The studio and residence of groundbreaking sculptor Elisabet Ney is 129 years old. That’s only four years younger than the Capitol, a building that’s received more than its fair share of attention over the past century and change — needless to say, not every building this old looks so good, and Ney’s castle-like limestone haunt has shown its age since before some local buildings we consider old now were even built.
Dubbed Formosa by Ney at the time of its construction in 1892, the studio and its picturesque surroundings located at 304 East 44th Street in the northeast corner of the Hyde Park neighborhood still serves as a living monument to the artist in the form of the city-owned Elisabet Ney Museum, perhaps not one of the city’s most prominent tourist attractions but certainly considered a local treasure — Ney’s career sculpting portraits of kings and Texan legends like Sam Houston reaches iconic status thanks to her unshakably modern persona, progressive in opposition to the norms of her era and a source of pride for locals as a reflection of our city’s own offbeat sensibilities.
Efforts to fix her place up here and there date back to at least the 1970s, if you can believe it — restoration work completed in the 1980s and small follow-up improvements since then have brought us the museum we know today, but since the formulation of a more comprehensive master plan for the site in 2007, we’ve seen little progress on some of these larger goals. That could finally change for the better in the next year or two, with the first phase of upgrades via the city’s Parks and Recreation Department now funded and scheduled for completion by 2023.
Considering the age and historic nature of the building, these improvements take an extremely light touch, since as a state landmark any modifications to the site require approval from the Texas Historical Commission rather than just the city’s own commissions, which as you might imagine requires paddling upstream through more layers of bureaucracy than usual. This first phase of the building’s restoration includes some back-of-house upgrades including a new archival-quality HVAC system to keep the museum’s art pieces safe from temperature-related damage, along with various masonry repairs and other exterior work to hopefully put an end to longstanding water penetration issues — a problem you might expect from a building that resembles a castle, rough-hewn stones and all. (The tower part of the building, easily its most iconic feature, was added in 1902. That’s long enough ago to be historic too!)
But the most visible update to the site will be a bridge on the north side of the building, crossing over the stretch of Waller Creek that bisects the Ney tract, designed to improve the museum’s accessibility. The current pedestrian bridge in this area is in poor condition and uses stairs in its design, which isn’t particularly friendly to wheelchair users, other mobility impairments, or even bikes. The new bridge, designed as part of the site’s larger restoration plan first drafted in 2018 by architecture firm the Lawrence Group, is designed for all abilities and features a low cosmetic profile to comply with the various historic considerations of the museum — the idea, per preservation guidelines, is to give these sorts of additions a look that absolutely no one would mistake for an original part of the historic site.
It’s hardly the sexiest upgrade we’ve ever seen, but that’s actually the whole point — the history of this site and the singular personality of its namesake both speak for themselves, and the purpose of the bridge as pointed out by its architects is simply to make the museum more accessible for people of all abilities to enjoy, which opens the site for additional events and other programming opportunities in the future. With recommendations secured from the city’s Design and Historic Landmark Commissions so far, work on these improvements could start by next summer.