Marfa and Presidio County Museum continues to serve visitors despite failing structure

Marfa Museum board member Terry Norman assesses cracks in the walls and ceilings in the Duncan photography room at the Marfa and Presidio County Museum. The historic adobe building is awaiting restoration after the city allocated nearly a quarter million dollars for the repair. Photo by Hannah Gentiles.

MARFA — The Marfa and Presidio County Museum located in the center of Marfa off of Highway 90 operates out of a historic adobe structure that remains in grave need of repair. While the city allocated $218,556.51 this budget cycle to restore the Marfa mainstay, much progress has yet to be realized, and the museum has blocked off two rooms to prevent further structural damage to the site. 

Without the Marfa and Presidio County Museum, decades of Marfa and the surrounding region’s history would be lost to time. The museum’s ever-growing collection of local artifacts spans vast subject matter, including ranching, mining, geology, military and, of note, archives of three early photographers that documented the region.

Because the museum building is owned by the city but leased to the museum, obtaining bids from firms qualified to repair the structure is the responsibility of the city. An earlier attempt to repair the structure, which cost the city $50,000, failed within a year. City officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The museum runs out of the Humphris-Humphreys House, a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark built in 1883 by local builder Saturnino Naborette. So named for its previous owners, John and Mary Humphris, then later Sally Humphreys, the adobe building is an example of traditional building methods utilized by adoberos indigenous to the region. A central hallway leads to four rooms on either side, and an extension was later added on to the main structure. 

The building has been on the decline for years and remains in need of both interior and exterior repairs. The rear east side of the original building is sinking due to exposed adobe getting wet and disintegrating. As a result, interior walls and ceilings appear to be separating and cracking, and wood floors are sloping. In order to keep weight off of the fragile area, display cabinets have been moved forward, acting as barriers for museum goers, closing off sections of the Duncan photography and medical artifact displays. Some items have been moved into the main hallway so they can still be appreciated by guests. 

Museum board member Terry Norman said it is frustrating not being able to offer the full experience for visitors, especially the Duncan photography room, which is one of his favorites as a photographer himself.

“I’d like to get repairs done and get the museum back 100% so people can get everything out of it. We’re missing two rooms here,” said Norman.

In an effort to prevent further damage to the historic adobe, the city has recently replaced shingles on the roof and a portion of sheetrock in the ceiling of the storage room where a rain leak caused a large hole. They also patched holes near the gutter along the east wall where rain was reaching the exposed adobe wall and placed a piece of flashing along the roof near the gutter to divert water from landing along the deteriorating east wall.

Due to the structure’s protected historical status, restoring the property will require the museum board and city to navigate specific rules and requirements laid out by the Texas Historical Commission. By law, if there is to be any exterior work performed on the building, the THC must be notified 60 days prior to any changes being made. Further detailed proposals and reports will also be needed. Due to the highly sensitive nature of the repairs, finding the right person for the job is the initial challenge. The city will likely seek help from out of town. The THC works frequently with a number of architecture firms in the state that specialize in historic preservation that could potentially be tapped for the project.

“Once we start this project, we really need people to look at it, assess what needs to be done, and the best way to do it. These people need to be historic architects, not just some contractor that works on buildings,” said Marfa Museum Board Vice President and Secretary Mary Williams. 

Williams, who also chairs the Jeff Davis County Historical Commission, has ample experience working closely with the THC and said they are still in the very early stages of the repair process. The building’s roof is also of concern, said Williams, and the board hopes to work closely with the city to fortify the historic home so it will last well into the future. 

In heated budget discussions this fall, council members debated whether or not to tear down the museum to create an entirely new building, but ultimately opted to allocate nearly a quarter million dollars to repair the existing adobe.

For now, the museum remains open six days a week and is free for visitors. In addition to donations and profits from the Marfa Museum Thrift Store, the museum also regularly receives funding from the city in the form of hotel occupancy tax grants. Those grants help the museum stay open Monday through Wednesday to offer more options for tourists.

“The city has been very generous in helping us keep the museum open,” said Williams. 

Important work to preserve and catalog the museum’s photographic archives is ongoing. The entity was gifted the archival collections and life’s work of regional photographers Nancy and Jimmy Keith, famous for their portraiture, as well as Frank Duncan, who documented landscapes of the Big Bend using panoramic photography. The Duncan collection, over 2,200 early 20th century glass negatives, has been fully digitized and is stored in fireproof cabinets at the museum. Nancy and Jimmy Keith’s archives are well on their way to receiving similar treatment, with Norman heading up the effort to recatalog and properly store their materials. 

Norman, who has been involved with the museum since July 2020, estimates he’s about a quarter of the way through transferring the Keiths’ negatives and proof sheets from old, ragged envelopes to new dustproof, waterproof storage binders. The duo mostly shot portraits, specifically of local military personnel in the ‘40s and onward, as well as scenes of Marfa businesses, sports games, classrooms and birthday parties. 

The two latest additions to the museum’s collection of local historic antiquities are a prohibition-era radio bar that belonged to Colonel James Blackwell, a surgeon stationed at Fort DA Russell in 1938, and an original prop created for the movie Giant.

The holding pattern the museum has found themselves in while awaiting repairs is making progressing in other areas difficult. Norman said he’d like to attract more local and repeat visitors, but because they don’t rotate out exhibits, there’s no incentive to return. The ample archives and historic photographs containing everything from early images of Sul Ross’ campus to ranch life could increase foot traffic, but with the Duncan room partially closed there’s not a good space to show unseen works, said Norman.

“We could maybe change things up where people come to see the gallery of the day or whatever. But unfortunately it’s this room here, which is shut off. So that’s what’s got me so frustrated. We gotta get the museum fixed and open up again so we can get something going here,” said Norman. 

Updated: A previous version of this story stated the city budgeted over half a million dollars to the building’s repair. In 2021-2022, the city allocated $218,556.51.