durably constructed, and preserving them makes sense from a sustainability perspective, if not a perspective of appreciation for beauty, design, and craftsmanship.
What is the most frequently asked question you hear about the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program? How do you answer it?
"What can your program do for us?" And my answer is that it will not only restore your building to its original grandeur and beauty, but it will make the necessary changes to make an energy- and functionally efficient building that is more usable for the members of your community.
It’s 2017 and you are reminiscing about all the things you’ve accomplished over the past five years. What do you hope to say?
Honestly, it’s so easy working for the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. The work we’re doing feels so significant. I hope I can say that we’re on our way to restoring and maintaining every historic courthouse in the state.
What are your priorities right now?
My 6-year old daughter is my biggest priority and, next, taking care of myself so that I can be a great mother and coworker.
You’ve got a free weekend to take a road trip in Texas. Where do you want to go and what do you want to do?
I almost always want to go to West Texas—Marfa, Big Bend, Marathon, the Chisos Mountains, Terlingua. I love it out there. My second favorite destination in Texas is probably the southern edge of the Texas Hill Country, where my family has a ranch near Garner State Park. It’s a magical place.
Where is your office? How can people get in touch with you?
I’m located on the second floor of the THC’s Elrose building in Austin—on the east end of the hallway. You can get in touch with me via phone at 512.463.5860, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.