Guy Giersch is the historic preservation officer for McKinney and a photographer who captures the essence of a building through light and shadow. Giersch has been involved in historical reenactments of Civil War cavalry battles and taught science for 18 years. When he saw the interconnectivity between science and history, he went back to school to specialize in historic preservation. Giersch gives historic walking tours in Historic Downtown McKinney.
Why is it important to preserve a city’s history?
Well, there’s a great statement made by a well-known historic preservation person. His name is James Marston Fitch, and he stated that the historic city is a visible record of an endless chain of human responses to both the ongoing need for change and to such periodic cataclysms that includes fires, floods and war. I’d liken that to a scene to Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” where the mother is packing up to leave the Dust Bowl in the panhandle of Oklahoma. She has a cigar box, and she’s putting mementos in it, and mementos are things like a seashell you pick up on the beach when you’re on vacation, and you stick it in your chest of drawers at home, and you keep that, and every time you happen to bump into it, it reminds you of the beach. Historic preservation’s like that. Anyways, the mother was packing this box, and her friend said to her why are you packing all the junk with you? That’s my paraphrase. The mother said very simply, “How will they know it is us without our past?” So I think historic preservation is very critical. I’m very prejudice of course. I feel very strongly about the importance and the significance of historic preservation in a community. There’s a lot of books and articles that have been written over the years discussing this importance to people. It creates this sense of place. I quite often ask people I take on historic walking tours, I say, “Close your eyes. You’re on vacation. Where’d you go?” And I bring up some cities that I don’t feel too many people would pick to go on vacation. People tend to pick places of beauty that touches them.
What are some key points of McKinney’s history?
Oh, a lot of interesting things happened in McKinney. Some people don’t realize that McKinney is one of the few cities with seats in Collin County where you have the combination of Collin McKinney who was very influential in Texas. I’ve heard that Collin McKinney helped a law get passed that said that county seats must be located within three miles of the geographic center of the county, so if you look at the counties up here and counties around the Texas Panhandle, they’re all almost square, and most all of them, for example if you go from here to Sherman, it’s 30 miles. From here to Greenville, it’s 30 miles. From here to Denton it’s 30 miles. From here to Dallas, it’s 30 miles. They began using a different surveying system that influenced how the state developed in a lot of ways, and I find that really interesting. When talk of the Civil War was going on, the counties down south determined what Texas was going to do – if they were going to stay in the Union or break away.
What’s interesting is that all the Red River counties actually voted not to secede from the Union and that they needed to sort out their problems. Needless to say, that did not happen, but that is a whole interesting history associated with that. We have our Cotton Mill, which was in operation until 1968, and it closed down, but on that Cotton Mill board of directors, there were women who had invested money and were on that board, and there are some really good stories associated with that. There’s just so much history like that
What enlightened you to the importance of history?
I taught school for 18 years, mostly science. What I thought was most interesting was how history was affecting science and vice-versa. They were very interrelated, and it’s always been a general interest of mine. I’ve done many historical reenactments for many years. Those things really led me to respect history
What kind of reenactments did you do?
I was part of a cavalry group, I was more interested in cavalry. I did Indian wars, and I did Civil War, but not too much. I have also done fur trade, Westward Expansion of 1856 along the Santa Fe Trail, and that was a lot of fun. We went to Bent Fort, Colorado, and one Christmas, we made gifts for all the children there. We made checkerboards, we had a piñata, roasted a mountain goat over a fire – just strange and curious things like that.
When did you get into history?
That would have been 18 years ago, so 2001 I guess. I went back to graduate school to get a master’s degree in historic preservation in the architecture department at Texas Tech. I believe strongly in the significance of our built environment. I think it captures the spirit of human beings. I was just in England a couple of weeks ago for a vacation, and one of the buildings we stayed in was built in the 1400s, and you see the work, you get this feeling -- like most of the furniture in my house I personally made, and there’s something about building and how it engages the individual both on an intellectual capacity and on a physical capacity, and it’s so marvelous to start out with just some lumber, and before you know it, you have this side board constructed.
How do you bring history to life for McKinney residents?
The way I hopefully bring it to life is a multifaceted manner. First of all, if you own a historic building located in the Historic Preservation District, you have to get approval for most things you can do with the exterior, so it gives me a chance to show off my knowledge with the people who own these houses. You hear on the TV that these new windows will save you energy. If you do the research, what you will discover is that 85 percent of your heating and cooling leave via your attic and your floor leaving 15 percent to go through the walls of your house and through the windows and doors. You can spend a lot of money on these replacement windows, and notice I said replacement. You’re going to replace them every 10 to 15 years, which is when the gas seals generally break down and the window loses what efficiency it did have, so it’s just trying to share that kind of information.
What got you into photography?
I have always loved shooting photographs. Somewhere in my 30s, I got into a local junior college in Amarillo, and I just started taking photo classes, and it’s something that I did for every semester for what seems like about 10 years. It may not have been that long, but it seems like it. I just had a real love for capturing the architect’s intent through photography. That’s what my master’s thesis was about, capturing light and shadow and capturing the architect’s intent through photography. I love shooting photographs. I love shooting photos of people, but we’re in such a touchy world nowadays. I go out in crowds and I see an interesting face, take a picture and the person asks what I’m going to do with the picture.
What brought you to write about architecture for your master’s thesis?
For my master’s thesis, I was looking at the Brion Tomb created by Carlos Scarpa in Italy, and when I was studying in Italy, I was fortunate to go to that site a couple of times. I was very moved by the symbolism. There’s one place where you walk down a dark hallway, and at one point, you have to push on a glass and metal frame, you have to push it down into the floor, then you have to step over it. When you start to walk away, it slowly moves back into position, and you see water running down its sides as it rises. You keep on that path and you end up in this box with one ledge, so when you sit down at it, you can see across the cemetery, and when you stand up, you can no longer see across, which I think is a strong statement about death.
When you go to the large cathedrals in England, there’s something very humbling. There’s a deeper connection garnered from being in those types of places, and those are generated by the master Masons who knew how to use geometry to create these special buildings.
Going back to preservation, I think it’s a good way for us to look at our built environment, because a lot of our built environment is pretty ugly and not well built. We need to educate ourselves on that.
How do you feel your love of photography and history connect?
The thing about the photograph, and this is why I still shoot film. A lot of people manage to get their photos on the cloud, but I’m not sure what manages that cloud. We’ve got this record of our history that could be lost very quickly, so I think that’s where the connection lies between my photography and history.