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Michael Barnes

July 2016: My best stories this month on Austin culture

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A Pulitzer Prize winner pulls up a chair near the front row. Not far away sits a distinguished university dean. Just beyond him, at the back of the big Austin bookstore, is a writer of several popular volumes. Just as the evening’s author starts to speak, a stylish woman with short hair and bright eyes takes the last empty seat up front. “Look who’s here!” gasps the speaker. “The person who discovered the origins of writing!” The crowd chuckles at what they assume is a joke. The woman just smiles. “I know,” says Denise Schmandt-Besserat, nodding to the full house. “Always at parties, when I tell people that, they laugh. They don’t believe me.”

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On April 27, John Bernardoni, Austin music promoter and arts backer, met with James Powell, a native Austinite and longtime antiques dealer. Powell asked Bernardoni, best known locally for helping save the Paramount Theatre, if he knew anything about “Victims of the Galveston Flood,” a sculpture by Pompeo Coppini, the artist best known locally for creating the Littlefield Fountain and the controversial statues on the South Mall at the University of Texas. Coppini had been in the news of late. Last year, his sculptures portraying Confederate President Jeff Davis and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson were moved after considerable community input. Davis is going to the Briscoe Center for American History, now under renovation, while Wilson’s new home has not been finalized.

 

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Twenty years ago, as the 30th anniversary of the University of Texas Tower shootings loomed, Gary Lavergne completed an exacting account of the events that took place before, during and after Aug. 1, 1966. “Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders,” published by the University of North Texas Press in 1997, has since appeared in paperback, mass market paperback and Kindle editions. We sat down with the unassuming Lavergne — by day, the UT head of admissions research, and the author of three other successful books — in his office on the ground floor of the Tower.
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It’s the neighborhood with no name. Or perhaps too many names. They include Sunnydale, Elmhurst Heights and Woodland Hills. Many Austinites — if they know that it exists at all — call it Travis Heights East. For years, this hilly, eclectic residential area has been represented by the South River City Neighborhood Association. It also lies within the East Riverside-Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Planning Area. That name is not likely to be adapted into the vernacular, so we will stick with Travis Heights East. High on rises above Riverside Drive between Oltorf Street, Burton Drive and Interstate 35, one can find scattered remnants of the area’s agricultural past, along with three distinct subdivisions developed in the mid to late 20th century.

When sisters Jewel Sundbeck and Georgia Sundbeck Gustafson were young, the services were conducted in Swedish. “We didn’t understand any of it,” Jewel admits. “But we were in church, there to worship God.” “The Sunday classes before services were in English,” Georgia says. “We had a lot of singing in the church. Joyful singing.” Back then, the Sundbeck sisters attended the Swedish Evangelical Free Church when it was at Colorado and 17th streets. Dedicated on Aug. 6, 1925, this handsome structure was the group’s second home, demolished after the State of Texas purchased the land. The group’s first church was a rough, wood-planked 1890s affair — later torn down — located in the eastern Travis County settlement of Decker. Worship services among the rural Swedish immigrants, some of whom had escaped religious intolerance back home, started there in homes and schoolhouses in the 1880s.
Just before noon on Monday, Aug. 1, 1966, Ora Houston and Sharon Alexander were eating lunch at the Pancake House at San Antonio and West 19th streets — the latter, later renamed for Martin Luther King Jr. — just southwest of the University of Texas campus. “It was such a beautiful day,” Alexander said recently. “All of a sudden, we started hearing all these sirens and went outside to see what was going on. There were ambulances, police cars and fire trucks everywhere. It was a terrible sight to see.” Someone told the young women — one a graduate of Anderson High School in East Austin, the other of Austin High School — that a person atop the UT Tower was shooting people. “We could see the smoke coming from the Tower,” Alexander said. “We were told to go to the back of the restaurant, because the bullets could reach us from where we were standing. A very shocking day, one I never want to see again and will never forget.”

Real estate agent Trey McWhorter has seen it time and again. Folks just don’t know what they have in hand.“Often with old, unique properties, it’s more like artwork than just a house,” says McWhorter, who specializes in midcentury modern homes. “And just as an artist has to promote himself, someone has to tell the story of the property.” That is what McWhorter has been trying to do in an area that encompasses Highland Park, Highland Park West, Balcones Park, Foothills Terrace, Colorado Foothills and Beverly Hills, as well as other midcentury subdivisions. For the most part, the steeply hilled area falls west and northwest of Camp Mabry and east of Lake Austin. Greater Tarrytown is to the south, and Northwest Hills lies to the north. Curvy Balcones Drive serves as the main through street.

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In 1963, the sitcom “Petticoat Junction” first aired on CBS. The show about a rustic railroad hotel run by a steadfast matron, her lazy uncle and her three voluptuous daughters ran for seven seasons, yoked in American minds with “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres,” two other shows that riffed on the juncture between rural and urban ways. In 1964, Petticoat Lane opened on Austin’s Guadalupe Street. The Andrews family, headed by Bob and Betty Sue, were already running two dress shops on the Drag. Their new idea, later redubbed Petticoat Fair, was a full-service boutique selling just women’s undergarments. It still thrives today, now as a one-of-a-kind shop with extensive dressing rooms in the Northcross Center off West Anderson Lane.