Silent Partner

Architect Wayne Bell's Quiet Contributions to the Long Center

Silent Partner
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

In more than 30 years of working in and around Austin as both a professional and an educator, architect Wayne Bell has quietly amassed a portfolio of firsts: first state restoration architect with the Texas Historical Commission; first chairman of the Historic Landmarks Commission; first director of the Winedale historical site, where he led the Winedale Preservation Institute; founder of the Historic Sites and Restoration branch of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife; initiator of the master's degree program in historical preservation at the UT School of Architecture. With such a roster of achievements to his credit, you'd think Bell would be a more recognizable figure on the public scene -- one of the city's high-profile architects, like his colleague and friend Sinclair Black. But that's not Bell's way. An unassuming gentleman given to cowboy boots and a steady, matter-of-fact delivery, Bell is the kind of architect who lets the projects he works on take the attention. If there is any talking to be done, he lets the building do it. That may explain why Bell's name is rarely prominent in media discussions of his current project: the creation of the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts and city park on the south bank of Town Lake. Despite the formidable experience and talents he brings to the project and the key role he plays as chair of the architectural design committee for ARTS Center Stage, the nonprofit organization behind the Palmer Auditorium renovation, Bell remains low-key in describing his contributions. The consummate team player, he is too modest to admit how integral he is in maintaining a calm, orderly, informed, and successful process. But as the point man for all facets of the $60 million (and counting) job -- the hub, from which extend the many spokes that ultimately will complete the wheel -- Bell is the one who has had to sort through the epic rolls of city-planning red tape; to placate the various egos among concerned artists, neighbors, city officials, and the supporters and board members of ARTS Center Stage, and those of the the symphony, opera, and ballet, the three groups that are the cultural foundation for this project; to lead the process selecting the consultants and architect; and to travel the country to look at theatre and performing arts centers by the three architectural firms in the running for the task of renovating Palmer (see sidebar).

If you can't get him to admit that he's played a major part in keeping the process moving smoothly and on track, you can get at least get Bell to admit that the project is a full-time commitment. The professor emeritus at the UT School of Architecture, who retired four years ago, says that transforming old Palmer into the new Long Center for the Performing Arts has altered his perception of retirement, where the conventional wisdom suggests that retirees have the luxury of free time. "Yeah," he smiles. "Now I don't have any time on my hands."

And it's unlikely Bell will have any until 2003, when the renovated Long Center is scheduled to open. Once the lead architect for the project is selected, he takes on the daunting job of intermediary between the arts companies who will use the center and the project developers. "As we move into [renovating Palmer], I'll be the owner's representative on things architectural as we develop the program, working to coordinate the different user groups and their demands and requests and their wish lists," Bell says. "I'll be the guy who has to say (with the board of trustees), "I'm sorry, that simply isn't in our budget.' In the architectural program, we've pretty much done that, we've pretty much said we can have this or we can't have that. So as the chair, I simply am going to try to coordinate the groups. Rather than have a lot of different voices, it will sort of channel down through the architectural design committee to the project manager for ARTS Center Stage. That's my role: spokesman for the project manager."

Bell brings years of experience to the project. He has an awareness of the architectural process and a native understanding of the sequence of architectural design through years of experience. He also has the political tools to coax cooperation out of a diverse team of arts supporters, not all of whom understand the sometimes glacial progress of so large an undertaking. Bell must enlighten the board members and the user groups, large and small, to maintain the orderly procedure in arriving at a final design, not to mention getting it completed on budget and on time.

Part of his skill in this area comes from Bell's arts-friendly neutrality. A pragmatic man, Bell lays claim to an audience's-eye view of Austin's arts scene: "I'm a longstanding patron of the arts, but I've not been a member of boards, like so many of our trustees are. I've been a ticket buyer. I've enjoyed Live Oak Theatre, and back to the Austin Community Theatre, and certainly have been a subscriber to the symphony and the opera." But, he emphasizes, he did not come to the Long Center project as a spokesperson for the symphony, the opera, the ballet, or any of the smaller user groups. "I came on simply as an architect who had run a successful business. We had a firm in Austin for some 15 years: Bell, Klein & Hoffman. We were primarily a restoration firm and did major restorations, the Paramount Theatre being one of them, and the Franklin Savings, and, of course, the Littlefield House and the Hirschfeld House and Austin History Center -- mostly restoration work. I came on not because of my affiliation with one of the arts groups, not because of my burning interest in a performing arts center, but because of my professional expertise and how it might be used. I wanted us to have a performing arts center. I was perfectly happy at Bass Concert Hall. That was fine for me. But when it turned out that we needed to have something else, this seemed like a good project. And actually they sought me out. The Three Js [Jo Anne Christian, Jane Sibley, and Jare Smith] are good friends of mine, [as are] several members of the board. I did not go to them and say, "Let me help, what can I do?' And as I said, I had come into a lot of spare time on my hands -- as far as everyone else is concerned."

