Old West Austin History
The Old West Austin neighborhood is bounded by Mopac Expressway on the west, Enfield Road on the north, Lamar Boulevard on the east, and Town Lake on the south. This neighborhood exemplifies the diverse people that built Austin. The area contains a rich set of historical elements ranging from residential properties to community service sites and businesses, which demonstrate a clear picture of Austin from the late 1800s. One integral component of this diverse neighborhood, Clarksville, has already been recognized as a National Register Historic District.
In 1876 the International and Great Northern Railroad came to Austin. In 1956 it became the Missouri and Pacific Railroad and its tracks, which traverse the Old West Austin area across its southern edge, are still in use today by Amtrak passenger trains and by cargo trains. The Amtrak depot is located within the neighborhood boundaries at 250 N. Lamar Boulevard. In its past, the railroad offered the people of Austin links to cities such as Chicago, Louisville, Washington, DC, and New York. The International and Great Northern Railroad provided all the "modern" improvements of the time, such as Pullman Sleeper cars and travel "without change of cars."
If one was not traveling, the social centers of Austin often were the beer gardens. Paul Pressler owned one of the first of the famous beer gardens. In operation prior to 1897, Pressler Beer Garden was located near where present day West 6th Street and Pressler Street meet. Built in connection with the Pressler Brewery, it boasted a bandstand and shade trees, and stretched all the way to the river.
Near present day 3rd Street and Lamar Boulevard is Tips Iron and Steel Company. It was founded in 1899 and moved to its current location in 1909. For many years Tips supplied engines, gas meter covers, and structural support beams for downtown buildings such as the Driskill Hotel and the city library at 9th and Guadalupe (now the Austin History Center). Allan Perry, a descendant of early neighborhood families, recalls that Elton Perry, Sr., great-grandfather to Allan and original owner of the Perry House at 610 Baylor Street, made the forms for many of these items produced at Tips Iron and Steel Company. Elton Perry, Sr. was also the father/father-in-law of the original owners of the Taylor House (a designated Austin Landmark) at 608 Baylor Street. The Taylor House remains in the Taylor family to this day.
In 1869 the Texas Military Institute (TMI) was built on West 11th Street. Because of its unique Victorian Gothic architecture, it is often referred to as "The Castle." It is the oldest existing college building in Texas. Homes around the property housed faculty of the Institute. It is apparent even today that houses were part of TMI by their materials, massing, and architecture. "The Castle" as well as two of the faculty homes (at 1106 W. 10th Street and 1109 W. 10th Street) are designated Austin Landmarks.
In 1889, the Texas Confederate Home for Men was established where the present day University Housing is located on West 6th Street. After the Civil War, the Union Soldiers were provided pensions and care, but the Confederate Soldiers were left to fend for themselves. Through a large community effort, the John B. Hood Camp of Veterans, in conjunction with the Albert Sidney Johnston Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, raised funds that enabled them to build several brick cottages for Confederate soldiers. Capt. Ben McCullough was superintendent of the home around 1912 and lived there with his wife, who was the widow of R.C. Barton. Mrs. McCullough’s granddaughter remembers visiting the home and being fascinated by the wires that existed between the dining room and the cabins. These wires allowed the blind veterans to hook their walking canes on them and safely navigate around the grounds. In 1920, Hobby Memorial Hospital was completed and with dwindling numbers of veterans in residence, the 48th Legislature decided that it was appropriate to transfer mental patients to the Confederate Home. The Home was demolished in 1970, but residents of the Clarksville area still remember the home.
Charles Clark settled Clarksville in 1871. It was founded as an African-American freedman’s community and represents one of the oldest continuously cohesive neighborhoods in Austin. The land was originally part of the Pease Estate and it was sold or given to Clark after Emancipation. By 1875 resident Elias Mays was representing the African-American community in the Legislature to ensure that they continued to have the rights given them after the war. The Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church was first built in 1882 and the present home of the church was built in 1935. Clarksville was listed as a National Register Historic District in 1976.
Mathews Elementary School, at 906 West Lynn Street, was built in 1915 and is named after former school board member W. J. Mathews. By June of 1917, Mathews Elementary School had 190 students and 5 teachers. In the spring of 2000 the school became part of the National Register of Historic Places and a designated Austin Landmark. In performing the research to achieve these listings, the 4th through 6th grade classes at Mathews conducted oral histories with previous students of the school. One such oral history was by Miss Jane Smoot who remains a neighborhood resident. She is the granddaughter of the original owner of Flower Hill, one of the neighborhood’s most dramatic designated Austin Landmarks.
Flower Hill was built in the 1870s by Richard Kelly Smoot. He designed the house himself and used his study as a classroom for the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Smoot trained 44 ministers before closing the school in 1895. Legend has it that William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) and Athol Estes were married by Smoot at Flower Hill in 1887.
In addition to the many buildings of historic interest in the area, described above, other features of the neighborhood provide insights into the past life of the residents of the area.
West Austin Park was the original site of the Clarksville Jazz Festival (now held in Pease Park). The park has long been a place for the residents of the neighborhood to swim or enjoy a nice day in the park.
A Moonlight Tower, one of the 17 remaining in Austin, still stands at the corner of 12th Street and Blanco Street. The towers have been in operation for over 100 years. They have only been turned off three times since their original installation. Once in 1905 the towers were off for a week due to a dispute between the city council and the water and light commission. The second time the towers were darkened was in 1973 during the energy crisis. The Moonlight Towers were completely restored in the mid 1990s by the City of Austin.
Even though only one-third of the original tree survives, the 600-year-old Treaty Oak stands on Baylor Street between West 5th Street and West 6th Street. Legend has it that the Treaty Oak was the site of treaty signings between Stephen F. Austin and local Indians; however, there is no record of Stephen F. Austin ever being in Austin. Before its unfortunate poisoning in 1989, this tree had been called North America's most perfect tree specimen.