KERI LEIGH, CURATOR
“Since we are renting the home, getting the mold repaired is the owner’s responsibility.” Leigh explains. “Mold remediation can be a costly and time-consuming process, and even if the owner takes care of it quickly, there is a strong possibility that the mold could return in a few weeks or a few months. Until the source of moisture that causes mold to grow is completely eliminated, mold will always come back. That’s the unfortunate nature of the beast.”“Being from out of town, we were unfamiliar with the flooding history of St. George Street when we moved here.” Leigh explains. “No one told us. It wasn’t until after we arrived that we learned of the St. George Street Drainage Project and the flood control measures the city is taking. We’re so happy that the city of Gonzales is making strides towards bringing commerce back to this street and has great plans for it in the future. We’d like to be a part of that growth, but how long the repair process will take could decide the fate of our museum. With mold growing in the house at an alarming rate, we can’t wait several more months for work on the street project to be completed. There’s just no way.”“Of course we totally understand that these delays are beyond the city’s control.” She says. “I share their frustration. This has been one of the rainiest seasons on record, and work on the street drainage project has had to be extended due to soil instability on St. George Street. All the recent rains have only made the situation worse for everybody: the city work crews, the business owners, and the residents here. Just recently we had nine straight days of rain, and I saw for myself just how serious the flooding problem is. We had rainwater ponding all around our property, and the street itself looked like a small lake. My greatest concern is that water may be collecting under the house’s foundation, and that’s the most likely source of this mold growth inside the structure.”“So now we are faced with two choices: either repair the mold in the home and wait for the city to complete the St. George Street Drainage Project, or move to another location immediately, either in Gonzales or Austin or elsewhere.”Leigh said the museum board would consider another location in Gonzales because they like the city and want to have the museum located here.“We have met some great people,” said Leigh. “We’d like to help this town thrive because everybody benefits. We want to help bolster the local economy with more historic tourism. Most of our visitors come from outside the state of Texas and all over the world. These are serious film fans and history buffs. They would love Gonzales and all it has to offer. We came here to open a wonderful museum for the people of Gonzales, and that is exactly what we are determined to do. One way or another. There just has to be a solution.”
One of the challenges they are facing is that wherever the museum is located, it also needs to accommodate living quarters since there are two live-in caretakers of the residence and collections. The historic home they are now in is just under 1,500 square feet, which she said is the minimum needed to house the museum and private living spaces.Time, too, is another factor. They are hoping to find some resolution to this problem in the next few weeks because the museum’s priceless artifacts, as well as their own personal property is at risk.Both Leigh and the home’s caretaker Greg Jackson have been suffering mold-related health problems over the past few humid and rain-soaked weeks, and they know they can’t stay in a home riddled with toxic mold. They want to get the museum up and running as soon as possible, a big reason being to generate much-needed income.
“We need something resolved in the next couple of weeks,” said Jackson. “The museum is losing money in admission fees, donations, and gift shop sales every day it remains closed.”“We’re not in a financial position to delay the museum’s opening, or even to turn right around and move again,” Leigh stressed. “We are actually now over-budget with all the unexpected flood control project delays and now this toxic mold crisis. We didn’t see it coming, but the situation is what it is, and we somehow have to deal with it.”” Things were finally looking up again,” said Jackson. “We’d found what seemed like the perfect new location to invest in, and now this. It’s a disaster.”“We’re not independently wealthy people who have a private museum as our personal little lark,” Leigh laughed. “This certainly isn’t the Guggenheim Museum, or the Smithsonian. It’s a very small, humble museum run out of our own home. We both work for a living to make ends meet, just like everybody else. The museum has always been something we do as a hobby part-time, a passion of ours that we love to share with others. We do it for educational and cultural enrichment, not financial. This is our service to the community. It’s how we give something back.”
The two moved here January 1st from Austin, where the museum had been located inside their private residence for several years before finally moving into a larger building. After a flood wiped out the entire downstairs of the structure where the museum was located, the search began for a new place in 2007. The nationwide search took more than 2.5 years.The very high property values in Austin proved too much for their small budget. They even looked in California and Denver, Colo., the birthplace of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (Jackson is also a Denver native) but found the property costs even higher there than in Texas. In the end, they decided to come to the Gonzales are because a longtime friend of the museum suggested it could be a good location with reasonable rent and a nice, historic atmosphere.
After paying a visit in December, they decided to take the leap and secured the house in Gonzales. They packed a moving truck and headed to Gonzales with high hopes of having a new place to live and re-opening their museum which had not had a permanent home for close to three years.Everything seemed to be on track, said Leigh, and then they discovered the mold problem inside the house, leading to their current situation. “The home was completely renovated before we moved in, and for the first week or so all we could smell was fresh paint. It wasn’t until the rains came in mid-January that we began to notice that unmistakeable, dreaded smell of mold. We experienced it after the flood and know mold when we smell it. We just looked at each other and smacked our foreheads saying, `oh no, not again! Is this a bad dream?'”