Bell's early career brought him to Austin schooled as an architect and having practiced architecture in West Texas. "I was licensed and came to Austin, and went to the University of Texas in the office of Facilities of Planning and Construction for the UT system in 1964. I got into restoration architecture at the university when I was doing the Littlefield House and Winedale. Because of my experience with that, I went to the Historical Commission and was the first state restoration architect, as a matter of fact, [following the] Preservation Act of 1966. Every state had to have someone [in order] to participate in the federal program. So I was Texas' liaison for the National Preservation Act of '66. We started that in 1968. Most states were dragging a couple of years before they got it in full swing. I was there for four years, then I went to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, where I started their program called the Historic Sites and Restoration branch of the Parks Division, and was there just a couple of years, then went back to the university teaching full time. "When I went into architecture, I went in primarily for design architecture. I had always liked the historic architecture, but there really wasn't much unless you went into architectural history. There was no real degree program [in the U.S.], and we didn't have a degree program [at UT] until 1972, when I started our master's degree program in historical preservation. [By then] there were only about four [such programs] in the country. -- It is a relatively new field, and a lot of [interest in] it came from the National Preservation Act of 1966."

Besides Bell's on-campus renovation projects, he became responsible for the restoration of the little complex of 19th-century German-style dwellings and working buildings that comprise Winedale. Now better known for the performances of Shakespeare in the airy old barn, Winedale can be found on the hilly back roads near Round Top, 75 miles east of Austin.

"I would use Winedale in my restoration techniques course [at UT]," recalls Bell. "I served as the Austin liaison to Winedale for 29 years. That was part of my job through the president's office. I wore two hats: one was professor and the other was director of the Winedale historical site." Bell began the Winedale Preservation Institute, bringing students from the University of Houston, Texas A&M, and UT to the Central Texas village for a summer course on historic structures documentation. "We would select sites in the area, do historic research, and do measured drawings of historic sites around Winedale. We lived in Winedale and were there during the summer before [UT English professor] Jim Ayres went in for Shakespeare. Jim would come in as we left. [Winedale] is charming. But it's not set up for much of a theatre. Jim Ayres has done great things down there in turning that into a theatre for his Shakespeare." Bell the preservationist considers the transformation of the historic barn into a theatre and muses, "He hasn't been very sensitive to the historical integrity of the building ... you know, they had no qualms about driving a nail in or putting a board up wherever they wanted. I always just sort of blanched at that!"

With his history of restoration work, Bell seems particularly qualified to lead the alteration of Palmer into the Long Center. He clarifies the difference between renovating and restoring a building with professorial clarity: "Renovating and restoring are two different things: Renovating means breathing new life into a building, restoring means putting a building back as it was at a certain point in its history. Renovating means making the building usable and not particularly being responsive to its earlier period. The Long Center will be a transformation of the building into a performing arts center, and it will have no dedicated purpose of preservation. We will use it as an economic tool, because it's there, it's on good property, it's visible, being in a park is the ideal location for a civic performing arts center. The building itself is not historically significant, other than that it is significant to Austin, and it will remain a significant building to Austin, so that historic aspect of it will be preserved. It will continue to be a civic project.

"We're not going to put forth a strong effort to preserve any of its architectural qualities. That building operates in the red, and it cannot be preserved as it is because it is no longer usable as it is. We may have to change a little bit of the roof (most people hate the roof anyway); we will certainly keep the stage house, [but] we may have to break out of it in some places. It will not be a restoration; a restoration would put it back as a 5,000-seat theatre, and no one wants a 5,000-seat theatre," says Bell with a laugh.

