Boomtown

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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.