Being an Irreverent Guide to the History
of the Capital City of Texas,
Collected From the “Downtown Planet” Columns
J___ S___ B____
This book is dedicated
to the memory of my grandfathers,
J___ N___ S___
D___ L___ B___
storytellers and builders of Texas.
I.–Rats, Bats, and Brothels: The Saga of Austin’s City Halls
II.–Sermons in Stone: St. Mary’s Cathedral, Heart of Austin Catholicism, Renovated, Rededicated
III.–Lawyers, Guns, and Maid Service: A Selective History of the Driskill Hotel
IV.–Austin Music Venues of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
V.–Parklife: Austin’s Green Oases
VI.–Ma and Pa, Naked Sam, and the Hair Helmet Kid: Tales of the Texas Governor’s Mansion
VII.–The Bremond Family: Their Lives, Businesses, and Homes
VIII.–Major George Washington Littlefield: Cattleman, Confederate, Philanthropist
IX.–Clara Driscoll and Laguna Gloria
X.–Underground Austin: The Texas State Cemetery
XII.–Blaze of Glory: The Austin Fire Department and Austin Fire Museum
XIII.–150 Years at the Austin State Hospital
XIV.–Hell and High Water in Austin
XV.–Pease Elementary School Blows Out 129 Candles
XVI.–Known for its Deeds: The Old Land Office
XVII.–The School That Wouldn’t Sit Still
XVIII.–More Underground Austin: the Austin Memorial Park
XIX.–President’s Hill: The Story of Block 85
XX.–Burt, the Barrymores, and Batman: The Paramount Theatre at Ninety
XXI.–“Are you being served?:” Scarborough’s Department Store, 1893-1982.
XXII.–Riding the Celluloid Hills: An Incomplete Guide to Film Locations in Austin
XXIII.–The Curse of the Alamo
XXIV.–Seton Hospital: 104 Years of Healing
XXV.–Swante Palm, Nineteenth-Century Renaissance Man
XXVI.–The Austin Athletic Club, 1924-2006
XXVII.–The Courthouses of Travis County
XXVIII.–Hyde Park: “The Pride of Austin”
XXIX.–8/1/66: A Charles Whitman Gazetteer
Sources and Acknowledgements
In December 2004 my friend, the civil servant and bon vivant Matt Curtis, knowing I was looking for a new public forum for my writings and opinions, introduced me to Will Atkins, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the “Oak Hill Gazette.” Will had recently started another newspaper, the “Downtown Planet,” which he described as a small town newspaper for residents of downtown Austin.
Will and I quickly agreed that I should write for the Planet in some capacity. A few years before, I had been Food and Drink Editor for Austin Citysearch.com, so I hoped something similar, but sadly, Will already had a restaurant reviewer. He asked, “How about local history? Could you write a column on that?” I bit my lip, hid my reservations, and said yes.
You see, I have always had very mixed feelings about Texas history. The subject was always poorly taught in the Texas public schools. The textbooks would start out with a brief mention of the Indian tribes, move on to the Spanish conquistadors and missions, then bog down into weeks of deadly dull studies of the empresario system and the Anglo settlement under the Spanish and Mexican governments. Things would pick up at the Texas Revolution, get really interesting at the Alamo, slow down after the Battle of San Jacinto, and plummet into hopeless boredom after the Annexation of 1845. The rest of the account of the State’s history would be mind-numbing, with side trips into civics and geography, with analyses of the 1876 Constitution, photos and maps of the differing qualities of Texas soil, and production figures on oil, natural gas, and mohair.
And yet every summer for a weekend I’d go to San Antonio with my parents and visit museums, old houses, churches, and historic sites, where Texas history–even in the brochures and on the exhibit labels–would be presented in a compelling, interesting manner. Back at home I’d check out entertaining books on Texas history, accounts about the cattle barons and oilmen, the anecdote-filled works of June Rayfield Welch, and privately printed histories of Texas counties. Clearly there was a disconnect here, between Texas history as it was taught and regarded by some and Texas history as it could be written and presented. I suppose it made me a bit suspicious of the subject, fearing whenever I heard someone bring it up that I was about to be subjected to a boring lecture, rather than a good story.
Years later I attended Sam Houston State University in Huntsville and worked as a tour guide at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum on the campus, showing visitors around the main museum building, a gift shop/exhibit hall, and two of Houston’s houses. This gave me a daily immersion in Texas history, as well as a chance to exercise my theories. I found that for the sake of my sanity I could not repeat the same old memorized presentation to the tourists hour after hour and day by day. I tried to mix things up a little, telling jokes if I thought the audience might be appreciative. I tried to make Texas history entertaining as well as informative.
Sometimes, though, I only entertained myself. I’d give tours of the Steamboat House, ending in the room where Houston died. If the group included children or fairly clueless adults, I’d say, “Houston developed pneumonia, and on July 26, 1863, he died at the age of seventy, on an Army cot that was set up in the middle of the room…right there.” I would then point to the center of the room, and the tourists would get wide-eyed and more than a little spooked, and immediately step back to the edges of the room, as if to give Houston’s ghost some space.
I entered into my position at the Planet unsure as to where I wanted to take the column. Will gave it the name “The Way It Was.” I never liked the name, but also could never think of anything else to call it. The paper was supposed to come out every two weeks, though sometimes it only appeared once a month. That meant I needed to come up with a fairly good number of topics.
Will had made it clear up front that he couldn’t afford to pay me. That was all right by me. I was more interested in having a regular audience and in amassing current writing samples, or what we call in the writing business “clips.” Indeed, the column actually wound up costing me money. I did much of my research at the Austin History Center, and usually spent twenty to thirty dollars per article on photocopies of my source materials.
I’ve always been interested in architecture, so my curiosity about what went on in which Austin building inspired quite a few of my articles, and I illustrated most of my columns with old post cards I’ve collected or with photos I took myself. Some readers made suggestions for article topics, but sadly, I was unable to get to most of them before the paper folded in August 2006, twenty months after my first column appeared. The job was fun while it lasted.
I have done some selective editing on these articles, fixing typos and various infelicities of style. I’ve made very few changes or updates of information, leaving details as they were at the date of original publication and as then I understood them to be true. The fault for any errors is mine alone.
J___ S___ B___
May 1, 2009