Plagued by congested traffic? High cost of living? Persistent inequity? Those pesky scooters?
Whenever the New Austin Blues get you down, turn to Preservation Austin and especially its annual Merit Awards. The Old Austin triumphs of stewardship, invention and rehabilitation are sometimes small, but every year, they add up.
This year’s winners include three major 19th-century structures, several homes large and small, some updated commercial buildings, an East Austin mural, a dance about community, two singular park structures and a distinguished architectural historian.
These fine people, places, culture and history will be honored at the Preservation Merit Awards Celebration at the Driskill Hotel on Friday, Oct. 19 from 11:30am to 1:30pm. It’s a treat.
2018 PRESERVATION MERIT AWARD RECIPIENTS
220 SOUTH CONGRESS – Bouldin
Recipient: Cielo Property Group
Preservation Award for Rehabilitation
308 E. 35th – North University
Recipient: Steven Baker and Jeff Simecek
Preservation Award for Addition
409 COLORADO – Downtown
Recipient: David Zedeck
Preservation Award for Rehabilitation
Architect: Forge Craft Architecture + Design
AUSTIN STATE HOSPITAL
Recipient: Health & Human Services Commission
Preservation Award for Restoration
Contractor: Braun & Butler Construction
COLLIER HOUSE – Bouldin
Recipient: Georgia Keith
Preservation Award for Addition
Architect: Elizabeth Baird Architecture & Design
“FOR LA RAZA” – Holly
Recipient: Arte Texas, Art in Public Places, Parks and Recreation Department & Austin Energy
Preservation Award for Preservation of a Cultural Landscape
Robert Herrera and Oscar Cortez
O.HENRY HALL – Downtown
Recipient: Texas State University System
Preservation Award for Rehabilitation
Architect: Lawrence Group, O’Connell Architecture
OAKWOOD CEMETERY CHAPEL
Recipient: City of Austin Parks & Recreation Department
The best Texas book I’ve read of late was “The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing” by Ken Roberts (Texas A&M Press). It doubles as one of the most instructive books about Austin’s history and culture.
Roberts, a former professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, knows something about deep research. For this story about the people who once honeycombed the hills west and north of Austin, he talked to survivors and descendants. He scoured the internet for additional material and used Ancestry.com for more than just constructing family trees. He also consulted dozens of newspaper articles and books for historical context.
Roberts grew up in Tarrytown and first encountered hard Hill Country boys on the low bridge over the Colorado River at Red Bud Trail just below Tom Miller Dam. That fraught meeting must have stuck with him. He later read feature stories and columns about “cedar choppers” — as the fiercely independent hill folk were called, not always kindly — by Mark Lisheron and John Kelso in the American-Statesman.
Roberts confirms that these mostly Scots-Irish clans, who arrived as early as the 1850s, migrated down through the Appalachian and the Ozark mountains. They grew small plots of corn for cornmeal that didn’t need milling, for corn whiskey distilled in the hollows, and to feed their roaming livestock. They hunted game and cut native ashe juniper (cedar) for use as fence posts and charcoal. Cedar remained their main cash crop for buying what they could not carve out the hills.
(You catch glimpses of this life in John Graves‘ “Goodbye to a River” and “Hard Scrabble.” And, as riparian expert Kevin Anderson reminds us, in Roy Bedichek‘s “Adventures of a Texas Naturalist.”)
In fact, during some periods, they thrived and fared better than those who tended cotton as tenant farmers on the prairies to the east. Old-growth cedar found in cool, deep canyons rose tall and straight. The red hearts were especially resistant to insects and rot. Hill Country cedar was shipped by rail all over the Southwest and towns such as Cedar Park supported multiple cedar yards, especially in the years after World War II.
The hill folk rarely took part in city activities. Some resisted the Confederate forces, others joined them.
Before Austin spread west and the life of the cedar choppers declined, the clans intermarried and helped each other out. Some also resorted to quick-tempered violence. Roberts does not stint on the crime reporting (see link above).
