A Midcentury, Midtown History Worth Preserving

    This year's Preservation Austin tour spotlights a trio of Central East Austin neighborhoods that still resonate with their original midcentury post-war aspirations

    This striking midcentury modern 1957 house on Lullwood Road is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Wilshire Historic District. Photo by Joan Brook Photography.

    Across decades, the fortunes of a cluster of Central East Austin neighborhoods have reflected much of the city’s vision of itself — its midcentury post-war aspirations, the socio-economic barrier created by Interstate 35, and the long and increasingly disruptive presence of an airport in its midst.

    Cherrywood, Delwood and Wilshire Wood were relatively late in-fill neighborhoods, carved from tracts that remained rural well into Austin’s 20th-century development. But in the booming post-WWII decades, the trio of neighborhoods bloomed out of farm land and even became the site of Texas’ first auto-centric shopping center.

    Preservation Austin’s annual homes tour this year explores the Cherrywood, Delwood and Wilshire Wood neighborhoods. “Into the Woods” happens April 28 and features seven midcentury homes.

    “Into the Woods”
    10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 28.
    Tickets: $25
    preservationaustin.org 

    “The city experienced rapid growth after the war,” says Preservation Austin Programs Director Lindsey Derrington, “and these homes have an important story to tell.”

    Unlike more stately homes of tours in years past, the middle-class midcentury houses highlighted this year are reflective of Preservation Austin’s priority to tell the story of the city as a whole.

    Says Derrington: “These houses look a lot more like the ones that we all live in, and hopefully that helps make a connection with our audience.”

    Though changes happened quickly in Central East Austin, the names of early landowners and later real estate speculators in the area — Giles, Schieffer, French, Dancy, Patterson — are still reflected on today’s map.

    Tour participants might not be able to enjoy a peach from Nye Patterson’s orchard, grab a chocolate pecan turtle from Lammes Candy#3 at Delwood Shopping Center, or canoodle at the old oak at where Cherrywood meets 38th ½ street without risking injury at the busy four-way stop, but they can learn how these small histories and many more underlie an area that is now central to Austin’s urban identity.

    A map describing the Cherrywood neighborhood and some of its pre-WWII farms, refers to the area as Maplewood, after the local elementary school. Courtesy Cherrywood Neighborhood Association.

    Cherrywood

    Cherrywood is a relatively recent coinage, comprising a number of subdivision names and identities that grew out of farms, dairy land, and cotton fields of the 19th and early 20th century.

    What is commonly called French Place (not an actual legal subdivision name appearing on city records) was platted into city lots before WWII in a series of small subdivisions called Forest Hills, Nowlin Heights, Lafayette Place, University Park, and Avalon by early owner-developers like Payton Nowlin, Lucy Dancy and J.H. and Olivia French.

    Lucy Dancy named many streets in honor of her family’s New Orleans roots, and no one is sure if French Place derives from that or the surname French.

    Hollywood Avenue resident Billie Crawford, now in her 80s, lives in the house her father built with hand tools in 1933, on a University Park lot that her mother won with a $1 lottery ticket purchased on Congress Avenue.

    “This was nothing but a dirt road,” she says of her car-lined street.

    She recollects catching baby possums and cutting the family Christmas tree in deep woodlands she calls The Uplands, indicating an area east of hers, near today’s Cherrywood and 38th ½ streets.

    Still standing at that intersection is a large oak that was known as a rendezvous point and Lover’s Lane.

    The large Giles and Schieffer family parcels north of what is now 38 ½ street didn’t see significant development until after WWII, when Bascom Giles turned his holdings and other acquired land into housing for returning GIs.

    The Walter Schieffer family gave over a grazing pasture from their large dairy operations to become Maplewood Elementary campus in 1951 and sold other land near their homestead at Brookview and Vineland to developer Perry Jones, who created the Willow Brook and Schieffer Place subdivisions.

    Two Cherrywood homes on the tour conform to PA’s midcentury focus this year:  a modest 1960 ranch style on French Place (Forest Hills), renovated by architects Rick and Cindy Black, and a 1950 ranch on Brookview (in Schieffer Place), built originally for the owners of the Walker Tire Company.  Both maintain original features while opening up and expanding living spaces and utilizing sustainable systems.

