Scene's From A City's Soul

Houston failed to preserve much of its heritage. Now the fight is on to protect the priceless photographic images of that vanishing past from the same fate.

When Amy Braitsch thinks of Houston, she likely thinks of vinegar. And machine parts. And a black-and-white city of balloon-tired roadsters and crammed downtown sidewalks filled with people heading to the latest Clark Gable film.

And then she probably thinks of vinegar again.

Braitsch, a recent University of Texas graduate, spent much of last spring in a small room in Austin, tediously opening boxes and boxes filled with envelopes, envelopes that were filled with aging photographic negatives.

Main Street at Lamar, bustling in 1934: The Metropolitan became a parking lot before renewed development last year.
Main Street at Lamar, bustling in 1934: The Metropolitan became a parking lot before renewed development last year.
Bob and Marvin Bailey, shown in their studio sometime in the '60s, recorded a half-century of Houston life.
Bob and Marvin Bailey, shown in their studio sometime in the '60s, recorded a half-century of Houston life.

Like all such negatives that are kept in less-than-optimal conditions, the film had long ago begun to deteriorate, shrinking and becoming brittle. As it did so, the film produced an acid that evaporates into the air with a sharp vinegar odor.

Box after box -- 270 boxes, each about 18 inches long and a foot high and a foot wide -- were taken to the small room at UT's Center for American History, where Braitsch worked. For 19 hours a week, she donned white gloves and opened each box. Inside were smaller boxes and loose envelopes. When she opened those, she usually got a pungent whiff of vinegar.

She looked at hundreds of negatives. Then, as spring went on, she looked at thousands, handling each one, looking for extensive damage, setting aside the images that were most in need of repair. By the time fall arrived, she had handled hundreds of thousands of images.

And a stultifying number of those images were of…machine parts. Drill bits. Fan belts. Geological equipment. Thousands of pictures of shoes, or dresses, or purses, shot for catalogs.

"There were a lot of pictures of oil machinery," she says. "Lots of cogs and gears."

She kept plowing through, though. And every so often, something unusual would show up. Maybe it was Mae West standing beside her chauffeured Cadillac in Hermann Park.

Or a crowd of people straining to see the wonder that was the new downtown Foley's store.

Or a troop of fresh-faced volunteers marching down Main Street on their way to whatever World War II was to bring them.

Or an aerial shot of the empty prairie surrounding the newly built 610 Loop overpass at the Southwest Freeway, or the vast expanse of undeveloped grassland between the few buildings of the Medical Center and the new domed stadium going up south of town.

For passing through Braitsch's gloved hands each day was an unparalleled history of Houston as it grew from a small-town backwater burg in the 1930s to the sprawling, inchoate mess of today, the city that revels in stomping out every vestige of its past as it sees itself charging into a bright future.

Thrown together haphazardly in those boxes, mildewing from flood damage, decaying from improper storage in a barely air-conditioned tin building, were the 300,000 or so negatives that represent the life's work of Bob and Marvin Bailey.

For more than 60 years the two brothers had operated a photo studio in Houston, shooting anything for any client who hired them: business executives' portraits, industrial catalogs, business luncheons, construction sites, the new fleet of Fords, celebrities visiting on publicity junkets.

In some sense the photos show a city that is barely recognizable -- a teeming Main Street filled with theaters, newsstands and clothing stores looks like it has more in common with Chicago than with the sterile streets of today, under which pedestrians have fled for the air-conditioned tunnels below.

But much of what Houston was and what it remains shines through: the parochial pride in a new, "sophisticated" restaurant, or skyscraper, or store; the kids cheering at the rodeo parade (only this time with Gene Autry in the lead); the self- satisfied movers and shakers posing for grip-and-grins.

A few years ago everything that is in the collection, now known as the Bob Bailey Photographic Archive, was all but headed for the junkyard. The studio was closing, and the cost of preserving the negatives was too high for any local group to take on.

A lawyer and old-photo buff named Jim Lee came to the rescue, though, and donated the collection to UT's Center for American History.

The center has in recent years been making aggressive moves in the world of academic collecting, and is now home to such disparate items as the papers of author James Michener, newsman Walter Cronkite and more than 60 members of Congress; of The New York Times's clip morgue and Newsweek's internal file archives, and the collections of former official White House photographer David Hume Kennerly and Flip Schulke, the unofficial photographer of Martin Luther King Jr.

Such aggressiveness comes at a price -- at times the center seems to have bitten off more than it can chew, as it tries to organize and save and make accessible such a wide range of history.

It has had the Bailey collection for three years now. And while storage conditions are infinitely better -- especially when one considers how close the negatives came to heading for the city dump -- they need improvement. It will take years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, to make the history of Houston that the photos represent safe and readily available to researchers and the public.

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