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.

"People who have these kind of [commercial studio] businesses, eventually they begin to think, 'Well, all this stuff I have might have some historical worth,' " Reilly says. "But often they find out they have no real options…A lot of times it's a matter of 'Come get this off my hands before it gets thrown away in the dump.' That doesn't mean that people don't recognize the value of it, but they just don't have the ability to save it."

It looked like the Bailey collection would have to be sold for the photographic equivalent of scrap.

Then James P. Lee intervened.

Singing cowboy Gene Autry (center) gets a horse and a motorcycle escort in the 1942 rodeo parade.
Singing cowboy Gene Autry (center) gets a horse and a motorcycle escort in the 1942 rodeo parade.
It's 1950, and the girls of Weber's Superior Root Beer are ready to serve.
It's 1950, and the girls of Weber's Superior Root Beer are ready to serve.

Lee was a retired partner at the venerable law firm of Baker & Botts and a self-described "old-photo buff." He was helping track down photos for two books that were being written on the history of the firm.

"Old photos have been a hobby of mine for a long time," he says.

When he saw what the Bailey studios had on their walls and in their files, and what might be lost as Marvin retired, he tried to figure out how to save it.

"I kind of helped the Baileys keep it all going, because I didn't want to see the studio go out of business without some arrangements made for the preservation of it all," Lee says.

"They had been trying for years, at least ten years, to get various institutions in Houston to buy the collection," he says. "People appreciated it and thought it needed to be saved, but they just didn't have the money budgeted for it."

Eventually Lee formed a nonprofit organization, the Houston Photographic and Architectural Trust, designed primarily to purchase the pictures and find someone to donate them to. In a complicated transaction totaling about $400,000 -- some of the photos were made a gift by the Bailey studios, some were bought -- the trust took control of the collection in 1998 and donated it to UT, retaining the copyrights.

"It turned out to be fortuitous that no one in Houston was able to take it, because no organization in Houston would have been able to handle it properly," says Lee, who has provided most of the foundation's funds. ("I've never been much of a fund-raiser," he says.)

"When we found out that the collection could be donated, we were very interested," says Don Carleton, the director of the Center for American History. "We knew it was a wonderfully rich historical source, and it fits so well in our Texas historical collection."

"They regarded it as a collection that had not just local importance but national importance as well," Lee says.

There was no secret about the condition of the collection -- in fact, the Baileys were better than many such studios at keeping their negatives. But that says more about studios than about the Baileys, for the storage conditions were enough to make an archivist cringe.

The negatives -- including some glass negatives from the early days -- were placed in business envelopes, which, while they seem perfectly fine for day-to-day storage, contain plenty of acid that starts to eat away at the film.

Houston's crushing summers provided the high heat and humidity that are precisely the conditions archivists strive to avoid. Some boxes had, at some point, been flooded. Mildew and mold were growing on the envelopes and negatives.

"These things don't die -- the chemicals on them keep chemicalizing," says Linda Peterson, the center's photographs archivist. Some photos developed wet spots just from the change of temperature as they were moved about at the center, she says.

Dune, the conservation expert, was called in to look at a sampling of boxes and assess the condition. There were lots of problems.

"Many boxes are dirty, with thick layers of dust," she noted in her report. "Opening these boxes tends to introduce dust inside. Others are so acidic they are falling apart, and many of them show humidity stains as evidence of flood damage. All such boxes need to be replaced with acid-free boxes."

Inside the boxes, the "housing" of the negatives was a major problem, she wrote. About 15 percent of the negatives were lying loose in the boxes, she said, and "most of the remaining negatives are stored in a collective envelope with as many as 10 or 25 (or even more) negatives in the same envelope." Some negatives were curling or showing "silvering" or abrasions. Some negatives were taped to the envelopes years and years ago; removing the tape would be tricky.

About one in ten of the negatives Dune examined were nitrate negatives from the 1930s. Nitrate negatives are flammable, she said -- all boxes should be searched and any nitrate negatives "should be separated from the rest of the collection…[and] copied as soon as possible and housed in cold storage."

About 13 percent of the sample consisted of color photography. "Color is always problematic," Carleton says. "Dyes fade. You almost have to freeze it, and that becomes a cost issue, and you have difficulties in providing access and dealing with the collection. And once the colors are gone, it's cost-prohibitive to restore them."

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