After reading Roberts’ book, I took a little trip to the Eanes History Center, which happened to throw an open house that weekend (it doesn’t post regular public hours). I learned much more among the old structures where the tiny, unincorporated town hosted a school that grew into the Eanes school district, long before the surrounding land became neighborhoods such as West Lake Hills, Rollingwood, Barton Creek, Rob Roy, Cuernavaca, etc.
I plan to interview Roberts later this summer. We’re not done with this subject by any means.
Airport Boulevard is fast changing into a cultural magnet. Austin Community College anchors a remake of Highland Mall and numerous new hot spots pop up on the boulevard. Yet some of the nearby coffee shops not far away are among Austin’s oldest and most revered.
Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery. 411 E. 43rd St. 512-453-3399. quacksbakery.com. 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat., 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun. Shared onsite parking, plus plenty of street parking on wide East 43rd Street. Decaf, teas, chai. Wifi. Quiet atmosphere most of the day.
No Austin coffeehouse trails a longer or more storied pedigree than Quack’s. Born as Captain Quackenbush’s Intergalactic Dessert Company and Espresso Cafe on the Drag — at a time during the 1980s when such places were extremely rare in Austin — this Hyde Park scratch bakery and beverage staple fits into an intimate retail node that includes complementary post-hippe outfits such as Mother’s Cafe, Hyde Park Cafe, Dolce Vita, Julio’s Cafe, Fresh Plus, Antonelli’s Cheese House and Asti Trattoria. Two interior rooms are almost always full. Any time the weather is fine, customers gather around small tables under an awning outside, or they might take advantage of communal lawn furniture just down the sidewalk. The bakery selections, along with deli items, are almost overwhelming in number and almost always satisfying. And while the city has nurtured a much more serious coffee culture in since the ’80s, Quack’s still makes a darn good cup from locally roasted beans.
Flightpath Coffeehouse. 5011 Duval St. 512-458-4472. flightpathcoffeehouse.com. 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Very little onsite parking, restricted street parking. Decaf, teas, chai. Strong wifi. Plenty of niches for quiet time.
Let’s remind relative newcomers to Austin that, until 1999, this location stood directly in the deafening flightpath for planes descending into the old Mueller Airport, now the new urbanist Mueller development. It might not be as old as nearby Quack’s, but anything in our city that has thrived since 1992 is almost antiquarian. The place has grown enormously in what feels like a narrow, old residential structure on the edge of the Hyde Park area. A covered patio and spacious backroom handle the overflow from the front parlor and central food-and-drink service area. Flightpath has gotten serious about snacks, too, including a wall of ready-to-go treats. A lot of laptoppers land here, but it’s not so quiet that a friendly meeting is out of place. Although University of Texas students still wander this far north, today’s crowd seems a little older and more settled.
Kick Butt Coffee. 5775 Airport Blvd. 512-454-5425. kickbuttcoffee.com. 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Thurs., 6 a.m.-2 a.m., Fri., 7 a.m.-2 a.m. Sat., 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.* Plenty of surface parking on site. Some of the music is live. Decaf, teas, chai. Some quiet spots in this big space.
We’ve always liked owner Thomas Gohring and his ambitions to create a singular community around coffee, booze, entertainment and, yes, martial arts. Gohring brings to the game a flair for showmanship, an element almost absent from any other coffee shop in town. He has expanded the size of his original location on Airport Boulevard while retracting his attempts to go global. A small stage, backed by his signature graphics, takes pride of place, but the long coffee bar attests to the original impulse to serve rigorously prepared espresso drinks along with food, beer and wine. As the ACC Highland project, as well as the Linc and other area redevelopments fire up, expect Kick Butt to thrive and retain its inimitable character. *The place opens and closes at odd times; we rounded up or down.
Sherry Matthews knew exactly how to stage a fitting tribute to her late companion and leading Austin architect Dick Clark.
