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History Happened Here


July 2024
6min read

A sleepy Southwestern city that has exploded into a metropolis, Austin fights to retain the best of its past

A friend of mine who settled in Austin about 30 years ago tells me it was really a small town then. “I knew the whole place. Geographically there was a core to it.” Ed Van de Vort, an Austin historian, agrees: “If you compare a pre-1910 photo of Congress Avenue with one taken in the late sixties, you wouldn’t see much change.”

Today, the Texas capital is in many ways a thoroughly modern metropolis, with a population approaching one million and an architectural growth spurt that has allowed a bland, oversized skyline to claim prime territory along Town Lake, the dammed portion of the Colorado River that flows through the city center. Once they were built, those structures fell empty with the economic downturn of the 1980s. Everything has roared back, and the challenge for today’s Austin is to keep the balance between the traces of that small town of recent memory and the high-tech center it has become. “In our curmudgeonly way we’d like it to remain the small college town it used to be,” wrote the columnist Molly Ivins.

Despite the message beamed by its generic office buildings, the city enjoys a ripe and paradoxical culture of long standing. Home to a great university, a population of aging and newer-growth hippies, and some fabled, fiercely populist politicians, Austin is the fermenting, liberal center of its state and probably its region.

The relatively compact and very agreeable city center holds enough relics of the past to reveal a history that is long by Texas standards. From the earliest days, Congress Avenue, a north-south road, formed the city’s heart. Austin was laid out in 1839, and a census taken the following year shows 856 residents served by nine stores, nine saloons, six gambling houses, and numerous inns and stables. As the city developed, commerce, finance, and politics shaped Congress Avenue, while more modest purveyors of saddles, hardware, and liquor lined up on the side streets. Most notable was Pecan, now called Sixth Street, then the dirt trail into town from the east.

In the late 1950s, when stores moved into strip malls on Austin’s outskirts, Sixth and its neighbors fell into a 10-year decline, reviving when people began to come downtown at night to enjoy the newly constituted live-music scene that has helped ensure the city’s continued vitality. Sixth Street was fortunate in its years of neglect since, as Ed Van de Wort points out, more than 60 percent of buildings that stood there before 1890 remain today. Much of the streetscape here is a collection of two- and three-story brick and limestone structures in which false-fronted Western meets Gothic Revival.

Austin’s oldest-surviving building, the French Legation, dates from 1841 and is a reminder of the nine years (1836–45) that Texas was a republic. France, eager to corner the cotton market, recognized this upstart nation, and the legation’s first and only chargé d’affaires, Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, arrived in 1839. He bought 22 gently sloping acres, and by 1841 had completed a fancy white-columned residence. Now owned by the state and managed by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the house is open to the public and, thanks to its bucolic setting in the heart of town, the grounds are rented out for parties and weddings.

Sitting on twenty-two landscaped acres, Austin’s grandiose pink-granite capitol, completed in 1888, is pungent with state pride. Its battles and leaders, the many countries whose flags flew here, and the Lone Star emblem all are recognized through an encrustation of paintings, photographs, statues, carvings, and mosaics.

Another reminder of the early days, the Texas General Land Office, dating from 1856–57, resembles a Rhenish castle and is now a visitors’ center for the capitol complex of buildings. It is famous for one of its draftsmen, William Sidney Porter, better known as O. Henry. The author worked here for four years, starting in 1887, and set two of his stories in the building, which he described as “isolated and somber; standing apart from the other state buildings, sullen and decaying, brooding on the past.”

Sixth Street was fortunate in its years of neglect; 60 percent of the buildings that stood before 1890 remain today.

A cottage Porter and his family lived in for only two years has been restored as a museum. It has become a sort of shrine to foreign visitors, especially the Japanese, who study O. Henry in school and, says the curator, revere the short story form.

A block from the capitol grounds is the Governor’s Mansion, a fine Greek Revival structure from Austin’s first building boom of the 1850s, which is open to visitors. It radiates a special excitement these days, as the home of the presidential nominee George W. Bush.

