“Austin Askew”–Chapter XIX– President’s Hill: The Story of Block 85

Once upon a time I worked downtown at the Omni. Half of this building is devoted to a hotel, half to offices, and it is bisected by a lofty, sixteen-story, 200-foot tall, steel-and-glass atrium. Since I was raised in small towns and am an easily amused bumpkin I actually got a thrill every time I had to ride up or down in one of the glass-walled elevators there.

The location was great–a block from the Paramount Theatre and from the Driskill Hotel, and two blocks from Sixth Street. The only problem was you couldn’t approach this building on foot from any direction without having to climb a steep hill. (That’s the thing about being a sedentary person in a hilly city–you always ask yourself, “Is this trip necessary?”) Well, it turns out this hill is more than just a prominent inconvenience. It also has a name and an important place in downtown history.

Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, second President of the Republic of Texas, was a fancy man, and he would not live just anywhere. He discovered the site for Austin while on a buffalo hunt, and a year after taking office he had the capital moved there, and hired Edwin Waller to build him a house. Waller had mapped out the streets and blocks of downtown Austin in 1839, and he built Lamar’s house on an elevated lot on Block 85, which is bordered by 7th, 8th, Brazos, and San Jacinto Streets.

The eminence was soon called “President’s Hill,” and the structure Waller built was referred to rather grandly as “The President’s House.” The residence had two rooms upstairs and two down, one on either side of open-air “dog-run” hallways. There were also a small, crude, two-storied columned portico in front of the house. The house seems to have originally had a flat roof, but a rather ungainly hip roof was added later.

It was in this frontier palace that Lamar received papers from France, England, the US, Belgium, Holland, and the Papal States, recognizing the Republic of Texas as a sovereign nation. Lamar only lived in the house for about two years. When his term ended he returned to his plantation in Richmond.

Sam Houston, Lamar’s predecessor and successor as President, did not, as I mentioned in another article, want Austin to be the capital of Texas, preferring understandably, the city of Houston. For the brief time he lived in Austin during his second term, he occupied an “Executive Mansion” on Congress Avenue: a one-room, dirt floor cabin.

One of his visitors during this time said the President received him in the nude, with a buffalo rug wrapped around him like a toga. He frequently interrupted the conversation to stride up and down the room, declaiming famous speeches in Greek and Latin. (This is not all that much different from my typical meetings with my editor.)

The President’s House went through several hands, but once Sam Houston left Austin a virtual ghost town, the house was abandoned to the elements. It had been poorly built in the first place, and finally burned to the ground in 1847. Governor Peter Bell bought the site in 1853 for $3,000, intending to build a house there, but sold it in 1857 to F. T. Duffau. Duffau eventually left the property to his wife in his will, “for her affections and one dollar,” which makes me wonder how things worked in the Duffau household.

When the Governor’s Mansion was finished in 1856, the budget-conscious State partially furnished it with items that had been rescued from the old President’s House. This was the bureaucratic equivalent of salvaging stinking, ratty furniture from the curb.

Meanwhile, a few blocks north, nuns from the Sisters of the Holy Cross had set up a parochial school next door to St. Mary’s Church (now Cathedral). Their first home was a two-room cabin, one room serving as “parlor, classroom, study hall, recreation room, music hall, assembly room, as well as refectory and sewing room. The other room was used as kitchen, dormitory, pantry, and store room.” That must have been quite a cabin.

The school outgrew those quarters and was moved into a stone building, but when that eventually proved insufficient, the affectionate Mrs. Mary Duffau sold her lot to the school in 1882 for $17,000. A four-story limestone building, costing $65,000, measuring 136 feet by 68 feet, and containing thirty rooms, was constructed, and St. Mary’s Academy opened in 1885 as a school for girls. The architect was Frederick E. Ruffini, who also designed nine Texas courthouses (including the ones in Georgetown and San Marcos), the Millet and Hancock Opera Houses, the Texas School for the Deaf, and the original Main Building at the University of Texas.

Within seven years of its opening, the school had 150 pupils, half of them boarders. (The first registered boarder was Lizzie Lubbock, daughter of former Governor Francis Lubbock.) At this time a newspaper gushed, …“A large number of Sisters, perfectly trained for the duties they assume, are in charge of this school, and they spare neither money nor pains in providing pupils with every opportunity to advance them in the various studies pursued. Here assemble children of all religious denominations attracted by the mode and manner of training girls in all that pertains to mental and moral teaching. There is a purity about the appearance of the buildings and grounds of this institution, indicative of a cleanliness attaching to what is instilled here into youthful minds, and the happy expression of pupils and the love they bear to the Sisters show that they are properly watched over and cared for.”  

Another journalist, in an article subtitled “A Ramble Through the Convent,” went even further: “The tender children, innocent maidens and budding women, entrusted to the care of the gentle sisters, lead a calm, unruffled life….In viewing them in their purity and sweet innocence, we may almost wish that they might never pass through the stern realities and struggles of life, but that thus like angels, spotless and untainted, their innocent souls could be transplanted to shine, never fading, in the glorious garden of God!”

At the turn of the century the main building was expanded to include a chapel, music hall, and recreation room. The school was decorated with tapestries and exquisitely-carved pieces of furniture. There were several auxiliary buildings on the grounds, including a kitchen and an eight-room brick infirmary known as “Lamar Hall.”

The annual awards ceremonies at St. Mary’s were a major event in those days. I have seen newspaper accounts, some three columns wide, some five columns wide, and in tiny, tiny type, describing everything that would go on: songs, instrumentals, marches, recitations, historical tableaux (students dressed as Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine de Medici, Queen Elizabeth, as Truth, as Justice), skits, speeches, awards, presentations. It must have been like Wagner’s “Ring” cycle–something performed over a span of several nights, because not even the most gentle of saints could have sat still for all of that in one evening.

When the Austin Fire Department switched from horse-drawn engines to motorized ones, the last AFD fire horse was donated to St. Mary’s Academy, where he spent his declining years pulling the surrey that the Academy girls would take grocery shopping.

By 1947 the old building on President’s Hill had run its course, and the Sisters and the “Belles of St. Mary’s” moved to the Italianate villa of “Commodore” E. H. Perry at Forty-first and Red River, north of Hancock Golf Course. Various other buildings and a swimming pool were added to the ten-and-a-half-acre property. When St. Edward’s Boy’s High School closed in 1966, St. Mary’s Academy went co-ed, changing its name to “Holy Cross High School,” but the school closed in 1972 due to lack of funds and a decline in the number of nuns in the Sisters of the Holy Cross order.

The old Academy building downtown was razed, with some difficulty, in 1954. The top of the hill was scooped away and a parking lot occupied the site until the Austin Centre/Radisson (later Omni) Hotel was erected between 1984 and 1986. The nuns have been replaced with tourists and conventioneers.

—January 26, 2006

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