She and her team gathered almost 1,000 of Clark’s admirers at the Paramount Theatre. She drafted former University of Texas School of Architecture Dean Fritz Steiner to give the event extra dignity and stature. She spared a few minutes for leaders who graciously recognized Clark’s legacies to UT students, to cancer research and to what he called his family, his firm, which has produced some of the city’s best designers and buildings, especially in the realm of restaurants and bars, but also splendid modern residences.
Yet Matthews’ most powerful tool was a long, beautifully composed documentary film about Clark that should be seen by anyone who wants to understand our city. It also reminded me how much I wish my life was more like Clark’s. He embraced every moment and all the people around him. He didn’t sweat the small stuff and loved nothing better than to work out the infinite puzzles of design.
And, oh yes, one of Clark’s buddies, Willie Nelson, rounded out the tribute with a few songs. Going in, attendees received a clever napkin printed with the evening’s program; going out, a gorgeous little booklet about Clark’s work with words from the rumpled master: “Architecture is not just about a building. It’s about people. No matter how beautiful or functional the design, architecture’s true meaning is found in those who live their lives in the spaces we create.”
Celebration of Children in Nature
John Covert Watson must have had something to do with it. The visionary who purchased a trashed-out sinkhole above the Pedernales River and helped turn it into Westcave Preserve, a premier nature education site, must have also paved the way for the extraordinary partnerships that the nonprofit has forged with larger efforts such as the City of Austin’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature program.
That campaign won the E. Lee Walker Award for Collaboration during the Celebration of Children in Nature gala at the Four Seasons Hotel. Others included Bonnie Baskin of the Science Mill in Johnson City, who took home the John Covert Watson Award for Vision, and Jennifer L. Bristol, who accepted the Westcave Award for Enduring Dedication, and Keep Austin Beautiful, which snagged the John F. Ahrns Award for Environmental Education.
Each honor was accompanied by an adroit video and inspirational speeches. You couldn’t walk away without feeling the social tides were running in the right direction.
Party for the Parks
This event should make everyone who loves nature, communities and our modern city beam with pride. Brazos Hall was filled with mostly young, mostly fit, mostly fabulous fans of the Austin Parks Foundation, which picks up the tab for a lot of our underfunded parklands, including some of the total for the recently unveiled redo of Republic Square Park.
Everything about this group is admirable. And wandering among all the open, accessible guests, I couldn’t help thinking about the evolution of attitudes toward big challenges in Austin. When I arrived in the early 1980s, there were plenty of leaders who felt that big improvements should be done by the federal or state governments, the latter often through UT. As time when on — and city built more resources — people turned to city government.
But that’s not where the action is. No, the action is here among the people willing to roll up their sleeves and take care of our needs, among them our universally loved, but sadly sometimes neglected parks and natural areas. One last bravo to C3 and the Austin City Limits Music Festival for pumping millions into the Foundation every year. You’ve more than earned your permanent place in our little heaven.
We cherish these memories of strolling through Aldridge Place and its sibling district, Hemphill Park.
Originally published Dec. 16, 2010.
Walking through an old Austin neighborhood with a sharp eye is like scrutinizing the tree rings of an ancient oak. One finds evidence of lean years and fat. Of rapid change and relative stasis. Of momentary crisis and long-term stability. The social trunk in the tiny, paired Aldridge Place and Hemphill Park neighborhoods – north of the University of Texas campus – is incredibly compact. Just two streets – 32nd and 33rd streets between Guadalupe Street and Speedway – make up Aldridge Place proper, according to some of its most ardent advocates.
Others, pointing to the original plat, insist on including Wheeler and Lipscomb streets, plus Hemphill Park, split down the middle by upper Waller Creek and its tree-pegged banks. A later strand – Laurel Lane – was added to the old subdivision. Notable families have lived here, behind deep, shaded front yards and a variety of provincial European and American-style façades. Golf guru Harvey Penick brought up his children here. Folklorist J. Frank Dobie owned a house at 3109 Wheeler St. The Rather clan, which produced broadcaster Dan Rather and political activist Robin Rather, lived down the way on Laurel Lane.
