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 crowd nodded solemnly as speakers praised the tiny, exquisite Oakwood Cemetery Chapel, recently restored to its early 20th-century glory.
The city of Austin cannot consecrate, but it can dedicate.
And it did so with grace and feeling during this celebration on Friday. Designed by Charles Page of the distinguished architecture family and built in 1914, the chapel combines some of the best of European and Texan traditions in limestone and wood, almost on a child’s imaginary scale.
It was built, however, on the city cemetery’s “Colored Grounds” and remains of 38 bodies were exhumed from under the chapel during the recent construction process. They have not been identified and will be reburied elsewhere with dignity.
Council Member Ora Houston, in whose district the cemetery lies, spoke forcefully about how the land brought together the city’s “blended family,” since Latinos and Anglos were buried among African-Americans in the “Colored Grounds.”
The Parks and Recreation Department is responsible for uplifting this chapel with its crenelated tower, Gothic arches and modern air-conditioning (thank you!), as it is for an award-winning master plan for five of the city’s historic graveyards. Save Austin Cemeteries spent years advocating for this game-changing project (we hear new gates and fences are next).
Parks and Rec’s Kim McKnight contributed her mighty historical sensibility and Kevin Johnson his project management for the work designed, we surmise from this drawing, by Hatch + Ulland Owen.
At one point near the end of the ceremony, I snuck through the crowd to use the facilities. The gleaming white, tiled restroom was large and attractive enough to house a small party.
One of Austin’s most coveted honors, the Austin Under 40 Awards, are back, and we’ve got the names of the 2018 finalists.
The AU40 Awards are a joint effort of two veteran volunteer groups, Young Women’s Alliance and the Young Men’s Business League. They honor notable community figures and rising stars in 16 career fields.
One hot topic was the Driskill Hotel, traditional site of the always gratifying midday event. Leading the public chat about the venue’s rollercoaster past was Monte Akers, attorney and author, whose “The Grand Dame of Austin: A History of the Driskill Hotel” was recently released by Waterloo Press (must be transparent, also the publisher of my two books).
His best anecdote, however, was told off the cuff: Before lunch a lady introduced herself as Helen Corbitt. Could she really be the celebrated Driskill chef who had popularized the cheese soup that we sipped in the lobby? (She died in 1978.) Perhaps it was her daughter? Akers asked around. But the well-attired woman had vanished for a while like a Driskill ghost. Luncheon chairman Charles Peveto put the questions to rest: That was Helen Covert, not Helen Corbitt.
Also on the stage in the banquet room were Luci Baines Johnson and Julian Read. Johnson’s family was closely associated with the hotel. For decades, LBJ held periodic court in the ornate 1886 palace. His daughter told the stories behind the stories, including the fact that LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson‘s first breakfast date at the hotel was later rendered in several conflicting versions by her parents and their friends.
Read, one of the greats of public relations and public affairs, shared a detailed history of the hotel’s modern ownership. Best known in some circles for his work with Texas Gov. John Connally, Read represented the Driskill through several of those owners, all struggling to bring the building up to its historic potential.
The other subject? The association plunged deep into the campaign to give over a portion of the shuttered Faulk Library to the center, which long ago maxed out its storage, exhibition and office space. It would take $11.8 million for critical infrastructure to bring it up to code, then another $3 million for the center to expand into two floors and the basement. For a long while, leaders have endorsed a public-private partnership that could mean little or no cost to taxpayers. Luckily, in the audience this day were Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, as well as former mayors Lee Cooke and Frank Cooksey, all strong backers of the center.
Out into the arts
The Austin spring performing arts season is up and running. We thoroughly enjoyed Zach Theatre‘s staging of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a fluid telling of 15-year-old Christopher’s experiences as he negotiates parents, teachers and strangers through the lens of autism in the United Kingdom. Director DaveSteakley‘s teamwas particularly good at visualizing the mindset of Christopher, played expertly by Texas State University student Preston Straus. It will be remembered as one of the performances of the season.
We also finally caught cabaret singer Ute Lemper live at UT’s McCullough Theatre as presented by Texas Performing Arts. The modern embodiment of the 20th-century cabaret scenes in Berlin, Paris, New York and Buenos Aires, Lemper can channel Marlene Dietrich and any number of performers set off into the world in part by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, while sharing the theater history in priceless asides. That is not all. Lemper spent a good portion of the show with a pianist and a bass player scatting in high jazz form. Although technically amazing, this style paled in comparison to Lemper’s clear-eyed, clear-edged cabaret. Note of approval: “Mack the Knife” should always be performed in German. Always.
We also stopped by the opening reception for artist Malcolm Bucknall at Wally Workman Gallery. The longtime Austin artist presented exquisite amalgamations of human and animals, of in Victorian or Edwardian dress, as if borrowed from outrageous children’s books from the period. We had a fairly long talk with Bucknall about his time in the U.K., India, Cyprus and ultimately Austin, after his father moved here to start UT’s metallurgy program in 1958. We plan to hear more of these stories at his studio this week.
Earlier this year, the Human Rights Campaign Austin honored LGBT activist and organizer Cecilia “Ceci” Lourdes Bulaong Gratias with the Bettie Naylor Visibility Award at its annual gala.
On Sunday, Gratias died.