But both stressed they’d like to remain in Gonzales if at all possible. Leigh and Jackson said though their private museum is about the film industry, it’s also about vital American history and they think that could be a good fit with Gonzales.“It brings a bit of Tinseltown glamour to the city. It boosts the local arts and culture scene, something that I feel will be a hit both with locals and tourists. There are so many talented people here, and a surprisingly vibrant artists community for such a small town. I could easily envision Gonzales eventually becoming another Fredericksburg, or Luckenbach, or Gruene, small towns famous not just for their history, but for music, theatre, art and cultural attractions. Which in turn generates a great deal of prestiege and revenue for the city.”Leigh also points out that Gonzales is one of a handful of small cities which has two theatres, something which excites her because showing silent films has become very popular across America.“We would love to do regular screenings of silent films, as well as help sponsor children’ theatre workshops for kids who are interested in acting and the arts at both the Lynn and Crystal Theatres.” She explains. “Our goal is to partner with the local arts groups; to give presentations at the local schools, working with them to schedule field trips and group tours to the museum. Douglas Fairbanks’ biggest fans during his lifetime were children – he was every little boy’s hero, and we know the kids will love his movies. His appeal is timeless, even if his films are more than 80 years old. A love of the arts starts at an early age, and if you learn an appreciation for classic films as a youngster, you’ll love them all your life.”In fact, it was the silent films Leigh watched as a child which led to her own appreciation of the art form and her eventual decision to start the Douglas Fairbanks Museum. In her research, Leigh said she discovered almost all of the great stars of the silent film era had museums, with the glaring exception of Fairbanks. He was a pioneer in the movie industry and literally helped shape that industry in the multi-billion dollar mammoth is has become today.“Besides writing, producing, and starring in more than 35 now-classic films, Fairbanks also founded the nation’s first film school at the University of Southern California, helped to build Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and served as it’s first president, hosted the first Academy Awards in 1929, among so many other accomplishments. His vast contributions to the film industry are too important to be forgotten,” Leigh stresses.That, said Leigh, was a driving force in founding the museum. They have since collected many artifacts from the silent movie era documenting Fairbanks’ remarkable life and career, all exhibited at the museum. They have roughly 1,200 artifacts which are displayed, including rare movie posters, original still photographs, programs, props and other memorabilia.Leigh, who is classically trained as a musician, journalist and historian, also worked at Austin’s O. Henry House Museum for six years. It was there she honed her knowledge of the preservation and display of rare artifacts, interpretation and narrative of history, as well as caring for and preserving historic structures, a skill that certainly comes in handy as she is forced to evaluate the effects of mold on a century-old home.“It’s such a great old house,” she muses, looking wistfully around the mold-damaged home on St. George Street. “These old Victorians were built to last by craftsmen who not only made them functional, but works of art. I love this place and would like to see it saved. Of course there is still be hope for the home if repairs are made quickly and the street drainage project completed, but we may not be able to stay in the home long enough to see that come to pass. Unfortunately, our first concern has to be the museum’s collections, our health, and the health of the visitors. So if we have to move out, it will be terribly sad, but that’s what we may have to do.”“All I know is that we have to do something soon,” Jackson adds urgently. “Time is of the essence in the battle against mold. Given all these factors and variables, our fastest option may be to move to another building. How we’re going to do that, or where we’re going to go, I have no idea. I just hope the community of Gonzales will come to our aid and lend a helping hand.”For now, what will happen next remains a mystery. They are hoping there may be an affordable, mold-free historic house or downtown commercial property available which they could utilize as a home and place for the museum, and that some kind of emergency relocation grant or funding may be available to offset the costs.“Perhaps there is a property owner out there reading this who would be willing to donate use of their property as a substantial tax write-off and that there are some incentives available to them from the city, county, or state for doing so” says Leigh. “Hopefully, someone would be at least willing to negotiate a rental at a substantial discount that we can afford. There are always options when people come together with a common goal and work towards a solution. I’ve seen it happen before and it’s amazing what people can do when they put their hearts and minds into something.“We made a concious decision to relocate the museum to Gonzales because we love the amazing history of this town and we see the potential of what it can become in the future,” she says. “We’re willing to work very hard to help make that happen. We’ve invested in Gonzales – now we’re hoping Gonzales will invest in us.”Anyone who might have a solution or who would like to volunteer with the effort can call the Douglas Fairbanks Museum at 830-444-0523 or visit them online at DouglasFairbanks.org.