The Historic Building That Isn't: Wrecking Ball for 19th Century Structure
When does an historic building stop being historic? When it’s remodeled? Damaged and repaired? Covered over with a new façade? How about if its appearance is altered and later restored? What if the restored appearance, while true to the original building’s era, differs from the original? Is it worth preserving?
If you are the owner of the 19th-century structure at 901 Congress Ave. in Austin, the answer to the last question is an easy “no.”
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that owns the building, has been granted permission for demolition. In a recent article in the Austin American-Statesman, foundation spokesman Joshua Treviño spoke of creating a new “landmark” to replace the old. Mr. Treviño also offered the opinion that Congress Avenue is “a little bit sparse once you go past Sixth [Street] as you approach the Capitol. This should help that.”
“This” is the five-story building planned by Mr. Treviño’s employer that will replace the current structure. The foundation’s demolition application to the Historic Landmark Commission proposes to raze a building that was “completely modified in 1946 and again in 1976.” The Commission recently voted to approve the application, meaning that once Texas Public Policy Foundation’s design for a new building is approved, the 19th-century building will be destroyed.
Detail from the 1873 birds-eye view map of Austin drawn by August Koch. The 1853 Capitol is seen above Mesquite (11th) Street. Two blocks below, on the northeast corner of Ash (9th) Street and Congress Avenue, sits the livery stable and opera house built by M. M. Long.
There are at least two mistakes in the research section of the Historic Landmark Commission summary. The first concerns the claim that Austin city directories “only go as far back as 1879.” Gray and Moore actually published the city’s first directory in 1872. The second derives from the first with the claim that whether the building existed before 1879 is unknown. Admittedly the 1872 directory provides only circumstantial evidence of the building by noting that M. M. Long operated a livery stable on the site in question, one that he shared with an opera house run by F. Dohne. But a quick peek at Augustus Koch’s 1873 Bird’s Eye View of the City of Austin, a detailed map with a sketch of every building in town, shows a two-story structure looking strikingly similar to 19th-century photographs of the one proposed for demolition.
“M. M. Long’s Livery Stable and Opera House.”
So reads the Texas Historical Commission marker on the front of the building. According to the marker, Long and his family moved from Bastrop to Austin in the 1860s. After erecting his building, Long opened a livery stable on the first floor and an opera house on the second. In those days the term “opera house” was used rather loosely, being applied to any public entertainment hall.
This detail of an 1876 photograph looking east along Ash (9th) Street shows that cattle were no strangers to 19th-century Austin streets. M. M. Long's livery and opera house is visible across Congress Avenue. (Photo courtesy of the Austin History Center.)
Tennessee native M. M. Long immigrated to Texas sometime before 1857. That year he placed a notice in the Bastrop Advertiser that he would “keep at [my] livery stable a No. 1 pack of Hounds well-trained for catching runaway negroes.” By 1872 at the latest, Long had moved to Austin and opened the aforementioned livery stable. He ran a stage line to Lampasas from the stable that made the 130-mile round trip three times a week; a one-way ticket cost $7.
M. M. Long (1824-1901).
Long’s business played out sometime in the 1870s and by 1877 the building at 901 Congress housed the Golden Rule Saloon run by an Irishman named Oscar Sullivan. By 1880 Jules Bornefeld’s Palace Saloon and Billiard Hall had taken over. An 1880 notice in the Austin Statesman boasted of the availability of “ice cold Schlitz Milwaukee beer” at the Palace, while in an 1883 advertisement in the Austin Daily Dispatch Bornefeld reminded Austin’s citizens that not only did he “keep the very finest liquors and cigars” but he also “sets the best lunch to be found in Austin. Lunch every day from 10 to 12 and every night.” The nighttime lunch is explained by the fact that Bornefeld continued to operate the second-story opera house and opened his kitchen to feed the evening crowds.
Top: Token issued by Jules Bornefeld's Palace Saloon and Billiard Hall. Bottom: Advertisement from 1885.
Other opera houses gradually appeared in Austin that did not smell of livestock and by 1900 the upper floor of the 901 Congress building served as a meeting hall for the Oddfellows. Horace Haldeman ran a tobacco shop downstairs. Five years later J. H. Maxwell and Oakley Spalding were running a drug store on the site. It was still thriving in 1929 when new owners changed the name to Capital Pharmacy. In 1916 Capital Engraving began a thirteen-year-long occupancy of the second story.
20th Century Facades
By the eve of World War II, Boswell Turner had opened a jewelry shop on the premises. Not long thereafter Benjamin Goodfriend established a women’s clothing store in the building.
No doubt wishing to modernize the building’s appearance, and thus the image of his clothing line, Goodfriend completely changed the edifice. In the process, according to the Commission report, he drained the structure of its historic significance by removing the corner of the building facing 9th Street and Congress Avenue, filling in all of the window and door openings, and constructing a new blank façade. The result was a bland two-story box that evidently fit better with Goodfriend’s idea of a modern clothing store.
Benjamin Goodfriend transformed the 901 Congress building by eliminating most doors and windows and covering the entire structure with a smooth facade.
Capital Mortgage Bankers acquired the property in 1976 and restored its 19th-century look. Had the renovation been based upon the structure’s original appearance the recent Historic Landmark Commission vote might have had a different outcome. Instead, though, architects created a façade different from the original 1870s version: new window and door openings were cut irrespective of the original locations. Furthermore, no attempt was made to use historic materials, the modern façade merely being tacked over the old one.
The result was a building that indeed looks as if it was constructed in the 1800s but in fact only bears a strong resemblance to M. M. Long’s livery stable and opera house. This “total lack of integrity” was enough to doom the building in the Historic Landmark Commission’s eyes. The Commission committee reviewing the demolition application nevertheless advised replacing the old structure with one that “complements the scale of the existing buildings in the 900 block of Congress Avenue to maintain the character of the streetscape.” The Texas Public Policy Foundation believes their proposed five-story building will do just that.
After the 1976 renovation, as it still appears today.
Is the building at 901 Congress Ave. indeed historically worthless?
For those answering yes, the fact that the building’s original walls are intact is trumped by the altered outward appearance. Yet those are the same walls that sheltered M. M. Long’s horses and opera house patrons. Those walls have witnessed about 140 years of Austin history and are still deemed unworthy of preservation.
Joshua Treviño’s description of Congress Avenue above Sixth Street as “sparse” reminds me of what Governor Preston Smith said in response to those who fought to preserve another historic building along this “sparse” section of Congress Avenue, the Lundberg Bakery.
The still-standing Lundberg Bakery at left.
“I don’t see why we have to save that old building,” Smith complained. “I’m told it isn’t even the oldest building on Congress Avenue.” Had Smith had his way, there would now be a massive Department of Transportation complex covering that entire block.
Similarly, because the building at 901 Congress Ave. “was completely modified in 1946 and again in 1976,” it is disposable. And the city will therefore dispose of it.