September 30, 2013

[Interview] Former First Lady Laura Bush's Vision for Historic Preservation

  • By: Lauren Walser

Laura W. Bush, former First Lady. Credit: George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum
Laura W. Bush, former First Lady

When I spoke with Laura Bush for the Fall 2013 issue of Preservation, she told us quite a lot about her lifelong interest in history and her commitment to preserving America’s historic sites as First Lady of Texas and later during her eight years in the White House.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t include it all in the space we had -- but we also couldn’t deny our readers from learning all she had to share. So we’ve included an expanded version of our interview here, for your reading pleasure.

Midland County Courthouse postcard. Issued between 1930-1945. Credit: Boston Public Library, Flickr
Midland County Courthouse postcard (c. 1930-1945)

Thinking back on your childhood in Midland, Texas, what is your earliest, or most vivid, memory of being in a place that you knew was special?

The building that was special in Midland was the county courthouse. It was in the very center of the city on a big, wide, green lawn, and there weren’t that many green lawns out there in West Texas. I went there as a young child with my mother, because the Midland County Public Library was in the basement of the county courthouse. That was very exotic because very few houses had basements in Midland, so it really was the only basement that I had ever been in. And you could imagine what it was like walking down those stairs as a little girl: kind of dark, shelves full of books. It was always a lot of fun for me. And of course going to the library with my mother meant we would come home with lots of stories to read, and that made it even more fun.

That courthouse is still there in the middle of Midland, Texas, although the library is no longer there. They built a separate library building in the ’50s. Then I was just back a few weeks ago in Midland, for the opening of their newest library, which is in a shopping center, sort of a big shopping strip. It was one of the big box stores and now it’s this great big, very attractive public library. But the county courthouse stayed important to us, really, for the rest of our lives. That’s where George, when he moved back to Midland in the early ’70s, went to read records, and it’s where George and I went to get our marriage license.

It’s interesting in Midland because they are considering selling the county courthouse property. And they did redo the courthouse, I think in the ’70s or maybe slightly earlier, so the facade is nothing like it was. It’s not historic. But right now Midland County is talking about selling the old building. I actually rode with the county judge through Midland when I went back for the new library opening and said that I didn’t think that was a great idea, but I don’t know if I was very persuasive.

Close-up of a Texas Historical Commission plaque. Credit: Trevor.Huxham, Flickr
Close-up of a Texas Historical Commission plaque

As First Lady of Texas, you were instrumental in establishing a number of preservation programs. What inspired you to take on historic preservation as a cause?

I’ve always been interested in history. My mother loved reading history books, especially of the Southwest, so I got that interest from her. George was interested in history, too -- that was what his degree was in from Yale. So it seems like reading history has been a part of my life for my whole life.

And of course, as you probably know, Texans are very proud of their history. We took Texas history in fourth grade and again in seventh grade, so we knew the names of the early characters in history. In fact, in Midland, our elementary schools were named for heroes of the Alamo. Our junior highs were named for the battles of the Texas revolutions. History was something we really grew up with.

And when George became governor, I had the opportunity to visit historic sites all over the state. The Texas Main Street program was already very active. We had a very strong Texas Historical Commission with terrific historians. And so I immediately started going on tours as First Lady of Texas. Every year, I went to the Main Street cities, and I remember those very fondly: visiting those towns, and in many cases walking the actual main street around their courthouse, and seeing those cities that tried in many ways to revitalize their small downtowns as people moved out and mom-and-pop stores closed.

Tell us about the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation program.

George really founded that. One of our historic courthouses had burned, and [the state legislators] realized how important all the courthouses are. Every county has one, and everyone who’s my age really remembers the courthouse in their town. In fact, [when I was younger] people used to drive around the county courthouse square on Friday nights. That’s just what kids did, especially in smaller towns that didn’t have a drive-in restaurant like we did in Midland.

So because we had lost that one historic courthouse, it spurred the Texas legislature and our strong Texas Historical Commission to spread the legislation, and with George as governor and Bob Bullock as lieutenant governor, who was also very interested in Texas history, the courthouse preservation program was started. And a lot of our courthouses have since been restored.

What people may not realize about courthouses is that they have archives of your county. That is where the births are recorded, and where the marriages are recorded, and where the deaths are recorded. With those old archives, those old papers and books, which are easy to be destroyed by both light and temperature, much less by fire, it’s really important to restore those archives and make sure they’re protected.

A crowd gathers in front of the Atascosa County Courthouse in Jourdanton, Texas, during the National Trust's "I Love Texas Courthouses" campaign in February 2013. Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
A crowd gathers in front of the Atascosa County Courthouse in Jourdanton, Texas, during the National Trust's "I Love Texas Courthouses" campaign in February 2013.

As First Lady of the United States, you helped create the federal initiative Preserve America. What did you hope to accomplish with this program?

Well when I came to the White House, of course, Save America’s Treasures had already been founded by the previous First Lady, and it’s a terrific program that saves specific American buildings, treasures, and archives. And so Preserve America was started really as a partner with Save America’s Treasures for smaller communities who might not ever get a Save America’s Treasures grant. They could be designated as a Preserve America community, and they could figure out what their historic assets are and how they could use those assets to spur their economy, teach people about the history of their communities, try to build a sense of pride in local history, so that we can raise young historians who will be stewards of all these precious American sites.

What is your vision for the future of the historic preservation movement in the United States?

I think it’s really important that everyone who’s interested in historic preservation work together to educate children. I’m afraid that American children really don’t know that much about American history and that we are not teaching American history in government and civics as much as we should to elementary and secondary students. It’s really important, I think, for us to know our history. If we know our history, then we value the things that people have left to us. And I think if we value what’s been left to us, then we’re much more likely to protect and preserve it.

And, of course, as communities expand and cities expand across our country -- I’m living in one right now, Dallas. It’s a great big city. We’ve lost already a number of our important, old buildings. And there is certainly a movement here to protect what’s left. But it’s important also to let people know why we should protect what we still have and figure out new uses for our old sites, as well as finding ways we can build our economy and help people, especially young people, know what’s important, what those buildings represent, and the lives they represent of the people who came before us.

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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