“Austin Askew”–Chapter I– Rats, Bats, and Brothels: The Saga of Austin’s City Halls

In legendary Gotham City, a bat cave is the headquarters of  a cape-wearing crime fighter. In Austin, a “bat cave” was once the home of our Mayor and City Council.

That this was the case should, however, come as no surprise to anyone from the city that celebrates and promotes its own weirdness. The history of our various City Halls has been full of controversy, quarrels, and odd happenings.

The City of Austin was incorporated in 1839, but didn’t get a City Hall until 1858. Why the delay? Maybe those early Austinites had been too busy decimating the buffalo and native populations to bother putting up a municipal building. Maybe Mirabeau Lamar, President of the Republic of Texas, let the Council meet in his barn. We just don’t know at this point.

The first Austin-based Capitol building was located at what is now the northeast corner of 8th and Colorado. It was a one-story structure, with a broad hall running east to west down the center, with the Senate Chamber on the north side of the hall and the House of Representatives Chamber on the south, and committee rooms in back to the west.

In 1856, the government of Texas, which was by now a state, gave that building to the City to use as a City Hall and Market House. It was not until 1858, however, that the old Capitol was renovated, reconditioned, and recycled (yes, it was a “green” city even then) into this new configuration. City business was transacted on the second floor of this new building, while the Market House, which was probably some sort of store or exchange, occupied the ground floor.

During the War Between the States, this building housed the State Military Board, where essential military and civilian supplies were exchanged.

In 1871, Austin finally got a City Hall of its own that didn’t have to be shared with other businesses or organizations. It was built, naturally, at Eighth and Colorado, and was a fairly nondescript structure, except for a bell tower on its southeast corner. Within just a few years, a great many bats, apparently impatient for the construction of the Congress Avenue bridge, took up residence in the building.

The “erstwhile bat cave,” as one newspaper called the building, also developed a reputation for being haunted. And after the Fire Department installed a 4,000-pound, spring-clapper general alarm bell onto the back of the building, City Hall no doubt became a true paradise of a working environment.

By 1906, the 1871 City Hall had become hopelessly outdated, and in August of that year, Mayor W. D. Shelley announced the construction of a new City Hall, to be built at, you guessed it, Eighth and Colorado. City offices were temporarily moved to the old Smith Opera House on West Sixth, next to the Post Office.

The hill on the construction site was cut down so it would be on the same level as the new engine house of Hook & Ladder Company No.1. Then the level of the street was also cut down and leveled.

This new City Hall was a three-story neo-classical structure built of yellow brick. The cornerstone was laid on May 7, 1907, with much fanfare and celebration.

The big day started with an army of children, no doubt relieved to have a break from playing mumblety-peg and dying of scarlet fever, marching from the south gate of the Capitol grounds down to the new City Hall, while singing “America.” Speeches were given by Mayor F. M. Maddox, Alderman C. W. Moore, and the Honorable T. W. Gregory. Besserer’s Band, which contrary to popular belief, was not an early Roky Erickson group, also favored the crowd with several rousing numbers.

A copper strongbox was placed inside the cornerstone. Inside the box were Confederate, American, and Mexican currency, a copy of the police payroll, a roster of City employees, a ticket to the “New Theatorium” at 111 West Sixth (presented “with the compliments of Morgan Moving Pictures”), calling cards, union cards, various trinkets, and a note that read, “I’m for the dam and against local option.”

It sounds like Mayor Maddox had just cleaned out his junk drawer.

By 1938 this City Hall had also grown too small and outdated, so the existing building was renovated and new extensions were built that surrounded and engulfed the old one. The 1938 Municipal Building cost $230,000, and was built of limestone, granite, brick, tile, and shellstone, the latter brought from Corpus Christi. It was designed by the architectural firm of Page and Southerland in the Art Moderne style.

Unfortunately, architect Louis Page decided that the new cornerstone, which bore the usual inscription (the date of construction, names of City Council members, and names of the architects and general contractors), was unacceptable and wouldn’t be used. One of the problems was the stone was made of red granite that had a great deal of black mottling, making the lettering hard to read.

City Manager Guiton Morgan suggested that the unacceptable lettering be shaved off and new lettering carved in its place, but Page said shaving the stone would make it too short and out of proportion on two sides, and that either way, the stone was of inferior quality and needed to be replaced. In the meantime, Page just left a gap in the southwest corner of the building and continued construction on the rest of the building.

(How this matter worked out is not known. The 1938 cornerstone that was finally used was also made of red granite, and doesn’t seem especially readable itself.)

