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Historic Architects Look to Preserve a Rapidly Changing Austin

Ilana Panich-Linsman, KUT News
Anthony's Laundry & Dry Cleaning in Austin's Clarksville neighborhood. Architectural historians from all over the country will be gathering in Austin this week.

Austin's growth has been fast and furious. And due to the speed with which the city is growing, many historic structures have disappeared.

That's why all this week, historic architects from across the world are in Austin, focusing on the city as a sort of case study: what’s OK to demolish and what deserves to be preserved.

Historic architecture can range from churches to bridges and businesses. One historic business is Anthony’s Laundry & Dry Cleaners off of West Lynn Street, in the Clarksville neighborhood.

Very little has changed in the nearly 90 years Anthony's Cleaners has been in business. There are no computers – just a cash register that was added in the 1970’s.

“The racks for the dry-cleaning looks to be cast iron, it’s very heavy, very durable construction,” says Tere O’Connell, a historic architect based in Austin. Detailing like that does more than help date the building – O’Connell says places like Anthony’s represent a snapshot of what Austin was like at a certain moment in time.

Another time capsule of old Austin?  The bridge over Shoal Creek near the intersection of Sixth Street and Lamar Boulevard. It’s underground and kind of hard to spot, surrounded by speeding cars and overgrown vegetation. But if you walk down the trail that leads to Shoal Creek, you’ll be sure to spot it.

Credit Joy Diaz, KUT News
Historic architect Tere O’Connell

“It’s one of the oldest masonry bridges in Texas and it is the oldest masonry bridge in Austin,” O’Connell says.

Every historic spot has stories galore. Some are recorded in history books, while others are more personal. Chris Travis, an architect and builder based in Round Top, Texas, has his own story.

“Most of my time living in Austin was from 1968 to 1974. I was very young and going to school. My first child was born [there],” Travis says.

Since then, Travis has been in Austin many, many times. Every time he visits, he tries to stop by his old hangouts. But every time, fewer of them exist.

“And when I go to those same locations, I have no sense of place. I literally have a sense of loss,” he says.

Tere O’Connell can relate. On a visit to the former site of Concordia University, over by Interstate 35 and 32nd Street, she said it pains her to think about what used to sit there: a collection of Spanish Eclectic buildings with cast stone details. They were demolished in 2008; after a stalled redevelopment, a contemporary high rise now sits in their place.

Staring at the building, O’Connell's asked if the high rise adds to Austin’s character. She answers: “No, I’m sure there’s a building like this in every major city in the United States.”

While Austin's growth has accelerated, Chris Travis says growth has been managed in a better way since. “You know, this is why Austin is such an incredibly hostile place to build new construction.” With a laugh, he says it’s “very frustrating” for builders like him sometimes. But he says Austin's active preservationists are "a sign of a very, very healthy culture.”

The next step for Austin's historic architects? Working toward a new historic resource survey for Austin. It’s a catalogue – kind of like a family photo album, with snapshots of what the city is and what it used to be. Austin’s latest historic resource survey is from 1984 – meaning Austin has 30 years of architectural history that’s unaccounted for.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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