Placating concerns of some Palmer-lovers who may see wholesale renovations as a lack of respect for the large turtle-like building that basks on the south shores of Town Lake, Bell is equally clear that the renovation ultimately will save the look and feel of the 1950s-era facility. "In our selection of the architects, we tried to look for an architect that would be sensitive to the building," he notes. "And some architects simply do not design in the style that that building is. I think what you will see in the finished product will be reminiscent of the Fifties. I think you'll see a lot of the traces of the true period of that building expressed again, but you won't see a 1950s building. You'll see touches of the Fifties -- the way you see Art Deco sometimes appearing in contemporary architecture. We will have a contemporary structure."

The renovation of Palmer is one facet of what Bell, and other longtime Austin architects, have sought for many years: a way to restore Central Austin to a vibrant focal point of city life, melding arts and entertainment, corporate and municipal operations, and plenty of housing, all the while creating what Bell calls a "Millennium City." "Sinclair [Black] and I were both thinking about the revitalization of downtown," Bell says, "then I got active with the Heritage Society, and Sinclair got active with downtown merchants, and we both were sort of working toward this vision of maintaining a historic nature of Austin but pushing Austin forward into good design and into a sensible city with people living downtown. Now that's being really picked up on by the mayor and the council. So I want to see the historic nature of Austin preserved, but I want Austin to really come to the front as a Millennium City.

"We're growing so rapidly that now is our opportunity to really do something architecturally significant. That doesn't mean wiping out the old. We can hang onto a lot of the old. [For example,] the Convention Center has taken out a lot of, quote, historic warehouse space, but I think we've got a lot of good product for it, and it's being respectful of Congress Avenue and Sixth Street. We've sort of set up corridors -- our favorite word around here is corridors -- we've got view corridors and historic corridors, everything is a corridor, we've sort of designated [them].

"Actually, I was the first chairman of the Historic Landmarks Commission and was instrumental in getting the Landmarks Ordinance written for Austin under Lowell Lebermann. We began to designate that historic structures were not to be violated unless there was no alternative. There's a lot of vacant land that we can build on without having to destroy existing structures, [while we] incorporate those structures in [new construction projects]. And that is what I think we are doing with Palmer Auditorium. We could have gone outside of Austin, to Round Rock or somewhere else, and had a performing arts center, but we chose this building because it's there, it's underutilized, but primarily because it's so beautifully located to everyone in Austin. It's not in North Austin, it's not in South Austin; it really is a central facility. And the circulation to and from it is good, for people coming in from Round Rock and San Marcos, and 290 to the west and 71 to the east; it really is right dead center: It's almost the hub of the spoke."

Bell is clearly excited -- albeit in his reserved manner -- about the success of the project, and the new things he has learned while coordinating the many sides to the process. The first, he jokes, is "not to volunteer!" More to the point, Bell the audience member had to understand that what is seen on stage must have a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes support. "I never knew as much about performing arts centers," he admits. "I never knew as much about the requirements of the operation of one. It's not just a stage and an audience. There's an awful lot of backstage work, there's an awful lot of space that has to be dedicated, not just to make-up and wigs, but to rehearsal spaces, to set design to moving sets, to storage. You look and you think, "Gosh they could put three theatres in here and still have room left over.' And then you start looking at circulation."

Bell sighs. "It's been a learning process. Everything is. It is a costly building type and one of the most complicated building types that I know of because of all of the disciplines that it bears on: acoustics, of course, being one of the primary ones; sightlines another; creature comforts for the actor and the visitor. And working with city bureaucracy and a park, and working with so many different entities who all have different ideas of what they want their city to be like. And pulling all that together has been a real experience. Frustrating at times, but good, too."

Volunteerism, to Bell, is the linchpin of a successful enterprise, no matter the size, and particularly when it comes to the arts. "Every one of the arts groups in Austin that have been successful have been primarily successful because of the volunteers that they've had. They've had professional leadership, certainly, but the professional leadership with the funds they had could not have accomplished what they did without the volunteers. Architecture sort of falls under this, too: Historic preservation never would have gotten to where it is if there hadn't been historical societies. The San Antonio Conservation Society or the Heritage Society of Austin, people like that who simply have a real burning interest and a civic-mindedness that they would bring something great to their city but that they were also doing something great for society -- society meaning the preservation of our time period. I think [that with the Long Center] we're doing something really important for our time period and for the next 50 years, at least."

On December 2, in recognition of his vision for a preserved, yet forward-looking, Austin, the Heritage Society of Austin will honor Bell with the Sue and Frank McBee Visionary Award. The award, now in its fourth year, honors individuals who have shown a longstanding commitment to historical preservation in the Greater Austin area. Previous winners include Lady Bird Johnson, Roberta Crenshaw, Janet Long Fish, Beverly Sheffield, and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock for projects ranging from the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail to the Texas State Cemetery. The unassuming architect finds himself in some rather famous company.

