County Commissioners Consider Supporting Fight to Preserve Historic Montopolis School

Jan 4, 2017

The site of the Montopolis Negro School in Southeast Austin faces a potential demolition as part of a redevelopment of the area, but Travis County Commissioners expressed concern about the project – and the future of the segregation-era school.
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Travis County Commissioners are considering throwing their support behind a preservation battle brewing in the Montopolis neighborhood of Southeast Austin.

At the height of segregation, there were 42 rural schools for black children throughout Travis County. The Montopolis Negro School is one of the few still standing. The modest, one-story building has been abandoned for years, but neighborhood preservationists and even alumni say it’s an important relic of Austin’s segregated past.

The property’s new owner, Austin Stowell, has obtained a permit to demolish the schoolhouse, but speaking before county commissioners yesterday, Stowell said his plans have changed.

“Our original intent, to be frankly honest, was to demolish the building and build 14 single-family houses, but that was before the history of the structure really was brought to light,” Stowell said.

Stowell said he’s offered alternative plans that would keep the school intact, which could mean relocating it. But some neighborhood activists remain steadfast on keeping the building where it is, and possibly converting it into a museum.

In November, the case went before Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission, but it failed to get enough votes to initiate historic zoning on the property. So, activists took their case to the Travis County Commissioners Court. Though the property doesn’t fall under the county’s jurisdiction, commissioners are considering sending a recommendation to the Austin City Council to preserve the school.

“We don’t have zoning authority,” said Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. “We don’t have site regulation authority. That is authority only the municipality has, so we don’t presume to step into their shoes. There was a request that we provide input since we were, at one time, an owner, and I think that that is appropriate.”

Stowell expressed concern that the county’s involvement could cause further delay. He told commissioners that he doesn’t want to be “backed into” the position of tearing the school down. Neighborhood activists weren’t there to testify at Tuesday’s meeting, but Jeff Travillion, the newly-elected commissioner for Precinct 1, agreed to take the lead on working with both parties.

“I understand your frustration with taking a longer timeline than you would like to,” Travillion said to Stowell. “I would hope that given the significance of education within the African-American community over those years – that is really a significant place.”

Commissioners withheld action yesterday, but they plan to come back with an updated resolution next week.