The 1853 Watson House is out of sight — and running out of time

The rich history of one of Austin’s oldest homes, and its long tenure in limbo is documented by a new online project


It is possible to live the better part of a life in Austin, graduate from The University of Texas and work there for decades without knowing of the existence of the Arthur P. Watson House on campus.

An 1853 home (that’s a 5 in there), it was built for the widow of the inventor of the Bowie knife. Enslaved people once lived in stone quarters on its grounds, perched grandly above Waller Creek. Dwarfed over the years by campus expansion — a multistory parking structure as well as the 1970s Brutalist infill of the nursing school and a storage library — its precarious future is now crowded by the shiny new Dell Medical School. The last of the house’s many notable occupants, a gay couple, both interior designers, threw fabulous parties there before the university acquired it through some mix of land grab or purchase.

How is this not common knowledge?

Watson House
The Watson House in the 1940s. AR-2005-001-003, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Google Earth won’t give up much to the armchair detective, but a trek over to the upper level of the nearby parking garage will afford a glimpse of the Watson House in all its shuttered silence. Even with plywood over the windows and fading paint, its Second Empire roof manages to look proud — a little geode in a sea of concrete and institutional buildings. At ground level is a locked gate and a wall with elegant vestigial street numbers: 50 East Eighteenth Street. The address makes no sense. Nothing is on that block of East Eighteenth Street anymore. It’s like a rip in the time-space fabric.

The curious history of the Watson House was well explored by Austin American-Statesman journalist Ken Herman in two 2017 articles. A friend of his had often spied the house while parking for UT basketball games and wanted the backstory. Herman poked around and found the ghostly residence in a state he aptly described as “architectural hospice care.” UT denied him permission to see the property due to safety concerns and wasn’t forthcoming with information. It had acquired it from Arthur Pope Watson, Jr., a noted Austin interior designer, upon his death in 1993.

The university told Herman that earlier historic designation efforts had failed, due to the many period-insensitive facelifts the house had undergone, and preservation wasn’t practical. Its degraded state could require some $2 million in structural and site renovations, and it was too small for any justifiable institutional use. (Those were 2017 dollars in a 2017 Austin; imagine now.)

Herman contacted Watson’s surviving partner, Robert “Bob” Garrett, who’d lived there until 2009, when upkeep became infeasible for him. “Knowing how the modern world is galloping, it’ll probably be torn down,” Garrett sagely mused.

There was huge reader interest in the story, and Herman’s follow-up article went deeper into the pair’s time in the house, drawing on further chats with Garrett and a great profile in the Austin magazine L Style/G Style, which had featured him and the stories of the legendary parties hosted at “The  Chateau.” Watson and Garrett were partners in the interior design business as well as in life, and their historically-impervious modifications to the structure were dubbed “Frenchification.” Their taste clearly ran to chandeliers, rich textures, and more is more. They enjoyed living large and entertaining lavishly, and The Chateau was their own private Idaho. Late suppers, pink gin, Velvet Hammer cocktails. Someone brought Rock Hudson by.

Garrett spoke to Herman about the house’s tucked-away ambiance. “Nobody knew it was there,” he said.  “We lived in our own little world.”

Watson House
View of downtown Austin and Texas State Capitol from the balcony of the Watson House. Circa 1967, AR-2005-001-025, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library
Watson House
Arthur Watson and Robert Garrett in their home. AR-2005-001-034, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Even in 1965, when the Austin American-Statesman’s home editor Lois Hale Galvin featured the Chateau in a preview of that year’s Heritage Society Pilgrimage of Historic Homes (tickets, $1), she described it as “hidden from view,” and “probably the least familiar to old-timers and newcomers alike.”

It seems unthinkable that a space into which so much time and attention and deliberate design was poured should be left to rot and ruin, without a finger being lifted. Articles are written, hands are wrung, but nothing happens. The house is a good dinner party topic, though, because practically no one has heard of it or seen it, and everyone likes a mystery. Phones will be pulled out at the table and maps consulted. This will lead to more conversational threads about Lost Austin, the many neighborhoods that UT had scooped up like so much plankton in its leviathan path.

