How To Create a Successful Homes Tour During a Pandemic

by Julie Tereshchuk on August 4, 2020 in Lifestyle, Home, Austin,
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Who doesn’t love the tantalizing chance to peek inside other people’s homes and into their lives that a good homes tour offers?

Yet, fans of the sport lost that opportunity when the pandemic struck this spring, as one of the most anticipated annual events in Austin fell victim to the shelter-in-place order. Undaunted, Preservation Austin–led by Executive Director Lindsey Derrington—-has regrouped and Thursday, August 13 sees the premier of their first ever virtual homes tour, “Downtown Doorsteps.”

Lindsey Derrington, Preservation Austin Executive Director.. Apart from her Great Loves of preservation and the St. Louis Cardinals, Derrington is passionate about rescue dogs that behave better than her own, and finding a cure for spinal muscular atrophy. Courtesy photo

The 45-minute video will be followed by a live Q&A session with some of the boldface names of the Central Texas preservation scene. Tickets ($20) include digital access to five eclectic living spaces updated for 21st century living, from a mid-century high-rise with stunning views of the Texas Capitol, to a converted Congress Avenue storefront overlooking the Paramount Theatre.

With ticket sales under way, and with a turbulent year still unfolding, we wanted to hear from Derrington–a St. Louis native who still cheers on the Cardinals–the hows and the whys of this year’s tour, and its relevance to our 2020 lives.

The 1938 Art Moderne Brown Building was converted into condominiums in the late 1990s and today is a City of Austin Historic Landmark. The light-filled space on Preservation Austin’s homes tour retains its industrial feel with steel-framed windows, exposed electrical conduits and concrete pillars, and terrazzo floors.
Photo Leonid Furmansky

Why is preserving the built environment important in modern day Austin, especially in a year like 2020 when society has so much else to focus on?

Preservation Austin’s mission is to empower Austinites to shape a more inclusive, resilient, and meaningful community culture through preservation. That speaks to how relevant this movement is today, from a sustainability perspective (reusing buildings instead of throwing them away) and also one of social justice – when you work to preserve everyone’s built heritage, you affirm everyone’s role in our history, and in our future.

Being rooted in place, too, is more important now than ever. We all need to feel like we’re home, whether that’s feeling safe in our own homes or our shared sense of home as Austinites. From South Congress to old-school bars, from Red River Cultural District’s music venues to public spaces like Downs Field and Barton Springs. These historic places are such an important part of this city’s culture and identity. And that’s incredibly reassuring.

Joseph D. Sayers commissioned this gracious 1905 home by Page Brothers Architects soon after finishing his second term as governor of Texas. This City of Austin Historic Landmark’s gorgeous interiors retain extensive woodwork alongside the owner’s extensive art collection, which makes exploring this labyrinthine home on Rio Grande Street a pure pleasure. Photo Leonid Furmansky

Are there any advantages to having a virtual homes tour?

The film gives us the opportunity to present this year’s content in a really exciting way. Historic photographs, contemporary footage, and homeowner interviews will give viewers a dynamic, personal perspective on downtown’s history through the lens of these five amazing homes spanning the 1870s through the 1960s. You wouldn’t get this same experience during an in-person tour.

How does the team at Preservation Austin decide which properties to feature?

The tour was established in 1993 so we try to explore a new side of Austin each year. We celebrate the houses, but also encourage folks to explore their neighborhoods and origins – to put the homes and their histories in context. In past years we’ve distributed printed tour programs with maps of the houses along with local landmarks – bowling alleys and drive-ins for “Austin’s Postwar Boom,” Green Pastures and the Willie Wells House for “Bouldin Years.” 

Cambridge Tower embodied opulent urban living at the height of the Cold War. Floorplans in this fifteen-story residential tower, then the tallest in Austin, boasted names such as Envoy, Chancellor, and Premier with wall-to-wall carpeting in shades of “Gold” or “Martini.” The current owners have lived in their seventh-story “Viceroy” unit since 2002. Their home faces south and west with a wraparound balcony boasting stunning views of the Texas State Capitol and the UT Tower.
Photo Leonid Furmansky

How long is the homes tour planning process?

This is our highest-profile educational program and our biggest fundraising event. Our Homes Tour Committee meets in late summer to discuss potential themes, we spend the fall searching for homes, and then we work to produce the event over the course of winter and spring. The tour engages over one hundred volunteers, and homeowners do a huge amount of work to get ready.

I have to give massive props to this year’s committee and homeowners for sticking with us this summer! Everyone originally signed on for a spring event and should be resting on their laurels by now. Instead they’re working on overdrive to help us create this exciting, and totally new, kind of event for Preservation Austin. We get to work with some amazing people and I admire them so much.

This 1872 Congress Avenue jewel has lived many lives over the past 150 years, including numerous saloons and the Austin Chamber of Commerce. The current owner purchased the building in 2003 and embarked on a meticulous 2.5-year-long reconstruction. The tour will feature a third-story penthouse added during the restoration and a second story vacation rental, both with glorious views of the historic Paramount Theatre. Photo Leonid Furmansky

What is the main challenge of organizing a homes tour?

Finding the houses! It takes a special kind of person to welcome 1,000 strangers into their family’s home, and to see the value in sharing them with our community. The tour is so powerful because it connects people with historic spaces in such a personal way.

What else new and exciting is going on at Preservation Austin?

We’ve spent the last year working on the Streamlined Moderne landmark at 3805 Red River. We helped save this iconic house from demolition in 2014, and plan to move our nonprofit’s office there by 2022!

Buy your tickets now for Preservation Austin’s 28th Annual Homes Tour premiering Thursday, August 13 at 7:00 pm. 

Cover: Art work in a seventh-story Cambridge Tour home. Photo courtesy Leonid Furmansky

Julie Tereshchuk is Editor-in-Chief of Texas Lifestyle Magazine