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Waco funds study of Decker Johnson Hall to determine path for preservation
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Waco funds study of Decker Johnson Hall to determine path for preservation

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An engineering study of William Decker Johnson Hall on the former Paul Quinn College campus in East Waco will reveal how much it will take to restore the almost 99-year-old building.

The Waco City Council approved $50,000 for Quinn Campus Inc., the organization in charge of the campus, to have a structural assessment done of the four story building. William Sydney Pittman, a famous Black architect and son-in-law of Booker T. Washington, designed the building for the historically Black college that left Waco for Dallas in 1990.

“The city acknowledged the historical relevance and importance of the former Paul Quinn campus, and wanted to do their part in ensuring all measures are taken to preserve that rich history,” Quinn Campus Inc. Director Josette Ayres said.

Ayres said the study will evaluate how structurally sound the building is after sitting empty for decades, and how much work it will take to make it useable again. The next step for Quinn Campus Inc. will be a community discussion with local groups interested in helping pay for the restoration, along with discussions about potential uses for the building after it is restored.

“We’ve been in talks with community partners and other parties that are interested, so we have a broad idea of some potential uses, but we certainly want the community’s input on how they would like to see the building used and what they would like to see represented in the building,” Ayres said.

Decker Johnson Hall

Quinn Campus Director Josette Ayres looks over William Decker Johnson Hall in June. She said she will meet soon with an engineering firm to lay out a timeline for a study of the building and what it may take to restore it.

She said she will meet with representatives from JQ Engineering and establish a timeline for the study sometime in the next two weeks.

Ayres said the building could house any combination of a local African American history museum, educational services, workforce training or potentially even a Paul Quinn College satellite campus. Before the college departed, it used the building over the years as a library, dorm and classroom space.

District 1 Waco City Council Member Andrea Barefield, whose district includes the campus, said Paul Quinn College was one of the “anchor institutions” of her district, and that she has been discussing the possibility of a satellite campus with Paul Quinn officials since she started running for office in 2018.

“I’ve said from the beginning that if Paul Quinn can have a satellite campus in Plano, they can come home,” Barefield said.

Decker Johnson Hall

A photo shows Decker Johnson Hall when it was being used as a library by Paul Quinn College.

She said a restored Decker Johnson Hall could also be useful for local organizations like Upskill Waco and Prosper Waco.

Over the summer, a group of researchers and college students sent by the Texas Historical Commission spent 10 weeks researching the building’s history and its role in the community.

Jamie Crawley, an architect and design lead for the Texas Main Street program, said their role is to provide free design assistance and guidance for historical preservation. In this case, he said he would recommend the building be designated as a historical landmark at the local and possibly national level.

“Because of the campus’ importance, the site’s importance, the building’s importance and the architect who is responsible for it, I think all are definitely things we would like to see,” Crawley said.

Crawley said as an architect with a background in preservation he found himself appreciating details, including basement-level windows that were bricked in long ago. He said a preservation project would probably involve restoring those features to their original state.

“From the things I was able to see, that all looks feasible,” he said. “The glass, the wood, it’s all still there.”

Decker Johnson Hall

An upcoming study will give officials an idea of what it will take to restore Decker Johnson Hall on the former Paul Quinn College campus. The 1923 building, which backs up to Garrison Street, has remained vacant since the college left for Dallas in 1990.

He said there was also a series of arches on the building’s exterior forming a sheltered outdoor area, also bricked up at some point in the past.

“A lot of those things could be restored, and the exterior really could harken back to the way Pittman originally designed the building, even with a new use,” Crawley said. “Those are exciting to see.”

Crawley said the team interviewed former students and looked through their yearbooks to find images of the building when it was in use.

He said Pittman also designed a women’s dorm that sat opposite Decker Johnson Hall, until the dorm burned down in the 195os. Pittman is considered the first Black architect in Texas and designed several buildings throughout the state, Crawley said.

“It’s not easy for anybody to get a building built, and then the work he has is really impressive,” Crawley said. “For that to be a history and a story that people don’t know is just wrong. I think a lot of people in our industry are recognizing this is a part of the story that needs to be told.”

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