In 2020, Preservation Austin made a small grant connected to Watson House. The grant wasn’t through or to the University, its owner. It was to freelance writer and cultural commentator Marta Stefaniuk, who has often written about space and memory and meaning. And it wasn’t about preservation of the structure, or even investigating the feasibility of that. The educational grant, as it was explained by PA, “allows the entity to preserve the history of the building in written and video format. . . .  The awarding of this grant places a spotlight on the house that might cause the owners to rethink the overall plans, which would be a benefit to the community at large.”

That cool language might induce either hope or despair. On the balance, though, it sounded like memento mori.

That project went up online in April. In 12 sections of interrelated and branching narratives, Stefaniuk documents the land’s history, the house’s construction and occupancy, its architecture, and its current state of guardianship and neglect.

Her introduction to the place is like everyone else’s: she’s struck by its inaccessibility and mystery. She even invokes Nancy Drew, and the Watson House does indeed seem like a curious old building where the teen sleuth might investigate and uncover a baffling case. From there, she drills deep into the land records, the genealogies of the slave-owning, Bowie-connected owners and the successive Austinites who called it home (and their tombstones). The mansard roof even gets a spotlight. The detail is staggering

Her research into the last private owners, though, is the Busby Berkley musical everyone is impatient for after the newsreels. Stefaniuk conjures the world of Garrett and Watson with great care, using photographs from the Austin History Center as well as those from private collections, which creates a never-before-seen thrill.

Arthur Watson’s family lineage in Old Austin had deep and privileged roots. His successful interior design firm did important projects like the Driskill Club, the restoration of the Neill-Cochran House, and UT’s Lila B. Etter Alumni Center, his upstream neighbor on Waller Creek. His and Bob’s meet-cute story includes a black Cadillac convertible at a Dallas nightclub.

Watson House
A pool party at the Watson House. The pool was built by blasting out solid limestone, AR-2005-001-001 Austin History Center, Austin Public Library
Watson House
Interior of the Watson House, featuring antiques and art, AR-2005-001-023, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library
Watson House
Greenhouse at the Watson House, AR-2005-001-0, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

The home they made together in the historic house Watson had bought in 1959 was brilliantly styled with curated objets d’art and furnishings. Bob took special pride in the terraced gardens and an elegant Versailles-like greenhouse for his orchids and bromeliads, reportedly laid atop stones from the original Wesley Chapel church downtown, demolished a few decades after its African American congregation was forced east by the 1928 plan. The property boasted a rooftop garden on the garage, a pool blown out of the limestone with cabanas and a life-sized bronze of Mercury, around which lithe guests lounged in skimpy swimsuits. They hosted parties, club meetings, holiday gatherings in a dining room with gold Fortuny fabric covered walls.

Stefaniuk’s filmed interviews with local architectural historian Peter Flagg Maxon and cultural historian and estate liquidator Carl McQueary add colorful first-person accounts of the lives lived at the Chateau: their social circles, personalities, quirks (their RV had Fortuny fabric flourishes), and even their pet dogs. Their reminiscences explore some of the known stories, and hint at still hidden ones, in Austin’s LBGTQ+ history.

Seven levels in, Stefaniuk wrestles clarity from UT’s messy relationship to the property. It is all laid out in a timeline — an effectively stark illustration of the rapid trajectory of events. In brief: a 1965 Texas Senate bill gave the University the right of eminent domain to seize 20 acres adjacent to campus, including Arthur and Bob’s home. Arthur Watson, himself an early activist with Heritage Austin (now Preservation Austin) was one of four citizens who showed up to oppose the measure. UT gave him a lowball offer he couldn’t refuse, as the only alternative was condemnation.

Watson sought state historic landmark status, but the 1853 structure was deemed too altered by added balconies and 1940s F. Weigl ironwork and the like. It was condemned, and something called the City of Austin Urban Renewal Agency obtained the title in 1973. Only by the intercession of long-time friend and UT regent Frank Erwin did Arthur and Bob get to stay in the house. UT extended the courtesy to Bob after Arthur’s death in 1993. Bob moved out in 2009 and died only last year.