A memorial will be held at Austin City Hall Plaza at 4 p.m., Nov. 12. Details about a Ceci Gratias Legacy Project will be revealed by Mayor Steve Adler and City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, for whom she most recently tended constituent services in District 6.
After the memorial, to commemorate Gratias’ work with early Austin Pride Parades, admirers will process from the plaza to Congress Avenue then to West Fourth Street to Oilcan Harry’s club for a celebration of her life. Guests are encouraged with wear purple, her favorite color.
During our interview in a cafe at the Domain Northside, Gratias, who grew up in The Philippines, remained unreservedly open and upbeat, even though she had recently broken up with her partner, was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy.
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.”
This long week, we learned about child advocates, savored an opera, lingered over a humanities exhibit, mingled at a block party, toasted a nonagenarian and shared an Austin history book with the masses.
CASAblanca for CASA of Travis County
The take-away from this large gala: CASA of Travis County is on track to become the first large urban group of Court Appointed Special Advocates to place a trained volunteer with each abused or neglected youth within the area’s system. We learned this from impassioned Board President David Rubin, who followed equally stirring Executive Director Laura Wolf at the dais halfway through what, for some guests, was a six-hour event at the JW Marriott. Gratifying to find that this key nonprofit has doubled the size of its guest list and provided last year individualized help for 1,847 children, 722 of which went home to safe permanent families. During the same year, however, 700 children still needed advocates. I sat with amazing Judges Darlene Byrne and Aurora Martinez Jones, who split up the foster care cases at the same courtroom, part of the Texas foster care system that is not, as one federal judge ruled, overall “broken.”
Austin Opera’s “The Daughter of the Regiment”
Funny opera? Sure. It’s not all sturm und drang at Austin Opera. Donizetti‘s “The Daughter of the Regiment” — a young adoptee of a Napoleonic regiment must go through multiple tests before landing love — is not always laugh-out-loud funny, but every minute is smile-out-loud funny. The cast at our Sunday matinee was terrific from top to bottom and, of course, they and the orchestra sounded magnificent under maestro Richard Buckley. The combination of French (singing) and English (speaking) was jolting at first, but we took to it quickly. We’re always happy to see fresh faces in the crowd for this leading Austin arts group.
This is something we’ve been waiting to see: More of the vast collection at the Ransom Center on display for the public. With a few other lucky souls, we peeked at a preview of the exhibit, “Stories to Tell,” which will be up through July. It seems fairly evenly split among American and European literature, performing arts, film, photography and visual arts, sharing the back stories along the way. One could spend hours there and I plan to return. One encouraging bit of news: The Ransom folks plan to devote one corner of the first-floor galleries to timely, rotating samples from this collection, which ranks among the finest in the world. We enjoyed catching up with longtime photography curator Roy Flukinger and still relatively new performing arts curator Eric Colleary, as well as Austin Way editor extraordinaire Kathy Blackwell.
KMFA’s 50th Anniversary Block Party
If you are going to celebrate the 50th year for a community treasure, you invite in the whole community. And what better place to do so than the Fair Market events center in East Austin on one of the fairest days of the year? You had your food trucks, your scattered entertainment, your face painting (I demurred), your mingling over drinks. Kids seemed overjoyed, but frankly, who wouldn’t have a good time at such an event? KMFA also plans its first and only gala ever for this golden year. We look forward to it.
Patricia Fiske at 90
She’s an original in so many ways. A beauty, she grew up quickly and took on New York with all the gusto of her generation. More recently, she’s been an Austin poet, actress, memoirist, singer and peace monger by her own description. So when it came time to toast Patricia Fiske at her 90th birthday party, we couldn’t resist. The well-assembled event at the Zilker Clubhouse included comfort food and drinks, a tent to ward off inclement weather and — a special treat — the Austin Symphony Big Band. Now, I love the 1940s sound — “my music” as Patricia aptly remarked — but I’ve rarely heard it rendered so expertly as this during this loveliest of lovely nights.
Three dates for ‘Indelible Austin’
Thanks for asking: “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories” is on target to receive its third printing. And Vol. 2 is due out in the fall. Meanwhile, we’re nearing the 5oth public appearance related to this collection of my historical columns from the American-Statesman, published by Waterloo Press and benefiting the Austin History Center Association. In the course of a week, we talked to the Governor’s Mansion Docents at Chateau Bellevue, during the Angelina Eberly Luncheon — along with Saundra Kirk, Lonnie Limon and Evan Tanaguchi — at the Driskill Hotel, and to an Episcopalian gathering known as Pub Church that assembles casually but thoughtfully at Scholz Garten. Enjoyed the public dialogue with leader Stephen Kinney on the beauty of the people of Austin.
J.C. Shakespeare, who asked on of the sharpest questions, shared this excerpt from “Indelible Austin” on Facebook.
“I fall in love with Austin every day when I leave our bungalow and walk downhill to the social center of the city. Unabashedly, I cherish our arts, music, movies, fashion, sports, media, museums, nightlife, eateries, shops, and parties. I sing the praises of Great Streets, the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, and the State capitol. I linger over the reflections on Lady Bird Lake and the arcing green hills along the horizon. I boast about the University of Texas — ranked in the world’s Top 30, according to the Times of London — and how Austin Community College responds nimbly to our business ecology. As soon as I hit the social circuit by entering a room full of Austinites, I’m electrified. These people are worth knowing!”