The new cornerstone was laid in May 1938, put in just a few feet over the 1906 one. This time there were no speeches or ceremonies or bands. Some photos were taken, the 1906 memento box was sealed into the stone, and that was that. Only about fifty people were curious enough to show up and watch the proceedings.

All of the 1906 items were returned to the strongbox, but to them were added current newspapers, copies of the 1938 Traffic Code and City Charter, reports from the Chamber of Commerce, and photographs of Austin as it looked in 1938.

The new Municipal Building, though not as lavish as the Art Deco Travis County Courthouse, or the Spanish/Italianate Revival buildings going up at UT, still got some attention in the architectural press. The structure consisted of four floors in a C-shape, with a courtyard to the east.

The first floor housed the City Council, City Administrative offices, the Tax and Finance divisions, the City Water and Light departments, and in a one-story wing, the Recreation Department. On the second floor were Engineering, the Water and Light Service divisions, Purchasing, and the City Legal department. The Police Department had the entire third floor. In the basement were two file rooms (one measuring 38 by 89 feet), a radio equipment room, a radio and repair shop, an electrical transformer room with a thick fire wall, a telephone equipment room, and a mimeograph room. There was an elevator for the general public in the entrance foyer and a smaller one in the middle of the building for the Police and Engineering departments.

Previous City Halls had lasted about thirty years apiece, but the 1938 Municipal Building was already a problem by 1953. Some police officers had their desks in the third floor hallway, and the jail was so crowded that a deal was struck for the City to put its prisoners in the County Jail. An expansion proposed in 1953 didn’t get off the ground until 1956.

The plan was to fill in the courtyard between the two eastern wings, carry that addition all the way up to the third floor, extend the basement, add a basement cafeteria and kitchen, convert the old third floor jail into offices, and add room for the Water and Light Billing office, the Tabulating office, and the Design offices for the Electric, Water, and Sewage departments.

But the budget got cut by $50,000. City employees never got their cafeteria–just an expanded “coffee canteen”–what we today would call a “break room.” A dumbwaiter was added to haul maps, records, and other documents from the basement file rooms to the upper floors. Instead of buying a new elevator for the center of the building, $8,862 was spent reconditioning an old second-hand elevator that had been removed from Brackenridge Hospital after a renovation there. This rattling death trap could hold two passengers, or three if they were very much in love.

This expansion added 132,000 square feet to the building, and remodeling the basement and third floor added 26,800 square feet more.

In 1963 a 12 by 12 foot room was excavated for the storage of “Civil Defense materials,” whatever that meant exactly.

In 1968 a new $500,000 City Hall was proposed. The following year, it was suggested that an eleven-story City Hall could be built by 1975, with nine floors ready for immediate occupancy, and the rest to be finished later.

Another proposal was made to build a City Hall Annex and parking garage at Ninth and Colorado. Other proposed sites for a new City Hall were between East Fifteenth and Sixteenth, San Jacinto and Red River, or off Riverside by what is now called Auditorium Shores, or at the site of the Austin Colosseum and the Disch Field Stadium (the latter was being demolished in 1969). Still another plan had the new City Hall complex spilling onto either side of Congress from Colorado to Brazos, from West and East Second Street and up to West and East Fourth Street.

In 1971 $50,000 was spent remodeling and refurbishing the City Council Suite. $10,234 of that went to office furnishings. (This was in the days when a nice house could be built for $40,000.) Incredibly, thirty-three years later, Mayor Will Wynn was still using the same furniture, which of course by then was all banged-up and threadbare.

By 1974 the City Council had outgrown its 25 by 35 foot chamber in the Municipal Building and had moved its sessions to the auditorium in the City Electric Building. $3 million got allocated for the purchase of property to house the city government, and some of it went to buy the block that was bordered by Guadalupe, Lavaca, 1st, and 2nd Streets. On this block there was a two-story office building, a three-story warehouse, a loading dock, and ample parking spaces.

The rest of the money was set aside to purchase three full city blocks along 1st Street, which were designated to be the site of a future municipal complex.

The new City Hall Annex was designed in a truly wretched style that can only be described as “1970s Middle School.” But apparently no expense was spared for the new City Council chamber. The papers rhapsodized about the $140,000 showplace: Gold theater seats! Clip-on lavaliere mikes! Hand-rubbed birch paneling! Brown carpeting! (Ideal for hiding the stains from the mud-wrestling matches that were such a hallmark of those raucous  ‘70s Council sessions.)

The fact that no one had bothered to put in seats for the press also did not go by unnoticed.

