Rick Gardner, of Houston, traveled the streets of Victoria and surrounding towns from 1973 to 1975 photographing houses built around 1900. The architectural photographer navigated the towns with the Handbook of Texas and an enormous roll of Texas county topographical maps. He pulled up to houses and shot his photographs with a bulky, accordion-style, large-format view camera. The old-style camera was still best for shooting architectural photographs at that time.

More than 160 of the images grace the pages of “All the Houses Were Painted White,” a hardbound coffee table book that also includes a brief history of each house contributed by Gary Dunnam, a local historian. The majority of the photographs in the book were taken in Victoria, but many also were taken in Cuero, Gonzales, Hallettsville, Schulenburg, Goliad and Beeville.

Gardner photographed old houses in Cuero at the urging of his friend, Charles Schorre, an artist from Cuero. He used those images to apply for a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which he received to photograph old houses in cities including Austin, Houston and Corpus Christi. His journey that started in Cuero led him to photograph many houses throughout the Golden Crescent.

The Texas A&M University Press published the book, which will be released Sept. 23, is fitting. Gardner’s photographs and the press experienced a torrid past relationship. In 1980, Dunnam’s wife, Sharon Steen, who had met Gardner in the 1970s when he was photographing the area, delivered a box of Gardner’s prints and color transparencies to her contacts at the press in College Station. A year passed before Gardner discovered a package on his front stoop containing his “singed and curled” color transparencies. The old wood-frame house that served as the office for the press at that time had burned down, and though the transparencies were locked in a safe, the heat had ruined them. However, the black-and-white negatives were safe in Gardner’s files.

“I’m glad to see them finally out there after 40 years in my file,” Gardner said. “It’s time to get them out to the world.”

Gardner composed the introduction in the book, and Dunnam provided historical background for each house.

An extensive list of old houses and buildings did not exist in the 1970s, Gardner said. Only the spectacular houses had plaques relating their histories. Gardner wanted to photograph the houses that were old but not necessarily considered historical. Generally, Gardner recalled that residents living in the towns seemed perplexed that he wanted to photograph some of the old houses.

Although he found many treasures driving around, he also acknowledged that he missed many. Most of the houses he found, whether Classical Revival or Victorian-era, were painted white.

“In 1975, these houses were not anything special, ordinary people lived in them, and most of them were painted white or not painted at all like the Buhler house,” Gardner said.

Once Gardner selected the photographs for the book, Dunnam began to compile compositions he had either written or edited for the historical homes tours while he was the executive director of Victoria Preservation Inc. He and Steen also began traveling to the other towns to conduct more research. Altogether, the information he compiled and found filled almost a dozen binders.

Dunnam, who grew up in Big Springs, was surprised by the “wonderful architecture” when he visited Victoria for the first time. In 1971, he moved to Victoria to work for Frels Theatres and later Cinemark after Rubin Frels sold the local movie business in 1989.

“I was talking to Rubin, and I told him that I couldn’t believe it when I got here,” Dunnam said about the houses in Victoria. “He got tears in his eyes and said, ‘You should have seen it in the ‘30s and ‘40s,’ and that just wiped me away.”

The great news, Dunnam continued, is that many old houses, ranging from Victorian-era and Classical Revival to Craftsman-style, still exist in Victoria.

Of course, many people always are anxious to see the interiors of the elaborate mansions on the historical homes tours, he said. But they also are exposed to appealing small houses with high ceilings that they could imagine taking on as preservation projects.

“Fall is the best time to do book signings and sales because people are looking for Christmas gifts,” Dunnam said.

Those interested can pre-order the $40, almost 200-page book from Texas A&M or Amazon, among other online sites. Or they can stay tuned for book signings that Dunnam and Gardner intend to host at some point soon.

“In the era of Facebook and Instagram, this is a real, honest-to-God book with a hardcover, genuine good paper, interesting text and great, well-reproduced photographs,” Gardner said. “It’s a rare item these days.”

Elena Anita Watts covers arts, culture and entertainment for the Victoria Advocate.

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