A few blocks west of the Chateau at 1802 Lavaca Street stands the pristine 1876 McDonald-McGowan House, heartbreaking testimony to how Watson House’s fate might have gone very differently, had it not been so shrouded in the trees above Waller Creek and so directly in the crosshairs of campus expansion.

1802 Lavaca
McDonald-McGowan House at 1802 Lavaca Street was built in 1876. Courtesy Moreland Properties

According to a 1974 article by Sue McBee in the Austin American-Statesman, Arthur Watson believed this Second Empire twin may have been built as a copy of his 1853 home. Home to mayors and governors, the Lavaca Street property was later cut up into apartments, laboriously restored in the mid-70s to serve as a French boutique and town house, and recently renovated again and marketed in the millions.

Conversely, consider Stefaniuk’s photographic evidence of Watson House’s present state. In section eight, “Condition of the Chateau” — which of course can only include exterior photographs since, as Ken Herman had learned, it is unsafe to enter the premises—she catalogs the losses. Gone: the pool, the greenhouse, the garage with its rooftop garden. Left for dead: the chateau, perhaps even down to the custom drapes dry-rotting at the windows. It’s been boarded up for 12 years. A corpse with nickels on its eyes.

Stefaniuk’s impressive archival motherlode, entitled To Liberate, shares space with similarly titled pieces (To Elevate, To Serve, To Believe, To Vote, etc.), on the “Resources & Exhibits” tab of the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel site, which itself is on the “Museums & Cultural Programs” link within the “Parks and Recreation” site on the greater City of Austin website.

To Liberate
The online research project on the Watson House, “To Liberate,” is hosted on the Oakwood Cemetery website, part of the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department.

The several Russian nesting dolls of the notoriously inaccessible website make it all seem more obscured than featured: the great story of Watson House — lived or recorded — is still buried. It’s in a cemetery

In the era during which Watson House was condemned, UT was insensitive to so much. Students hotly protested those 20 acres of condemned properties that included the chateau, since they also contained affordable student rooming houses and garage apartments. They chained themselves to trees when the football stadium expansion required the wholesale destruction of oaks and cypresses along Waller Creek. (Frank Erwin had protesters forcibly removed by police.) The Blackland neighborhood east of I-35 was gutted for sports and physical plant facilities, and some 15 years of rancor ensued between the University and its African American neighbors who pushed back against continued eastward expansion.

Four years ago UT began to redeem its reputation by buying 1191 Navasota Street, a modest 1952 midcentury office building designed by John S. Chase, the first Black graduate of its School of Architecture. The UT Division of Diversity and Community Engagement now runs its outreach and grants programs from there, and an April event celebrated its renovation. It was a lovely party with short speeches, good food, UT brass and Chase’s family in attendance — truly a buzz of good energy in the air, not a whiff of old town and gown frictions. Strains of light jazz helped drown out any cynicism a guest might have that UT had waited to make that investment until the building cost over a million dollars and its surrounding neighborhood of Robertson Hill was nearly unrecognizable from gentrification.

Turns out, To Liberate is just the gift shop to the Smithsonian-sized trove Stefaniuk has amassed. And she says she isn’t done. Almost entirely uncompensated, often curtailed in her attempts to get the gloves-off, full story of Watson House out there, she’s still at it. The small matching grant from Preservation Austin helped defray a bit of the cost of marketing her project, but to date, the deep pockets needed to take the work further haven’t opened her direction. She is undeterred, a terrier with a bone, digging.

Her latest fear: that when the wrecking balls soon come to the nearby Frank Erwin Center for the expansion of the Dell Medical School, the chateau’s 1853 walls (that’s a 5 in there) will be irreparably damaged.

If this happens, or perhaps even if it doesn’t but the house can’t prove its value to the campus plan, a faint but iridescent gem in the Violet Crown, with its story of Bowie knives and slave quarters, of survival, of gay history and pride, of Old Austin—the last of several mansions which once stood on the limestone bluffs above Waller Creek at the far northeastern corner of the city — will be a story only.

Marla Akin
Marla Akin
Marla Akin is an enthusiast of cultural history and roadside America, currently serving on the board of the Society of Commercial Archeology. A postcard and vintage paper collector, she retired as Assistant Director of the UT Michener Center for Writers in 2018. She currently serves on the Sightlines board.

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