Late journalist and presidential press secretary George Christian Jr. was born and grew up here in the house of his father, an assistant attorney general and judge, George Christian Sr., on Wheeler Street. Regan Gammon, lifelong friend to former first lady Laura Bush, lives in a surprisingly modest house adjacent to a guest cottage. (Bush visits frequently. Follow Secret Service advice: Stay away.)
Musicians Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison raise their children here. James Galbraith of the famed scholarly family lives not far away in a multifaceted house. Add to that Texas French Bread founder Judy Willcott and arts leader Laurence Miller, along with “house whisperer” Kim Renner, academic Terri Givens, actress and musician Chris Humphrey, and Silicon Laboratories’ David Welland and his wife, Isabel, both prolific contributors to the Glimmer of Hope, Miracle and Sooch foundations. Nearby live Rick and Nancy Iverson in a 19th-century stone structure that reportedly served as a stagecoach stop. Among the gay couples are Austin social all-stars Steven Tomlinson and Eugene Sepulveda, along with Web designer Bob Atchison and oenological consultant Rob Moshein, known as the “Austin Wine Guy” – and my guide on this fine fall day.
But let’s start with the land. As with almost all Austin neighborhoods, this one is defined by higher elevations roosted above waterways. Upper Waller Creek is sometimes merely damp, thanks to this area’s many springs. Yet it drains a huge amount of land to the north and becomes a raging stream after any storm. “It takes on a crazy amount of surface water, ” says house rescuer Renner, who lives just to the creek’s east. “The rise is amazingly rapid.” The creek is also famous for its tunnels, which lead to the Texas State Hospital grounds a mile to the north. Brave neighborhood children crawled up these tunnels to what was once called the “insane asylum.” A metal floodgate now bars passage.
The ascent on both sides of the creek is not steep, but it’s unmistakable. On Wheeler, it forms a gentle curve for houses on a ridge whose properties back onto Guadalupe near Wheatsville Co-op. On the eastern side of the creek, the rise merely makes for a healthy cardio workout. Pecans, oaks and elms dominate the canopy, myrtles and other ornamentals the lower strata. The area hosts an unusual number of magnolias, trees that don’t usually thrive in Austin’s alkaline soil without help. “We almost lost that one during the last drought, ” says Renner, pointing to a double-trunked magnolia outside her spacious bungalow overlooking the park. “We nursed it back to health.”
According to neighborhood historians, the region north of what became the UT campus was first settled under a land grant to Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar in 1840. The bluff above today’s dual neighborhood, where the Kirby Hall and the Scottish Rite Dormitory now sit, saw the first houses. Exposed to Comanche attacks during the mid-19th century, the land later supported dairy farms, general stores, schools and, eventually, residential subdivisions such as Harris Park, Hyde Park and the lesser known Grooms, Lakeview and Buddington.
On May 15, 1912, Lewis Hancock, developer of the Austin Country Club and namesake for Hancock Center, began selling tracts in Aldridge Place. Deed restrictions included a minimum sale price, no apartments, and, in line with growing segregation, no sales or rentals to African Americans unless they were live-in servants. Located so near the campus, churches, trolley lines and retail development along Guadalupe Street, Aldridge Place and Hemphill Park grew rapidly during the 1920s. “It’s residential but urban, ” says Willcott, who started Texas French Bread in the basement of her former house on 33rd Street, then opened her first store in a converted bowling alley at Guadalupe and 34th streets.
