Update (March 19): Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Preservation Austin has postponed its tour until Saturday, September 26.
Preservation Austin always takes an imaginative approach to its its annual homes tour. In recent years, we’ve been privy to the pleasures of experiencing some of Austin’s most notable homes—not necessarily the grandest or most well-known, but often the most distinctive and representative, organized around specific time periods, neighborhoods, and stylistic themes.
In past years, the nonprofit dedicated to “Saving the Good Stuff” in Austin’s built environment has invited us for up-close views of the city’s showy Victorian specimens, its midcentury-modern legends, its postwar bungalows, its crave-worthy Craftsmans, and more, with deep dives into the histories of a wide range of neighborhoods, from East Austin’s Robertson Hill/Guadalupe areas to diverse spaces in South Austin’s Bouldin Creek.
This year, the nonprofit’s 28th annual fundraising tour topic does not disappoint. “Downtown Doorsteps,” which takes place Saturday, April 25, will focus on six homes in the neighborhood, all historic spaces updated for contemporary living. They include not one but two apartments with in the ever-fascinating Cambridge Tower, the foxy midcentury residential building that went up in 1965, and a 150-year-old space above Congress Avenue, currently a renovated loft residence.
Part of the focus of this year’s tour is to not the continued relevance of historic downtown residences in the growing city. “This incredible range of building types spans nearly a century of Austin’s history, and all provide the same thing — housing for families drawn to the dense urban environment,” said Lindsey Derrington, Preservation Austin’s executive director. “They show what an essential role our historic buildings play in shaping a vibrant, accessible downtown.”
Photos of the spaces on the tour are below. You can hit the Preservation Austin tour site for tickets (including some at early-bird prices).
Rio Grande Street (1905)
Legendary local firm Page Brothers Architects (later called Page Southerland Page and now called Page) designed this home for Joseph D. Sayers after his second term as Texas governor (he was also grand master of the Masons’ Grand Lodge of Texas). Sayers’s wife, Orline Walton Sayers, was called “Dolly Madison of Texas” and lived there until her death in 1943. The current owner’s extensive art collection is showcased throughout the home, and the third-floor apartment retains an original fireplace mantel featuring Masonic iconography.
Brown Building (1938)
The Brown Building has been a much-coveted condo space since it was converted in the 1990s, but it started life as an Art Moderne office building for construction mogul Herman Brown (of the renowned/notorious Brown and Root). The history Brown and Root’s work on numerous federal infrastructure projects—many facilitated by then U.S. Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson, is reflected in the building’s marbled elevator lobby with stylized etched-glass panels depicting a dam, highway, and oil field. The building conversion was done in true loft style, with steel-framed windows, exposed electrical conduits and concrete pillars, and terrazzo floors.
Congress Avenue (1872)
Congress Avenue is rich with history, and this three-story residence with a view of the Paramount Theatre is part of it. It has a rich past as the spot for a variety of businesses, including saloons, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and the Vogue Shoe Store occupied the space for three decades starting in 1951. In 2003, the current owner began a meticulous 2.5-year reconstruction of its 1918 facade, which had been replaced by a midcentury-style one during that era; that project included restoring its limestone masonry, round-arched windows and doors, and steel-framed balcony.
San Antonio Street (1890)
Austin’s newly appointed internal revenue collector, Major Joseph W. Burke, built Located just west of the Texas State Capitol, this venerable home was built for for Pennsylvania native and Union Army veteran and his family. The home was sold to stenographer Clara Besserer in 1925 and converted to apartments to for professionals who worked downtown. It’s currently a renovated, four-family building and was the first residential remodel awarded 4 stars by the City of Austin’s Green Building Program.
Cambridge Tower (1965)
The 15-story Cambridge Tower opened at the height of the Cold War and had the fallout shelter to prove it—as well as being on the forefront of modern (or New Formalist) style in the city. Designed by Dallas architect Thomas Edward Stanley II, it was Austin’s first landmarked residential tower. It was geared toward young professionals and had charmingly named floor plans that seem to reference the nearby University of Texas campus as well as carpet in a “Martini” shade. This year’s tour features two units in this National Register-listed landmark: the “Viceroy,” above, and the “Minister,” at the top of this page.