Not many non-natives are familiar with the name Margaret Milam McDermott. But in the 1960s, the Dallas philanthropist was a sometimes visitor who gave Gillespie County a gift that kept on giving.
McDermott died last month at age 106. McDermott and her husband, Eugene, donated the funds to save the crumbling second Gillespie County Courthouse (now Pioneer Memorial Library).
Eugene McDermott was the founder of Texas Instruments and had amassed considerable wealth. They earned a reputation for being some of the Lone Star State’s top philanthropists.
The old courthouse was a structure designed by renowned architect Alfred Giles and built in 1882, but it had fallen into disuse and disrepair after its new art deco replacement was constructed on an adjacent lot in 1939.
In helping save the structure, McDermott sparked a “trend” of saving old buildings, one that undoubtedly played a role in Fredericksburg’s popularity with visitors over the past half century.
McDermott’s friend, Ruth Ann Montgomery, reached by phone last week, introduced McDermott and her husband, Eugene, to Fredericksburg. The McDermotts were visiting and were taken aback by the then-empty building.
“They thought that was such a shame,” Montgomery said. “Mr. McDermott said, ‘We’ll just need to restore it.’”
At the time, the county library needed larger quarters and it was decided the old courthouse would be its new home and the McDermotts would sponsor the restoration, Montgomery said.
It building became known as the McDermott Building and the couple sponsored a second restoration in 1984. The couple made frequent trips to Fredericksburg and issued a challenge grant, so some of the funding for the project would come from local sources.
“They set up a fund to buy things for the building that could not be purchased with county funds,” Montgomery said. That includes a decorative table by a local artist and a painting in the front hall, she said.
The community matched the funds, which were used at the discretion of a committee that was formed to oversee restoration.
After her husband died in 1984, Margaret McDermott continued her giving ways. She shunned the limelight but gave liberally to causes and institutions around the nation.
Richard Brettell occupies the Margaret M. McDermott Distinguished Chair of Arts and Aesthetic Studies at UT-Dallas. He praised her in the Dallas Morning News: “She cared about (the city) in every way, in terms of architecture and landscape and nature, the arts, education, health. Her belief in public education was enormous, as you can see from her huge philanthropy to UTD.”
Montgomery and her husband, Philip, had a home in Fredericksburg. Their Philip Montgomery III was author of “Our Way of Life,” a pictorial essay book published by Shearer Publishing in 2013. In the 1970s, Philip chronicled ranchers and locals from Fredericksburg.
The Montgomery family, also Metroplex residents, had a history of hunting at leases in the area. “We came because I read the story of the Easter Fires, and I had read it to my children and wanted to come to Fredericksburg so they could see it,” she said. “The town caught our attention and we saw a house for sale and bought it on sight. It’s kind of a magic story in our family. We didn’t plan it — we just did it.”
The Montgomerys invited their friends, the McDermotts to town frequently. Their daughter, Mary McDermott, took part in local trail rides.
That led to the library project. “That did so much to influence the development of Fredericksburg,” Montgomery said. “Once the library moved in, it made everybody think that restoration was a good idea. And a lot of things happened afterward. It really was a turning point.”
The McDermotts’ generosity spanned far and wide. After her husband died in 1984, Margaret McDermott continued to give to causes in arts, science and education around the nation.
Some projects in the Dallas area and around Texas included:
Dallas Museum of Art
University of Texas-Dallas
Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Dallas Public Library
UT Southwestern Medical School
…and many others