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.”