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Michael Barnes

Filling out the Palm School’s history

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In case you missed my story in the Statesman, here’s a taste:

The Swante Palm School is downtown Austin’s historical ghost ship.

Palm-4Although it hosts crucial Travis County services, to most passers-by it rises bleak, lonely and mysterious on the corner of Interstate 35 and East Cesar Chavez Street.

Despite recent headlines, most Austinites remain unaware of its past as a Republic of Texas, Confederate and United States military base and armory. They might not know of its several incarnations as an elementary school, once the pride of the Tenth Ward, and later renamed for Swedish immigrant and city leader Swante Palm, whose book collection formed the basis for the University of Texas libraries.

For decades, it served as a cultural center for the surrounding Latino community, then as a nonprofit hive and, to this day, as a periodic target for commercial development.

Powerful forces continue to vie for the prime spot it shares with the tiny but strategic Palm Park. In 2015, some county leaders entertained the idea of selling or developing the school land to help pay for a new courthouse. Preservationists and civic activists balked. Some suggested converting it into a museum.

The Waller Creek Conservancy, which plans a string of gem-like parks along that waterway, keeps a sharp eye on this critical spot above a bend in the creek. Recently, a new task force was formed to look into the Palm School’s future and, along the way, to provide a more complete picture of its past. …