It’s not so surprising that public buildings could survive in the downtown of a capital city, but the Bremond Block, a historic district a five-minute walk from the commercial center, is a true anomaly. Once part of a flourishing residential area, the only remaining block holds seven houses of fine and varying architectural styles that remarkably all belonged to members of the family for which the block is named. Austin’s Visitor Information Center provides, via an excellent brochure, a tour of the area plus a few neighboring Bremond family dwellings.

The opulent fabric that made up this part of town has been irrevocably torn, allowing these few houses, circled by ancient shade trees and deep gardens, to stand out in strong relief against the nearby parking garage, blankly modern bank, and abandoned lot.

Farther from the center, Austin is composed of leafy neighborhoods that have survived whole against change. Among many worth visiting is Hyde Park, which began life in the mid-1880s as the city’s first suburb. Its promoter, Martin Shipe, attracted new homeowners when he ran in a trolley line and created a park that contained a lake and a dance pavilion. A walk or drive through Hyde Park reveals a deeply rooted community that is a sampler of American domestic architecture.

Wherever you go in Austin, it is easy —almost mandatory—to connect with nature. There are several hundred parks, more than 10 miles of hike-and-bike trails, lakes, creeks, and rivers, and, most famously, Barton Springs, a thousand-foot-long natural pool that might be called the city’s main square, attracting swimmers even in winter. In 1992 voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum to limit the development that threatened to pollute the Barton Springs watershed, and its defenders remain on alert.

Before Dell Computers and its like crowded into Austin, the city was defined by its two homegrown industries: politics and the ever-expanding University of Texas. There are many libraries and galleries worth a visit on the campus, none more rewarding than the LBJ Library and Museum, where, as Lyndon Johnson said at the building’s 1971 dedication, “It’s all here: the story of our time—with the bark off.” I went through the place nearly in tears, so strongly did it evoke the years that forged the man and the years that brought him down. In a 1948 letter to the family of a Mexican-American who had been killed in action in the Philippines during World War II and had been refused burial by their small-town funeral parlor, Congressman Johnson writes, “I deeply regret that the prejudices of some individuals extend beyond life. I have no authority over civilian funeral homes but I have today made arrangements to have Pvt. Felix Longoria buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.”

Johnson, we have recently learned, ran a tape recorder in the Oval Office. You can listen to a selection of his conversations, including one in which he discusses Vietnam with an adviser. “It’s not worth fighting for and you can’t get out,” he says. “What is Laos to me?” On another tape the President twists the arm of a congressman on behalf of Lady Bird: “I love that woman and she wants that highway beautification act and by God we’re going to get it for her!”

An exhibit devoted to Lady Bird Johnson takes up nearly a whole floor at the museum, but as lively and informative as it is, her real monument lies elsewhere. No public figure is more closely associated with preserving America’s natural environment than the former First Lady, whose devotion to the cause extends back to the days she and President Johnson occupied the White House. “We walked the problem of the environment onto center stage and put it on the national agenda,” she recalled. The local agenda, too, has benefited from Mrs. Johnson’s attention. She prevented the state’s highway department from mowing down wildflowers along highway medians and promoted the hike-and-bike trail that meanders along Town Lake. Perhaps most important, in 1982 she and the actress Helen Hayes founded the national Wildflower Research Center in Austin.

Thirteen years later and now bearing Mrs. Johnson’s name, the facility moved to a larger, 42-acre site on the eastern edge of the Hill Country that she and the President so dearly loved, adding another 136 acres in 1999.

More than 400 species of native plants thrive here, and they draw to them many varieties of butterflies and birds. Darrel Morrison, the landscape architect who helped plan the site, advocates the use of native vegetation wherever he works. “One of my crusades,” he says, “is for landscapes to express where they are so that people can see the differences.”

A striking feature of the center is the series of handsome cisterns, aqueducts, and storage tanks that create here one of the nation’s largest private water-collection systems. Offices and galleries are made of local materials and, in their careful use of tile and corrugated tin roofs or thick sandstone walls with wooden beams, suggest the architecture of the area’s early Spanish and German settlers.

“Wherever I go in America,” Lady Bird Johnson once said, “I like it when the land speaks its own language in its own regional accent.” Despite mammoth growth, Austin still manages to speak its own language, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone like Mrs. Johnson on hand to translate.

—Carla Davidson

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