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Austin, Texas

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Austin spreads across 251 square miles north and south of the Colorado River. The city's climate is hot and dry in the summer and mild in the winter. As the state capital and home to the state's largest university, Austin hosts a diverse population that is generally young, well educated, and counter in culture and politics to the remainder of Texas. Two of its most important natural characteristics are the rolling limestone hills and native live oaks that grow in abundance west of the city along a string of artificial lakes referred to as the Highland Lakes. Town Lake, renamed Lady Bird Lake in 2007 after former first lady Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson, in the center of Austin, adds to the city's natural beauty and is the focus of a variety of recreational activities. The lake provides a natural backdrop to Congress Avenue that on the north constitutes the body of the central business district, and on the south a revitalized thoroughfare of fashionable and trendy businesses serving as a gateway to South Texas.

In 1838, Mirabeau B. Lamar, vice president of the Republic of Texas, camped at the original town of Waterloo along the banks of the Colorado. Lamar believed that the site was favorable for a state capital and began an effort to secure it as such, competing with Sam Houston's interests in the town of Houston, which was the capital from 1837 to 1839 after Columbia (now West Columbia) and a politically ill-fated site near La Grange in Fayette County. After it was selected, Waterloo's name was changed to honor Stephen F. Austin. The town was planned and laid out in early 1839 by Edwin Waller, with wide Congress Avenue (known for the first seventy years simply as The Avenue) conveying the grand image suitable for a national capital. Frederick Law Olmsted in A Journey Through Texas (1859) wrote that Austin reminded him of a small Washington, D.C. The new town grew despite occasional incidents with area Comanche tribes. The population reached almost 1,000 by late 1845, when Texas entered the Union as the twenty-eighth state.

Austin quickly developed as a mixed ethnic city with sizeable German American, Mexican American, and African American populations. The town's role as a trade and government center expanded with only a short setback during the Civil War. Prior to the war, the state established a number of institutions in 1856 including the State Lunatic Asylum ( AU84), the Blind School, and the Deaf and Dumb Asylum, now the administration building for Austin State Hospital at 4110 Guadalupe Street. In 1860, the city's population reached 3,494.

A small group of builders and architects who improved the city's houses before the Civil War used vernacular or traditional house forms often constructed of local limestone. Greek Revival was a popular architectural style and was used by master builder Abner Cook for some of the city's most important early residences, including the Governor's Mansion ( AU4) and houses for James B. Shaw ( AU62) and Washington Hill ( AU67). Cook, a native of North Carolina, arrived in Austin in 1839 and left a substantial mark on the built environment, setting a high standard for design that remains influential today.

The Texas State Capitol ( AU1) anchors the city's center at the head of Congress Avenue. A Greek Revival capitol of 1854 burned in 1881, requiring a replacement befitting a growing state. Other buildings contemporary to the capitol include Main Building at St. Edward's University ( AU54) and Old Main (1882–1898; demolished) at the University of Texas.

In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, the central business district along Congress Avenue and 6th, or Pecan, Street developed in an array of commercial styles in brick and stone, often with elaborate wood, stone, or metal cornices. Local architects, including Jasper N. Preston and his son, Samuel A. J. Preston, and Jacob L. Larmour, who were some of the first to practice in the state, experimented with forms and materials. J. Riely Gordon, more noted for his Texas courthouses, contributed several important buildings, including the McKean-Eilers Building (see AU12).

Residential neighborhoods developed in all directions from the capitol. Large Victorian-era houses were built, including the Bremond Block ( AU29) to the west, on Judge's Hill to the north, near 6th Street to the east, and east of East Avenue (I-35). Local contractors built a few smaller and quite handsome cottages on the streets immediately around the capitol with a handful still remaining, now often adapted for offices. James Wahrenberger's design for the George W. Littlefield House ( AU41.5) set a new standard for residential design in the last decade of the nineteenth century. More modest houses are in West Austin (primarily west of Lamar Street), the neighborhoods south of the river, and sections of East Austin. A sizeable African American neighborhood established in the late nineteenth century grew in the twentieth century on the western edge of Austin north of the Colorado River. The area, now known as Clarksville, is a scattering of single-family houses of a once thriving community.

The preferred construction material for all building types in the city was limestone quarried from nearby Hill Country counties and hauled to Austin by wagon. After a railroad arrived in 1871 and a second railroad in 1876, an increasing variety of materials became available: milled lumber and jigsaw-cut ornament, pressed metal for cornices and ceilings, and cast-iron columns and facades. Soon entire buildings could be ordered from a catalogue and delivered by rail, including structures as varied as jails and houses of all sizes.

During the pre–World War II decades, Austin grew steadily, but without major new sources of wealth the economy changed little. Neighborhoods of small bungalows formed north of the university, most notably in Hyde Park, on vacant lots in West and East Austin, and in Travis Heights in south Austin. Several important architects, particularly Roy L. Thomas, Edwin C. Kreisle, and Bertram E. Giesecke, designed bungalows as well as houses in Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, and other styles. Hugo Franz Kuehne, who organized the first architectural program at the University of Texas in 1910, left academia in 1915 and continued to design independently. Page Brothers became the largest and most prominent architectural firm in the city as early as the turn of the twentieth century.