This day, our walk started on Laurel Lane at Speedway. “Aldridge Place looks down on us, ” Moshein jokes. “We’re on the wrong side of the tracks.” A pair of fanciful houses, designed by UT’s first architecture dean, Hugo Kuehne, flank the lane’s entrance. Carol McKay’s is notable for its steep, curling roofline and hidden gardens. On the other corner, Moshein and Atchison live in the old Rather house, best described as “Hollywood Spanish Colonial.” The surprise inside is a treasure trove of Czarist art, antiques and artifacts that the couple have collected for decades. It’s more than a little disconcerting to attend a party here, where Russian royalty stares down at the folks dressed in the usual casual Austin wear sipping exceptional wines.
None of the houses in this neighborhood are what one would call grand, more akin to ones found near almost any American university campus. These proud structures housed large families, until the kids grew up and the parents grew old. Then, college students moved into rentals – a point of contention for some residents – until new families, not all of them with children, fixed up the homes, now deemed historical by the so inclined. Renovators are transforming houses that had “gone hippie” during the 1960s and ’70s. “We are under huge pressure from the university, ” says former museum director Miller, who shares his current house on 33rd Street with Willcott. “To keep the neighborhood intact, you must be constantly vigilant.”
In fact, one neighborhood constant has been the number of people who have never left the area, or returned after a few years. Retired psychologist Mary Gay Maxwell has lived in three nearby houses; Clayton Sloan lived down the street from her current residence when she was a student. “I thought I was the luckiest person in the world, ” new mom Sloan says. “Living on this pretty street, walking distance to everything. Trees arched over. It’s an urban environment, but it’s very safe.” Maxwell agrees: “People never go away.” This loyalty fits neatly with the stories I heard up and down the streets from people walking their dogs, or working in their yards, or just passing by. (There seem to be as many canines as humans here, and at least one feline doesn’t seem to mind. Whirley, a dark, mottled cat, follows pedestrians up and down the streets, far away from his home on 32nd Street.)
Givens, who teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and her high-tech husband, Mike Scott, moved to Aldridge Place from the West Coast. Before they purchased their house on 32nd Street, the previous owners interviewed them carefully, and when tests were passed, gave them a party. “We realized we were not buying a house, ” Givens says. “We were buying a neighborhood.”
One reason residents might act so neighborly is the subdivision plan: All houses must face the inner streets or the park; alleys are forbidden and sidewalks are mandatory, making it a front-porch society. “We all know each other, ” Renner says, recalling regular holiday parties and a July 4 parade. “I would say (the urban plan) completely fulfills its original intentions.” The residents so treasure this life, they fought tooth and nail, as part of the larger North Campus Neighborhood Association, against the so-called “super-duplexes” and other concentrations of sometimes rowdy students who did not share their web of seemingly constant social connection. Student parking was also a sore point, until the City of Austin nixed nonresident parking during weekdays. “You couldn’t get down the street during the day, ” Moshein says. “You’d try to come home for lunch and couldn’t make it down the narrow streets for all the parked cars.”
Here, preservation is less about tax breaks and more about enduring social bonds, an argument one hears from East Austin to Old West Austin. “It was important to keep this neighborhood as it is, ” says Maxwell, who ran herd on the planning commission and Austin City Council to solve some of the destabilizing development. “This street was in decline, but it’s come back.” Gentrification and higher land prices might actually contribute to stability – at the potential price of diversity, Moshein points out – but neighborhood leaders won the battle to direct dense housing toward West Campus instead. That student-saturated neighborhood is now home to numerous midrises and ever-greater arrays of commercial life.
This leaves Aldridge Place-Hemphill Park almost completely protected. It can’t claim the same historical significance of Hyde Park, a few blocks to the north and a generation older. Yet its residents are, if anything, more intensely loyal and alert to historical distinctions (you’ll discover that if you ever mix up Hemphill Park or Aldridge Place!). “We’re not going anywhere, ” says Robert Marchant, as his children frolic on a shared swing aside his family’s humble home. “It’s paradise, ” says Scott Sloan, balancing an infant in the kitchen of his renovated bungalow. “And people are optimistic about the neighborhood. That makes it a good investment.”
As Maxwell says: “It’s a little enclave of real neighborhood experience.”