In 1982 momentum for a new City Hall built up again and a variety of architectural schemes, with buildings one, four, six, and even eight stories tall, were proposed. One covered four blocks, between Colorado and Brazos, 1st and 3rd, with Congress running through the middle. All this plan lacked was a reconstruction of the Brandenburg Gate. This grouping included City offices, private offices, a museum, commercial space, and parking structures.

Another scheme involved a Spanish-style building that straddled Second Street between Guadalupe and Lavaca, and had a plaza facing First. In another, two City government buildings and a museum occupied two blocks just south of Republic Park.

In one plan a complex extended from First to Third, and San Antonio to Colorado. A 282,000-square-foot City office building faced Second at Guadalupe and Lavaca, with a plaza in the block south of it. To the west were two large office buildings, and to the east either an office building or a hotel.

The plaza block was edged by a structure containing, among other things, a restaurant and a health club, and at the south end of the plaza, facing the First Street Bridge, was a 25,000 square foot City Council building, built to look like a temple.

In another scheme, First Street was closed to vehicular traffic, and a complex containing City Hall, retail spaces, and apartments stretched from San Antonio to Colorado, all the way back to Third, and faced a glittering circular marina on Town Lake.

But the most bizarre, albeit interesting, proposal involved a Ponte Vecchio-like City Hall built on piers across Town Lake just west of the First Street Bridge. Ranging from one to two stories, and consisting of 280,000 square feet, this building terminated on the south in an amphitheater on Auditorium Shores, and on the north with an apartment/retail/parking garage complex bordered by First, Second, San Antonio, and Guadalupe.

Meanwhile, the 1938 Municipal Building was becoming increasingly decrepit. The metalwork was found to contain lead paint and the insulation was full of asbestos. There was precious little parking, and members of the City Council had to park by the doors to the old Morgue, while another City employee had the Morgue blood drain in his office floor. Matt Curtis, Mayor Wynn’s Chief of Staff, had rat traps under his desk, but to be fair, there were rat traps all over the building, inside and out.

Well, you can only re-sole an old pair of shoes so many times before you have to finally break down and buy a new pair. By 1998, the City Council decided it was time to bite the bullet, pull up stakes, and flee the vermin, the cramped, crumbling quarters, and a century-and-a-half of all-around bad juju at Eighth and Colorado, and build a brand-new City Hall worthy of the high-tech city Austin had become.

In 2000 the City Hall Annex fell to the wrecker’s ball and plans were made to build the new City Hall on that site. Fans of local history were quick to point out that that part of downtown had in Victorian times been a red-light district known as “Guy Town.” (For everything that changes in this town it seems more stays the same.)

The City retained Albuquerque architect Antoine Predock, who understands that you can work in a Southwestern architectural idiom without building a kitschy Taco Bell knock-off.

The new City Hall is a creative gem, with four stories and a compact 115,300 square feet, and will no doubt attract the attention of the international architectural community. Austinites are notorious for having an askew, “outside-the-box” way of thinking, and the City Hall, appropriately enough, is a playful piece of origami made of limestone, concrete, steel, copper, and glass, with planes and lines and angles running this way and that.

Austinites’s love of the outdoors is reflected in all the balconies, outdoor spaces, and plantings found on and around the building. The structure is impressive without being intimidating. The Birkenstock-shod slacker and the buttoned-down businessman will feel equally at ease here.

In keeping with a long-standing tradition in civic architecture, this building incorporates many symbolic elements, but you’ll see no half-naked statues of Justice or carvings of fasces-bearing eagles here. Rather, the symbolism is more by way of suggestion, less blatant.

One of the themes that inspired the design is the idea of openness in government, and you’ll see glass walls throughout the building. There’s one second floor meeting room with glass walls and ceiling. It’s cantilevered out over the central atrium, and theoretically you could stand at the third or fourth floor balcony and look down through the room’s ceiling and read the papers and notes of the people meeting there.

The south exterior of the building is open, embracing, with a set of environmentally-friendly solar panels, an amphitheater and concert stage, as well as trees, plantings, and rock gardens. It reaches out to Austin’s soulful, gonzo South Side, to Town Lake, Auditorium Shores, and the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

The north side, on the other hand, is dominated by a copper-clad, beak-shaped balcony, a prow to the “ship of state,” as it were, initially called by Predock the “Armadillo’s Tail,” but now referred to as “The Stinger.” It points towards high-tech North Austin. And like twenty-first century Austin, the Stinger stretches out, ever reaching, aspiring, striving for a future that all Austinites know is free for the taking, floating in that crisp, blue Hill Country sky.

—January 13, 2005

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