In contrast to the popular building forms and classicism found on the University of Texas campus, two movements developed that impacted early design in the city. First, Samuel Gideon, an artist and architect, began educating students about early architecture in Austin and Texas, and initiated the first efforts at historic preservation in the city. Second, the first wave of European modernism and the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas in 1936 influenced the styles of the city's buildings, including the Municipal Building ( AU23) and the Herbert Bohn House ( AU70).

Chester Nagel, fresh from study at Harvard with Walter Gropius, returned to Austin and the university as an instructor. Nagel's house ( AU71) became a landmark in the state for its International Style design in local materials. The firms of Jessen, Inc., and of Fehr and Granger made considerable marks on the modernist setting of the city. Fehr and Granger designed the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport built in 1961 (demolished) as well as residential and institutional designs. Harwell Hamilton Harris, a modernist from California, came to the university in 1952 to serve as dean of the School of Architecture and had a significant influence on his students and the state. His Dr. Thomas M. Cranfill House ( AU66) and Balcones and Barrow houses (see AU76) set examples for modern residential work in the post–World War II years. Eugene Wukasch experimented with energy efficiency and examined the use of air-conditioning in single-family residences in a small residential enclave in north Austin known as “Air Condition Village” ( AU86).

In the 1950s and 1960s East Avenue became the route for I-35 from San Antonio to Dallas. The construction of the interstate divided the city along racial and income lines with African Americans and some Mexican Americans on the east side. Most of the east-side neighborhoods consisted of historically black-owned and low-to moderate-income households. This segregated community opened the door for one of the state's first African American architects, John S. Chase, to gain a foothold in modern design. His work, mixed with the craftsmanship of earlier African American and Latino residents, makes this section of the city one of the most interesting and culturally diverse.

Austin grew substantially in the 1970s and 1980s. The city's commitment to the environment and a casual lifestyle attracted a liberal, well-educated population. The University of Texas's development of engineering and high technology departments spun off new, clean industries. President Lyndon B. Johnson chose the east campus of the university for his presidential library ( AU41.7). During these years, several major high-rise buildings constructed in the central business district spurred interest in a view-shed protection ordinance that gave deference to the capitol by limiting the height and placement of new construction.

In the face of the increased loss of historic properties and the need to recognize early historical sites, Texas formed a state agency, the Texas State Historical Survey Committee (1953) that later became the Texas Historical Commission (1973), for historic preservation, encouraging the emergence of young leaders in the movement. These interests moved to the university's School of Architecture and into the private sector. The firm of Bell, Klein and Hoffman formed in 1973 to undertake some of the major restoration and rehabilitation projects of historic buildings in the city and across the state. Other firms such as Pfluger-Polkinghorn and Coffee Crier and Schenck also engaged in preservation work. While preservation grew in importance, the firms of Sinclair Black, Lawrence W. Speck Associates, and Robert Jackson Architects explored modern design with regional materials. These firms became early leaders in a now-well-established regional architecture of Central Texas.

From to time to time, the University of Texas School of Architecture served as an influence for design in Austin perhaps more than other areas of the state. Professors of architecture often contributed by keeping a small working studio and by demonstrating their design theories locally. Alan Taniguchi came to the university in the 1960s and made a substantial impact on the city. Charles Moore in the 1990s enlivened Quarry Road with his make-over of an older modest house at number 2102 ( AU61). The city's varied topography and diverse bodies of water from Lady Bird Lake to Lake Austin and Lake Travis have had an equally impressive effect on local architecture. Dramatic sites led to creative architectural projects that shaped much of the local work in the last half of the twentieth century.

Austin is today the center of a distinctive and still-emerging architectural style that is referred to as Hill Country Modern and is heavily influenced by early vernacular buildings of Central Texas and the Hill Country to the west. Architects have created modern design in such regional materials as limestone and corrugated metal for exterior treatments, and with broad overhanging roofs. Modern design, largely found as infill buildings in older neighborhoods, also features flat and angled roofs with large expanses of glass and such contemporary materials as steel.

The dot.com bust in the late 1990s hit Austin hard and the skeletons of abandoned skyscrapers marked the date, remaining on the skyline until they were demolished and begun anew in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Today, Austin has recovered and the new growth industry is downtown housing that attracts retirees from both coasts, spurring a building boom of glass skyscrapers that has once again transformed the skyline. The inner-city commercial area is becoming denser, with greater attention to high-quality residential and commercial architecture where parking lots or one-and two-story buildings once stood. The building boom also has brought bold new infill modernist houses throughout the city by emerging young architects. Yet, Austin continues to be challenged by the ever-increasing presence of the automobile and the city is typically gridlocked by traffic at rush hour, despite recent attempts for light rail and commuter rail.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Gerald Moorhead et al.

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