    A renovated 1960 ranch on French Place is on this year’s Preservation Austin tour. Photo by Joan Brook Photography.

    Delwood(s)

    Most iconic of Bascom Giles’ many projects are the two-story concrete block and stucco duplexes built in 1948 as affordable housing after WWII.

    A 1949 aerial view of the Delwood III duplexes. East 38 1/2 Street is runs horizontal on the bottom of the photograph. Photo by Neal Douglass, courtesy the Austin History Center.

    Platted as Delwood III, “Duplex Nation” is bounded by Maplewood, Kirkwood, Ashwood, and Wrightwood.  Each has an upstairs and downstairs 2/1 unit, steel casement windows, and unadorned exteriors that vary only with porch and roof details.

    The construction of Interstate 35 in the 1950s impacted all of East Austin, and neighborhoods near the expanding airport fell out of favor.  The duplexes became an affordable mecca for bohemians, graduate students, and other young Austin renters for decades.

    They attained National Historic Register designation in 2011 as a nearly wholly intact period development. Like all of central Austin, they are prime real estate today, having seen a steady climb in value and desirability since the airport’s relocation in 1999.

    One Duplex Nation resident reports that upon waking on May 23, 1999, the morning after the last of any portable infrastructure of Robert Mueller Airport was trucked caravan style across town to Bergstrom, she heard birdsong for the first time in her many years in the apartment.

    At the last minute, Preservation Austin was able to add a duplex apartment on the tour, thanks to Barkley Houses who own many units in the area.

    This duplex is on the tour, courtesy of Barkley Homes.

    Bascom Giles’ Delwood II development — north of Airport Boulevard and bordered by the old Mueller airport on the north and east — and Giles Place — south of 38 ½ and east of Cherrywood — were similarly constructed concrete block one-story homes with metal casement windows and clean lines, built for postwar families of moderate means.

    This one-story stucco house on Bentwood Road is in the Delwood II neighborhood. Photo by Casey Woods Photography.

    Their proximity to the growing airport probably saved them as intact neighborhoods.  As original householders moved out and they became primarily rental units or first-time buyer homes, they suffered few alterations or demolitions.  Since Mueller’s new incarnation, the desirability of these areas has again flourished and the three homes on Bentwood Road in Delwood II on the PA tour this year are all architect-owned and redesigned.

    The Bentwood homes of Camille Jobe and Ada Corral of Jobe Corral Architects and that of Moontower Design Build’s owner are all featured.  Their polished renovations maintain the midcentury feel and integrity of their original designs, while updating and expanding the footprint of these small homes in innovative ways.

    Wilshire Wood

    More ambitious was the development of Wilshire Wood on former Giles family land.  Contiguous with the Giles’ own Delwood III development, but a light year away in terms of style and aspiration, Wilshire Wood was developed by Walling, Bradfield, and Brush, the firm behind posh Pemberton Heights in West Austin.

    They sold it as the Tarrytown of East Austin, for “gentle folk of limited budget but of unlimited good taste,” with streets winding through “virgin forest,” and rigid restrictions as to size, lot orientation and architectural control.

    An Austin American Statesman ad of May 1941 inviting prospective buyers of lots in the new Wilshire Wood to park and stroll the foot path through a Peter Pan Fairyland.

    While a few home sites were sold before the war, most construction in Wilshire Wood and adjacent Wilshire Park occurred between 1946 and 1957.  Large lots were developed with sprawling one-story Cordova limestone or brick veneer homes with low-pitched roofs.

    Wilshire remains one of the most intact historic residential neighborhoods in Austin and attained National Historic Register status with 85% of its homes contributing to its historic integrity.  The lack of sidewalks and fences enhances the meandering, park-like feel of the neighborhood promoted from its earliest days.

    Two Wilshire Woods home are on the tour.  A 1952 showplace at the top of Ardenwood Road, once the home of a UT zoologist and geneticist, was saved from demolition by its current owner who made extensive renovations and added a Palm Springs style pool.

