What would you do if the Austin you know and love was being threatened by strip malls and national corporations?
Large changes are easy to spot. But historical and cultural landmarks can be quietly replaced, one at a time, until our city’s architectural heritage is gone.
Behind every old building is a special story. Without the buildings, the stories are told less, and that part of who we are as a city is lost.
Fortunately for Austinites, the Heritage Society of Austin exists to protect Austin’s rich history. Though the Society’s website displays the slogan “This isn’t your grandmother’s heritage society,” older generations do tend to care the most about preservation.
To combat the generational difference in perspective, the Heritage Society of Austin created Inherit Austin. Inherit Austin exists to cultivate a new generation of Austinites who care about Austin’s history and are excited about protecting it.
Downtown Dillo Deco Tour with Inherit Austin
Inherit Austin uses special events to educate its members and get them involved in the community. The most recent event was the Downtown Dillo Deco Tour, and we were privileged to be invited. Though I’m pretty sure I was the youngest person on the tour, I loved it. And I know for sure that many of my friends would have enjoyed it too.
A Dillo trolley toured us past eleven Austin landmarks that have been around since the 1920-30’s. Each building represents an architectural style called art deco, which was known as “modern” architecture until the 1960’s when it fell out of fashion.
Deco is divided into two types: classic or streamline. Classic deco is known for its vertical and symmetrical style, while streamline deco is more horizontal and asymmetrical, with little ornamentation. There are many influences from nature, and you’ll see elements like flowers and sea shells worked into facades. Deco is also strongly influenced by the architecture of ancient cultures like Egypt and Greece.
On the Inherit Austin tour, I saw buildings that I drive past all the time. Now that I know their stories, they mean so much more to me. I feel personally invested in preserving them, which is exactly what Inherit Austin has in mind!
Here is a taste of what we saw on the deco tour…
Seaholm Power Plant
The lettering used for the Seaholm Power Plant’s sign is a classic feature of deco. Facing Lady Bird Lake is another feature that was used all the time in deco: the monumental entrance.
Travis County Courthouse
Plans for the Travis County Courthouse were in place before World War II, but the conflict postponed construction. The Courthouse has strong horizontal and vertical lines, and there are also many classical influences, including Greek moulding, triangles and semi-circles. The courtrooms inside celebrated an Egyptian revival with columns and other Egyptian elements.
Austin Daily Tribune Building
The story of the Austin Daily Tribune Building was probably my favorite of the tour. The building was built in 1941 and it was the tallest built in Austin during the 1940’s.
The Daily Tribune did not have a good reputation in Austin because of the man behind it, James West. West loved Democratic politician Pappy O’Daniel, but he wanted to destroy Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like many journalists of the time, West valued political expediency more than objectivity.
Ironically, the legislature renamed the building as the Ernest O. Thompson Building in 1945…ironic because Thompson was one of Pappy O’Daniel’s biggest political enemies. I’m sure James West is rolling over in his grave.
State Highway Building
The State Highway Building is an example of classic art deco. A stepped skyscraper, it’s very vertical with a monumental entrance and Ionic column tops outside the building. Natural elements and a lot of artwork are incorporated, and there’s a beautiful mural inside.
Want to see it for yourself? You can walk in anytime; just say hi to the security guard to let him know you’re a friendly!
Other Downtown Deco Landmarks
The tour also took us to:
- The Municipal Building, constructed in 1938
- The Brown Building, constructed in ’38 with updates in 1949 and 1952
- The United States Court House, 1936
- The Scarborough Building, 1931
- The State Theater, 1935
- Mutual Deposit & Loan Co./Fidelity Mortgage Co. Building, 1930
- E. H. Nelle Conoco Service Station, 1942
Each location had its own unique features and special story. You’ve probably driven past them dozens of times, but now I hope you’ll stop and take a closer look.
Getting Involved with Inherit Austin and the Heritage Society of Austin
My generation can’t pass the job off to anyone else. There will always be outside pressures that threaten historic structures in Austin, and we need to take a stand. Plus, I really don’t want to be the only one staving off the bulldozers!
Inherit Austin does offer an annual membership, and they have an event coming up in September 2013 that you won’t want to miss.
September 29, 2013 is the 4th Annual Somewhere in Time Dinner at the historic Moore’s Crossing in southeast Austin. Proceeds will benefit the advocacy and education programs of Preservation Austin and the upkeep of Richard Moya Park by the Travis County Parks Department.
Preservation starts with getting educated and being more aware of the history surrounding us every day. Thanks for taking the time to read about Austin’s deco history. Hopefully you’ll take the time to tell a friend about what you learned.
What is your favorite deco building in Austin?
Photos via Flickr CC, courtesy of Dan Machold, Brandon Watts, Steve and Sara Emry, David Stall, Phil Ostroff and Dave Wilson.