“Austin Askew”–Chapter XXVI– The Austin Athletic Club, 1924-2006

When I was in college at Sam Houston State in Huntsville in the 1980s, there was a rundown old mansion on the north end of the campus. Originally a private residence, it was converted into a sorority house in the ‘30s. Eleanor Roosevelt was an overnight guest. (Imagine the pillow fights!) Campus legend held that the house was later home to a group of Satan  worshipers who painted the ceilings black. Eventually a fraternity took the old place over.

One summer afternoon I walked back from town and saw the house was for sale and that the realtor had left the front door open during daylight hours. I just had to go inside and explore, and so, with the curiosity of Fox Mulder and the cowardice of Don Knotts, and armed only with a sketch pad, I slipped into the dark, creepy house.

It seemed a perfectly normal old place, albeit one with dirty floors covered with beer cans, cigarette butts, and frayed centerfolds. But just off the second-floor hallway I saw a door that led to a staircase to the attic; I was too scared to go any further. At best I was afraid I’d find rats and weak floor boards, at worst, human skulls, pentagrams, and the fragments of sacrificial goats. I ran out of there like a frightened little girl. (I later learned the dark secret of the attic–it was where the frat boys took their young lady friends to get better acquainted.)

Because of the house’s history (the Eleanor Roosevelt part), some of the community wanted the house preserved. The University wanted to tear the house down and build on the site. And so the traditional conflict between preservation and “progress” wore on for a few months until a rich local businessman with a fondness for preservation bought the house, cut it into four sections, moved it out to his ranch, re-assembled and restored it, and sold the house’s original site to the school. Everybody wound up happy.

And so when I heard the old Austin Athletic Club building on 1301 Shoal Creek was in danger of demolition, I pictured a simple solution–that some dot-com millionaire would buy the structure, cut it into four pieces, and rebuild it elsewhere. I had every intention of getting on a soap box and haranguing about this city’s maniacal insistence on pursuing the new and shiny and novel to the exclusion of its history and past. But then I read the Department of Public Works report on the Austin Athletic Club.

The Club was built in 1924 at a cost of $38,000 by W. T. Caswell, a local builder, developer, first Chairman of the City Recreation Board, and, to use the phrase of my old high school principal (a former coach), “a big athletic supporter.”

Physical fitness was trendy in the first decades of the twentieth century, but in a different way than it is now. Back then nobody ran half-naked around the lake in 100+ degree heat. Weight-lifting was uncommon, even among high school and college athletes, because of the supposed dangers of getting “muscle-bound.” There were numerous “strong men” in those days, chief among them Eugen Sandow, but they were largely considered vaudeville attractions.

Isometric exercises developed a level of popularity, thanks chiefly to Charles Atlas. Some people worked out with Indian clubs, barbells, and medicine balls. Diet gimmicks, colonics, and other gimmicks also had their adherents. “Taking exercise” and sleeping in the open air were seen as very important, since non-circulating air was regarded as a breeding ground for disease. Many houses featured “sleeping porches,” which afforded residents not only access to that open air, but some degree of relief from the heat in those horrific days before air conditioning.

Thanks to advances in mass communications the 1920s saw the emergence of the modern American athlete as pop icon. Doughy white guys like Babe Ruth began commanding large salaries, and soon professional athletes  were regarded as having actual careers and not just as men who “played games for a living.”

Still, physical fitness for the non-professional was largely the province of people with enough money to have leisure time. Subsistence farmers and  day laborers didn’t have the luxury of  pursuing “rock-hard abs” and “buns of steel.” And so, the Austin Athletic Club was initially open only to private subscribers, though it was later sold to the City in 1931, to serve at Austin’s first community recreation center.

The AAC was built in House Park between Shoal Creek and Lamar in what soon became a hot spot of athletic activity, with a football stadium, baseball field, and the Austin High School Gym all eventually located close by. A frame building with a concrete basement, the AAC consisted of four levels. The basement contained restrooms and storage rooms (later weight rooms), and on the first floor a gym with bleachers extended  two-and-a-half stories and occupied two-thirds of the building’s length on the southern end. The northern portion of the building consisted of a lobby and arts and crafts room (both with fireplaces) and classrooms on the first floor, an apartment, nursery, and offices on the second, and a dance studio on the third.

The AAC served generations of Austinites as a place to work out, take tennis lessons, and attend informal classes, but it was dealt a death blow by the 1981 Memorial Day flood. At the June 8, 2006 meeting of the City Council, Austin Parks and Recreation Director Warren Struss described the scene the day after the flood: … “I remember being called out early that morning to get on out there….I remember the water line on the side of that building up above the windows on that first floor, about halfway up above the windows on that first floor. I remember standing there with a number of other Parks and Recreation folks that morning saying, ‘This building is no longer capable of being used.’ It was a devastating flood. It was one that absolutely damaged that building beyond repair. It was unbelievable, the force of Shoal Creek that night on that building.”

The AAC was closed to the public in 1986, after a new Austin Recreation Center was built, on stilts, nearby. The AAC received further damage in later floods and from rain falling through holes in the roof. According to a 2005 Austin Public Works Department report, at least two-thirds of the building is totally beyond repair, so any restoration of the building would be more of a “re-creation” (pun unintended).

The interior damage to the AAC, and the extensive graffiti that’s been done in the building, can be viewed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/56056995@N00/sets/72057594131941393.

I have said it before and will keep saying it: Austinites, by and large, have no sense of their own history. We’d rather pave a parking lot than preserve an old building, and we’d rather build a generic limestone- and concrete-veneer strip center most of all. We’d rather look like every other city in the Sunbelt than a place with a colorful and unique history. We mistake “newness” for “progress.” But all America is going this way. Since we no longer have any roots or sense of place, for some reason we demand that every city we live in look the same. That is wrong, and worse, that is boring.

I’ll hate to see the Austin Athletic Club go, but frankly, from what I’ve read, the building is too decayed to preserve.  Our current leaders are not to blame, but rather the people who were in charge twenty-five years ago. They dropped the ball and let this venerable old building  rot away. Every day for a quarter century thousands of people have driven past the AAC on Lamar and no doubt thought, “Gee, they really ought to restore that old building.” But no one did anything. It’s our duty now to take a long, hard look at Austin’s other historic properties and to see what we can do about saving them while they still can be saved, while Austin still retains at least a shred of its unique identity, before it all turns into a generic yuppie wasteland. That would be the last service the Austin Athletic Club could provide to this city.

—June 15, 2006

{The title of this piece is in error. Though the City condemned the Austin Athletic Club building in 2006, it didn’t get around to tearing the structure down until 2008.}

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