- Historic Sites
A sleepy Southwestern city that has exploded into a metropolis, Austin fights to retain the best of its past
November 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 7
The opulent fabric that made up this part of town has been irrevocably torn, allowing these few houses, circled by ancient shade trees and deep gardens, to stand out in strong relief against the nearby parking garage, blankly modern bank, and abandoned lot.
Farther from the center, Austin is composed of leafy neighborhoods that have survived whole against change. Among many worth visiting is Hyde Park, which began life in the mid-1880s as the city’s first suburb. Its promoter, Martin Shipe, attracted new homeowners when he ran in a trolley line and created a park that contained a lake and a dance pavilion. A walk or drive through Hyde Park reveals a deeply rooted community that is a sampler of American domestic architecture.
Wherever you go in Austin, it is easy —almost mandatory—to connect with nature. There are several hundred parks, more than 10 miles of hike-and-bike trails, lakes, creeks, and rivers, and, most famously, Barton Springs, a thousand-foot-long natural pool that might be called the city’s main square, attracting swimmers even in winter. In 1992 voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum to limit the development that threatened to pollute the Barton Springs watershed, and its defenders remain on alert.
Before Dell Computers and its like crowded into Austin, the city was defined by its two homegrown industries: politics and the ever-expanding University of Texas. There are many libraries and galleries worth a visit on the campus, none more rewarding than the LBJ Library and Museum, where, as Lyndon Johnson said at the building’s 1971 dedication, “It’s all here: the story of our time—with the bark off.” I went through the place nearly in tears, so strongly did it evoke the years that forged the man and the years that brought him down. In a 1948 letter to the family of a Mexican-American who had been killed in action in the Philippines during World War II and had been refused burial by their small-town funeral parlor, Congressman Johnson writes, “I deeply regret that the prejudices of some individuals extend beyond life. I have no authority over civilian funeral homes but I have today made arrangements to have Pvt. Felix Longoria buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.”
Johnson, we have recently learned, ran a tape recorder in the Oval Office. You can listen to a selection of his conversations, including one in which he discusses Vietnam with an adviser. “It’s not worth fighting for and you can’t get out,” he says. “What is Laos to me?” On another tape the President twists the arm of a congressman on behalf of Lady Bird: “I love that woman and she wants that highway beautification act and by God we’re going to get it for her!”
An exhibit devoted to Lady Bird Johnson takes up nearly a whole floor at the museum, but as lively and informative as it is, her real monument lies elsewhere. No public figure is more closely associated with preserving America’s natural environment than the former First Lady, whose devotion to the cause extends back to the days she and President Johnson occupied the White House. “We walked the problem of the environment onto center stage and put it on the national agenda,” she recalled. The local agenda, too, has benefited from Mrs. Johnson’s attention. She prevented the state’s highway department from mowing down wildflowers along highway medians and promoted the hike-and-bike trail that meanders along Town Lake. Perhaps most important, in 1982 she and the actress Helen Hayes founded the national Wildflower Research Center in Austin.
Thirteen years later and now bearing Mrs. Johnson’s name, the facility moved to a larger, 42-acre site on the eastern edge of the Hill Country that she and the President so dearly loved, adding another 136 acres in 1999.
More than 400 species of native plants thrive here, and they draw to them many varieties of butterflies and birds. Darrel Morrison, the landscape architect who helped plan the site, advocates the use of native vegetation wherever he works. “One of my crusades,” he says, “is for landscapes to express where they are so that people can see the differences.”
A striking feature of the center is the series of handsome cisterns, aqueducts, and storage tanks that create here one of the nation’s largest private water-collection systems. Offices and galleries are made of local materials and, in their careful use of tile and corrugated tin roofs or thick sandstone walls with wooden beams, suggest the architecture of the area’s early Spanish and German settlers.
“Wherever I go in America,” Lady Bird Johnson once said, “I like it when the land speaks its own language in its own regional accent.” Despite mammoth growth, Austin still manages to speak its own language, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone like Mrs. Johnson on hand to translate.