    A 1957 home on Lullwood Road was one of the last constructed in Wilshire Wood, and distinguishes itself with a sweeping angled roof and expansive windows, giving stunning views of the neighborhood below.  Granted an exception to the strict neighborhood covenants, owner Merle LaRue Olsen — of the Southern Investment Company and Olson Motors in downtown Austin — designed the house himself, working with a local builder.

    The owner’s midcentury modern furnishings look perfectly in place in this 1957 Lullwood residence. Photo by Joan Brook Photography.

    The current owner’s stylish vintage midcentury furnishings, art, and light fixtures complement its retro aesthetic, including a sunken tub with original tile.

    A Man of Conviction — And Plenty of Parking

    Bascom Giles, to whom so much of the neighborhood development is credited, was Texas Land Commissioner from 1939 until being convicted of bribery and fraud in the infamous Veterans’ Land Board scandal in 1955.  The scheme involved the board’s use of veterans’ signatures, without their knowledge or consent, to acquire land under the G.I. Bill.

    Though it’s speculated that his ill-gotten gains could have gone into Austin development projects, none were associated with the veteran land scheme.  He served 3 years in the penitentiary in Huntsville and repaid some $80,000 in civil judgments brought against him.

    Whatever the source of its funding, the 1951 Delwood Shopping Center was the crowning glory in his vision for postwar Austin.  Sleek and modern, it was the first auto-centric shopping development of its kind in Austin, indeed in Texas.

    A 1951 newspaper article about the opening of the Delwood Center reported that “to insure adequate parking space, even in peak periods of trade, more than 12 acres have been reserved as a parking area.”

    It boasted parking for 1000 cars, with a breezeway and covered walk that insured a customer “need travel no more than a maximum of 50 feet in the open to reach his car.”  Opening day festivities included the give-away of a 16” television and 5 portable radios, kiddie rides on a midway and a ribbon cutting ceremony.

    Checkerfront Grocery #19, Delwood Pharmacy (with a soda fountain), Lammes Candy #3, Winn’s Variety Store, a dry cleaner and “washatorium,” dentist and doctor office suites, Studer’s Photography, a beauty shop, a barber shop, Lad and Lassie Children’s shop, and Capital Seed House #2 (which became Howard’s Nursery) were original or early tenants.

    Delwood Shopping Center, Oct 1953. Only the sign remains, now relocated. Photo by Neal Douglass, courtesy the Austin History Center.

    In 1990, the center was demolished to become a large Fiesta market and surrounding utilitarian businesses of far less charm, but the original sign was retained and moved to the south side fronting 38 ½ street, near what was once a drive-in theater.

    Living on Mueller Time

    The Austin airport began operations in 1930 on land purchased from the—you guessed it—Giles family, and has played a huge role in the fates of these neighborhoods over time.

    As Wilshire Wood prepared its debut as a “Peter Pan Fairyland,” flight operations at nearby Mueller expanded in 1940.  By threat of eminent domain, the city acquired Nye Patterson’s fruit orchards to build a larger municipal airport.

    Mr. Patterson reportedly wept as his beloved plum and peach trees were ripped out against his wishes, and the park on Airport Blvd that now bears his name was set aside in his honor.

    The airport’s proximity kept values down for its neighbors until nearly 20 years ago, when operations moved to Bergstrom.  Since then, the sky’s been the limit, not just for new construction but for the original homes in this ideally located central location.

    Now a master-planned, transit-oriented urban oasis, Mueller is at the heart of what many consider the New Austin. Amidst cheek-to-jowl large bungalow-style homes, greenbelt trails and lakes, retail development, health campuses, and cultural venues, the historic Browning Hangar (headquarters for PA’s spring tour) and the former air traffic control tower stand as its remaining landmarks.

    Restored to its original blue color, the Mueller Tower awaits historic zoning. Photo by Paul Licce Photography.

    The Austin Historic Landmark Commission voted just last February to give historic zoning to the tower to recognize its role in Austin’s aviation history, to preserve its award-winning midcentury design by renowned Austin modernists Arthur Fehr and Charles Granger, and to potentially make it open to the public, if accessibility issues can be addressed.

    At present, barn owls are its only occupants.

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    1 COMMENT

    1. A well-written venture into Austin’s mid-century past as well as an information packed guide for heading out on an appreciation tour of Austin neighborhoods today. This should be made into a walk about brochure.

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