"I couldn't be more pleased that the award is going to Wayne Bell," beams Gregory Free, Heritage Society president and longtime Bell fan. "For someone so extroverted and gregarious he's extremely modest about his contribution to Austin and the entire historic preservation community in Texas over the last three decades. His vision has so many levels: He could take the smallest historic site and envision its importance to all of Texas history, and treat that site with as much importance as the Alamo. And that is what preservation is all about: recognizing the individual stories of Texas. He's a charming person," continues Free, "and people have come to preservation that would never have come without Wayne's charm."

Christina Read, executive director of ARTS Center Stage, echoes Free's praise in her assessment of Bell's importance and humility: "I think that he is obviously an excellent architect. But he is a wonderful leader because he listens so well. He is able to draw on the people that have the knowledge that he doesn't or that he is limited. He draws on Chris [McCollum's] expertise in set design to understand how [scenery] works, how it moves. He draws on Melissa Eddy [a board member of ACS] to talk about the requirements of vocal groups of the city. He is a good team manager. He has a wonderful demeanor, as far as his knowledge of preservation. Plus, he's just a delight to work with. He's so dedicated. He has spent literally hundreds of hours on a volunteer basis making sure that this is running smoothly. He brings the best out of everyone -- that's Wayne. He's retired you know," says Read, with a knowing smile, then quickly adds, "but this has become his full-time job."

"I'm still practicing a little bit," he admits. Or at least, "I'm trying to practice. I've got drawings on my board over here that I'm not paying attention to, and I have calls: "When am I going to have these things ready?' What's next for me? I'll probably see this project through. And then I have no clue. I'm not particularly interested in taking on another big project that is as time-consuming as this one. I love it, but sometimes ..."

Looking at the Long Center through a long-term lens, Bell sees a stepping stone to further artistic expansion. "From this is going to grow a symphony hall, probably. I don't think that the symphony will always stay at the Long Center; they'll grow into [a venue that is] theirs. We may have an opera house." And so on, as Austin develops into Bell's Millennium City.

"I think the real [challenge] that we have right now is trying to do everything on budget and on time, because we cannot afford to let any of the arts groups have a dark night. We're committed to anyone who is really depending on this place to keep their season going -- we're going to have to try to dance to that drum. We can't wait until 2002 and say we're not going to be [finished] in 2003, so that's why the architectural planning is so critical right now. We have to project, we're trying to project four years down the road, and we're trying to guess what cost escalation is going to be, we're trying to guess what the building scene is going to look like. Are we going to get the contractors? Are we going to have the crafts people? Is the economy going to stay where it is? Is the audience growth going to project and continue the way the symphony, opera, and the ballet and the small groups are thinking that it will? Are their dreams [feasible], like the academies that they all want to have, bringing the schoolchildren in and training future generations [of artists]? We've got to plan for that. And it's all just a big question, not knowing. But that's sort of the fun of it, too. It's sort of like playing the stock market, hopefully it's going to keep going the way it is. Of course," laughs Bell, "we depend on the stock market.

"Not everyone can be involved in the transformation of Palmer into the Long Center, but everyone can be involved in their individual arts groups, and supporting them because they support what we're doing," says Bell, returning to his theme of volunteerism. As long as Austin's population supports arts groups of all varieties and sizes, the architect sees that support blossoming, affecting, positively, all of Austin's arts organizations and artists. The Long Center, to Bell, is right in the middle, literally and figuratively, of such a thriving arts scene. "We are not sitting up here like something separate, we're depending on the others to be successful and to grow, so that what we're doing, they can use." end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Robi Polgar
<i>National Geographic: Symphony for Our World</i>
National Geographic: Symphony for Our World
The breathtaking natural history footage combined with live symphonic performance sent a noble message: Save the Earth

Aug. 3, 2018

Review: 2018 Austin Chamber Music Festival
Review: 2018 Austin Chamber Music Festival
How the Attacca Quartet, Emerson Quartet, and invoke played

July 17, 2018


wayne bell, sinclair black, ut school of architecture, palmer auditorium, joe r. long, teresa lozano long, joe r. and teresa lozano long center for the performing arts, arts center stage, heritage society of austin, winedale, winedale historical center, w

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle