In most states one town is tapped to be the capital and another is given the state university. In Texas, Austin has both. And in the biggest state of the Lower 48 they are scarcely four blocks apart.

There is nothing organic about the birth of Austin. After becoming a Republic in 1836 President Mirabeau Lamar established a commission to find the best site for the new national capital. Lamar envisioned western expansion in his country and eschewed established communities near the Gulf of Mexico for a central location on the frontier. The commissioners settled on a speck of a village called Waterloo on the Colorado River and bought up 7,735 acres. When the town was chartered in 1839 it was named for the Virginia-born colonizer of the state, Stephen F. Austin.

Judge Edwin Waller was called on by Lamar to design a street grid which he accomplished around a grand artery running north from the Colorado River that he called Congress Avenue. Were he to return today Judge Waller would still recognize his old plan. A one-story capitol building was raised in May of 1839 and in the fall the entire government of the Republic of Texas rumbled into town by oxcart from Houston to set up shop. The worries about locating the capital on the frontier were not unfounded and the capitol was surrounded by an eight-foot stockade that remained until Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845.

As a new part of the United States Austin was immediately torn in the pre-Civil War days by those clamoring for secession and those preaching to remain with the Union (the majority in Travis County). But unlike other Southern states dealing with two voices of dissension, Austin had three - there was a vocal faction who wanted Texas to return to being its own country. The coming Civil War stifled growth in Austin that wasn’t overcome until the Houston and Texas Central Railroad rolled into town in 1873.

In the days of the Republic of Texas the Congress had set aside 40 acres north of the capitol for a university. The University of Texas finally became a reality in 1883. For many decades thereafter if you were in Austin chances are you were there for either government business or university business. The population of Austin grew steadily with those two institutions but not dramatically. The city did not see its 100,000th resident until after World War II. 

But after the war both the university and the state government grew exponentially. So did the town - up to more than 225 square miles in 1990 from 30 square miles a half-century prior. Austin has been one of the fastest growing cities in America for much of that time with a population now north of 800,000. Through it all Congress Avenue has remained at the heart of the town.

That is where we will begin our walking tour, at a building as big and bold as Texas itself. When it was unveiled in 1888 it was trumpeted as the “Seventh Largest Building in the World”...    

Texas State Capitol
Congress and 11th streets

This is the fourth home for the government of Texas, completed in 1888. Before the project could get underway, however, the Texas Legislature struck a unique bargain to swap 3,000,000 acres of land in the Texas Panhandle with Charles and John Farwell of Chicago to cover the $3 million price tag to build the new Capitol. The Farwells controlled a syndicate of investors that created the world’s largest cattle ranch, the XIT Ranch, that operated until 1912 before being sold off in chunks. At its height the ranch ran 150,000 head of cattle inside some 1,500 miles of fencing. The new capitol building was just as big, in its own way. No state capitol has more square footage and only the United States Capitol in Washington is larger, although that landmark is 15 feet shorter than the Texas Capitol’s 308 feet. Elijah E. Myers, who also designed the Michigan and Colorado capitols, won a nationwide architectural competition with his Italian Renaissance Revival plan. The cornerstone was laid on March 2, 1885 and the great building was raised by convicts and migrant laborers in a little over three years. The Capitol is constructed with local limestone but after it began to discolor trainloads of sunset red granite were shipped in from Marble Falls, 45 miles northwest of Austin, to sheath the walls. There have been numerous operations performed on the building through the decades with the most unusual being a four-story underground expansion on the north side that doubled the working space in the 1990s without disturbing the park-like grounds. 


Goodman Building
202 West 13th Street at northeast corner of Lavaca Street

Boasting delicate ironwork and golden bricks this Victorian survivor was constructed in the 1880s for grocer Joseph Goodman. A preparatory school operated upstairs in the 1890s.  


First Methodist Church
1201 Lavaca Street at northeast corner of 12th Street

A small band of Methodists began worshipping in Austin in 1840 in a community-built log house ministered by a circuit-riding preacher. A batten board meetinghouse was raised in 1847 and a small red brick church was occupied in 1854. The current Neoclassical structure fronted by a portico of fluted Ionic columns was completed in 1928. The price tag was $200,000. In the 1950s the membership at First Methodist peaked at 3,546.


Central Christian Church
1110 Guadalupe Street at southwest corner of 12th Street

The congregation, ten members strong, of the Disciples of Christ Brotherhood formed in 1847 with services conducted in a local school. The Central Christian Church settled onto this corner in 1929, erecting this modified Romanesque-styled sanctuary highlighted by Spanish Colonial Revival details, including and tiles embedded in the standout brickwork. 


Herman Sweat Court House
1000 Guadalupe Street at southwest corner of 11th Street

Originally the Travis County Courthouse, the building was renamed for civil rights pioneer Herman Marion Sweatt in 2005. Sweatt sued the University of Texas Law School in 1946 in the courthouse and lost; he would eventually take his claim all the way to the United States Supreme Court which ruled unanimously in his favor in 1950. This is the third building to serve as the seat of county government, rising in an Art Moderne style in 1931. Brothers Charles and Louis Page, who had begun practicing in 1898 and whose succeeding firm of PageSoutherlandPage is still one of Austin’s leading architectural shops, drew up the plans for the courthouse. The structure was designed to house all county offices and the top two floors did duty as a jail. The building is sited at the north end of Woolridge Park, one of four designated town squares in the original platting of the town of Austin. The two previous Travis County courthouses, from 1855 and 1876, have been demolished.


Westgate Tower
1122 Colorado Street

This 26-story, 261-foot tower looming over the Capitol Building was at the vanguard of modern high-rise development in Austin when it was proposed in 1962 and a lightning rod for controversy. In 1965 the Texas legislature took a vote to acquire and condemn the property and forever preserve the sightlines of the Capitol and the scale of Austin. The laws were defeated by a narrow two votes - the result of which is readily apparent as you look around downtown Austin today. Prominent national architect Edward Durell Stone and local architects Fehr & Granger did their best to harmonize the Westgate with its surrounding ancestors. They used decorative brick latticework, a natural shade of brick and mortar and antique bronze window frames in construction. After it opened in 1966 the Westgate rapidly became a gathering place for the town’s political elite. After a half-century the tower has even crept its way onto the National Register for Historic Places. 


Old Bakery
1006 Congress Avenue

Carl Lundberg learned his baking skills in Sweden and after sailing to America constructed this brick bakery in 1876. Like most of its contemporaries the former brick bakery had an appointment with the wrecking ball when workers uncovered the foundation next door of a building that had served as a temporary state capitol in the 1880s. The cranes went away and the entire site was preserved as an historic plaza. Still unaltered, the brick-and-limestone two-story building now dispenses visitor information. Inside the oven employed by master baker Lundberg can still be seen. 


Daily Tribune Building/Ernest O. Thompson State Office Building
920 Colorado Street at southwest corner of 10th Street

James M. West made his fortune in the Texas oilfields and when he wanted to have his political opinions heard he started his own newspaper in 1939. This sleek Art Deco composition was erected in 1941 for his Austin Daily Tribune; the newspaper folded after West’s death the next year but its building has lasted long enough to land on the National Register of Historic Places. The architect was Texas native Shirley Simons who utilized a version of Streamline Moderne styling that features a curved corner and windows and a vertical strip of porthole windows. The 11-story tower rests on a polished marble base and is sheathed in buff-colored brick. The State of Texas bought the deed in 1945 and twenty years later named it after Ernest O. Thompson, a veteran railroad commissioner.

Governor’s Mansion
1010 Colorado Street between 10th and 11th streets

The Governor’s Mansion is the oldest continually inhabited house in Texas; 40 governors have lived here since it was built in 1854. Abner Hugh Cook, a North Carolina native, designed and built the Greek Revival home. Cook was self-taught and erected many of early Austin’s important buildings. After the Civil War ended, Texas began attracting more and more professionally schooled architects and Cook retreated to the role of a general contractor in town. Here he outfitted the chief executive’s house with full height Ionic columns and sited the mansion in the middle of the block amidst trees and gardens. Only three other governor homes are older in the United States.   


Austin History Center
810 Guadalupe Street at southwest corner of 9th Street

This was historically church ground - three houses of worship stood here before 1913 when the City targeted the site for Austin’s first public library. The Austin Chapter of the American Association of University Women went door-to-door looking for donations of money and books and a temporary wooden library was operating here by 1926. Austin architect Hugo Kuehne provided a Renaissance Revival design for the permanent building. Executed in cream-colored Cordova limestone, the library was dedicated in 1933. Ornamental wrought iron decorated the windows and balconies. The Central Library moved next door in 1979 and after a complete makeover this building re-emerged as the Austin History Center in 1983.


Hirschfeld House
304/305 West 9th Street at southwest corner of Lavaca Street

Henry Hirschfeld sailed from Germany in 1850 when he was 15 years old and worked for a time with uncles in Alabama before moving on to Texas. After serving in the Confederate Army he came to Austin in 1866 to start the Capitol Clothing House. He took a bride named Jennie Melasky and the couple built the one-story limestone cottage on the property in 1873. Their family grew to include eight children and the Hirschfelds had the more expansive corner house constructed in 1885. Architect John Andrewartha infused the house with Queen Anne and Eastlake elements. The following year Hirschfeld sold his mercantile business and shifted to real estate and finance and eventually helped co-found the Austin National Bank in 1890. Part of Texas A& M University today, the two houses remain well-preserved souvenirs of the 19th century. 


United States Courthouse
200 West 8th Street at northwest corner of Colorado Street

During the Great Depression the federal government went on a building spree to help create jobs and kickstart the economy. Most of the new structures, such as this courthouse from 1935, embraced the stripped-down classicism of Art Deco styling. Charles H. Page of Austin and Kenneth Franzheim of New York City collaborated on this design, executed in cream colored limestone above a Texas gray granite base. 

Brown Building
710 Colorado Street at southwest corner of 8th Street

This ten-story commercial building is distinguished not so much by its Art Moderne design from Charles H. Page as for the company it historically kept. Lyndon Johnson’s business was located here and broadcaster Richard “Cactus” Pryor used to come to work here when the Texas Broadcasting Company used it for its headquarters. The space was converted into upscale lofts in the early 2000s.

Municipal Building
124 West 8th Street at northeast corner of Lavaca Street

The core of this government building that served as Austin City Hall for nearly a century was created in an exuberant Beaux Arts style by Charles H. Page in 1907. More of those Works Progress Administration stimulus funds were put to use in the 1930s to give City Hall new Art Deco clothing, or “modern classicism” as it was called around Austin. The government still occupies the building but City Hall moved away in 2004.

Kruger’s Jewelers
722 Congress Avenue at southwest corner of 8th Street 

Sam Kruger learned watchmaking on the shores of the Black Sea in the Ukraine. In 1904 the 22-year old Kruger came to America where he made his way to North Texas and opened a small jewelry store in 1906. His profits bankrolled the jewelry ventures for other family members, including that of Morris Zale who pioneered the concept of buying jewelry on credit in his Zale Jewelry Store in Wichita Falls which begat the national Zale’s chain. Kruger’s has been in downtown Austin in this Art Deco retail space since 1939. 

Eugene Bremond Building
801 Congress Street at northeast corner of 8th Street

This ground once housed the Executive Office Building for the Republic of Texas and the subsequent State of Texas until the mid-1850s. In 1886 Eugene Bremond, one of the town’s leading money men, erected this three-story commercial building. Chipotle has been in the building since 2004 and this is the burrito chain’s second green store.


State Theater
719 Congress Avenue at southeast corner of 8th Street

Architect W. Scott Dunne took an existing building and sculpted it into an Art Deco movie house for the Interstate Circuit in 1935. The grand opening was Christmas Day with a screening of the comedy The Bride Comes Home with Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert in the leads. Battling television and suburban multiplexes the theater underwent a full makeover in 1981 but went dark five years later anyway. Unlike most of its downtown theater brethren the State survived until it picked up a multi-million dollar facelift in the late 1990s by Live Oak Theatre.  

The Paramount Theatre
713 Congress Avenue

The legendary Sam Houston once had an office on this space and later the landmark Avenue Hotel stood here. In 1915 the Majestic Theatre was constructed as a vaudeville house and it stands today as the Paramount, the oldest theater in town. The Classical Revival building was an early project of John Eberson of Chicago who would go on to carve one of the great careers in theater architecture in the 1920s and 1930s. For almost 100 years the Paramount has continued to present live performances and movies through a parade of owners. More than 200,000 patrons a year stream through the doors. Through it all the Paramount remains one of the few “hemp houses” active in America - a theater that still uses ropes and sandbags backstage.

Walter Tips Building
710 Congress Avenue 

Edward Tips, a German immigrant, started a hardware business on this location in the middle of the 1800s. In 1872 Edward died and his 31-year old brother Walter, a Confederate Civil War veteran, and two partners bought the business. Walter would soon run the operation on his own and during 1876-1877 this ornate Victorian showcase would be built. Austin architect Jasper N. Pearson blended elements of Italianate and Gothic styling to create the three-story commercial building that included a 400-seat auditorium on the top floor. Cast iron was all the rage as a building material at the time and some of the iron used here came from recast exploded Confederate shells - Tips had been an artillery officer during the war. He would go on to become a Texas state senator and a founder of the Austin National Bank as his business expanded. The Walter Tips Company remained here until 1927; most recently the space has been occupied by banks.    

Stephen F. Austin Hotel
701 North Congress Avenue atnortheast corner of 7th Street

Hoping to lure travelers to downtown Austin with marble floors, granite accoutrements and stylish European furnishings, the Stephen F. Austin Hotel opened with 11 stories in 1924. The opulent guest house would quickly sprout an additional five floors. Whjile most of its contemporaries have long since converted to residences the Stephen F. Austin Hotel has remained a hotel under numerous owner and picked up and picked up a complete restoration in the 1990s.


Norwood Tower/Texas Capital Bank Building
114 West 7th Street

Lady Bird Johnson called this 189-foot Gothic Revival tower the most beautiful building in Austin; a daughter of the former First Couple, Luci Baines Johnson, owns the tower today. In the 1920s Austin boasted no office building higher than nine stories and securities broker Ollie Osborn Norwood thought he might change that. Norwood set out to construct a six-story building but his architects Bertam Giesecke and Walt Harris talked him into creating a 16-story edifice that would reign over downtown Austin like a “castle in the sky.” After its completion in 1929 the Norwood Tower would reign over the downtown Austin skyline for almost 40 years.


U.S. Post Office and Federal Building/O. Henry Hall
126 West 6th Street between Congress Avenue and Colorado Street

Abner Cook, who had been a major force in Austin construction since the 1840s, supervised the construction of this federal building that was completed in 1881. Cook would die three years later at the age of 69. It takes it name from short story maestro William Sydney Porter who published under the pen name of O. Henry. Porter was tried and convicted of embezzlement from the First National Bank of Austin in 1898 and served three years in the Ohio Penitentiary. The incarceration kickstarted his writing career which flourished in the last decade of his life after being released from prison in 1901. When the University of Texas acquired the property it named the building after its most celebrated defendant.   


Scarborough Building
522 Congress Avenue at southwest corner of 6th Street

Completed in 1911 this eight-story office building was the first steel-framed high-rise in Austin. After it was topped off the designers of the Littlefield Building that was being constructed across the street added another floor to its design so it could steal the title of Sky King from the Scarborough when it finished a year later. Emerson Monroe Scarborough was an Alabama native who came to Texas after serving in the Confederate Army. The year was 1867 and Scarborough was 21 years old. He clerked in country stores until raising the capital for his own venture where he helped pioneer the practice of price tags to eliminate haggling over every transaction. Scarborough bought this property in 1905 and brought down the best architects from Fort Worth, Maurice Sanguinet and Carl Staats, to design his new tower. Dubious townsfolk placed bets on whether the steel structure would stand or fall. It stood and the E.M. Scarborough department store ruled Austin retailing circles for many decades beyond the founder’s death in 1925. 

Littlefield Building
601 Congress Avenue at northeast corner of 6th Street

Austin’s first stone building had been constructed on this corner in 1849. It was torn down by financier George Washington Littlefield to make room for his American National Bank in 1910. It wasn’t all business in the beginning for Littlefield who installed a popular roof garden for Austin parties. But to make sure his tower was the tallest in town Littlefield, who rose to the rank of Major when he was only 21 years old during the Civil War, enclosed the roof garden to add a ninth floor. Local architect Charles H. Page drew up plans for the Beaux Arts skyscraper that included two solid bronze doors at the corner entrance. The handles were cast as heads of Longhorn steers (the Littlefield fortune had been founded on cattle speculation in the 1870s). The doors were removed when the bank left in the 1950s and are on display in the University of Texas’s Ashbel Smith Hall at the corner of Colorado and 7th streets. Since its inception the Littlefield Building has been a premier business address in Austin and its most famous tenant was Lyndon Baines Johnson who went to work here in 1935 as the 26-year old director of Franklin Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration in the New Deal days of the Great Depression.


The Austonian
200 North Congress Avenue

The tallest building in Austin is also the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi River. The 622-foot tower (683 feet with antenna) opened in 2010 after almost four years of planning and construction. It is the only residential high-rise in Austin to win a four-star rating as a Green Building.


Driskill Hotel
604 Brazos Street at northwest corner of 6th Street

Jesse Lincoln Driskill was born in Tennessee in 1824 and came to Texas when he was 27 years old. He worked in the mercantile trade for a bit and then began running cattle in 1857. He supplied the Confederate Army with beef for three years, getting paid in Confederate dollars. When the Confederacy collapsed at the end of the Civil War Driskill had no money and no cattle. By 1885 he had built his herds up strong enough in Texas, Kansas and the Dakotas to buy this entire city block for $7,500. He was said to spend another $400,000 on this grand Romanesque Revival hotel that was acclaimed as the “finest south of St. Louis.” Unfortunately for Driskill Austin did not boast the same high-powered clientele as St. Louis and he found few visitors to the frontier cowtown willing to pony up $2.50 a night when a room could be had for 50 cents down the street. When an early spring freeze decimated his cattle herds in 1888 he was forced to sell the hotel; he died two years later. The Driskill trundled on under various owners, some more benevolent than others, until the 1960s when it faced a date with the wrecking ball. A non-profit organization saved the landmark, however, and with periodic facelifts it remains one of the grand hotels of Texas. Also one of the most haunted - among the spirits said to prowl the halls is that of George Driskill himself.  

Sixth Street Historic District

In the town’s infancy the north-south streets were named for rivers and the east-west streets named for trees. The river names remain but the tree names have been uprooted for numbers in 1884. Sixth Street began life as Pecan Street and it was the most desirable address in Austin - it was far enough from the Colorado River to avoid the floods that came as high as 3rd Street and it was the last flat stretch of ground before the land rises towards the State Capitol. Pecan and Brazos was the center of town, the corner where the stage stopped when it rolled into Austin. By the middle of the 20th century, however, the area had deteriorated into a skid row with abandoned buildings that echoed the general malaise of downtown Austin at the time. The turn-around began in the 1970s with a rehab effort initiated by the Old Pecan Street Association. The first Pecan Street Festival was launched in 1978 and the South by Southwest music festival began in 1987. Today historic Sixth Street is the heart of a vibrant, nationally recognized entertainment district.


J.W. Hannig Building
206 East 6th Street

This iron front building, a near-double for the Walter Tips Building with a little less Gothic overtone, was the carpentry shop of Joseph W. Hannig in the 1870s. Like most furniture makers in the 19ht century Hannig doubled as an undertaker. History knows Hannig as the fifth husband of Susanna Dickinson who lost her first husband, Captain Almaron Dickinson at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. The 22-year old Susanna and her infant daughter were the only survivors who lived to recount details of the siege. After cycling through three more husbands Susanna married Hannig and stayed with him until her death in 1883 at the age of 68; he followed her to the grave seven years later. 

Morley Brothers Building/Grove Drugs
209 East 6th Street

The Morley Brothers established their apothecary in 1871 and became known around Austin for their soda fountain that would disguise the foul-tasting patent medicines they sold. William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pen name of O. Henry, had learned the druggist trade in his native North Carolina and landed a job here in 1884, sleeping upstairs. The building was constructed with two stories but picked up a third with a Victorian-style copper bay window in the 1890s. Another former Morley employee, Vernon Grove, bought the building in 1933 and kept the drug store going another half-century until it closed in 1985. The trademark vertical neon sign weighs some 3,000 pounds. 

Platt Simpson Building
310 East 6th Street

This two-story, three-bay brick facade with limestone block-trimmed windows dates to about 1871. Radcliffe Platt built it as a livery stable and residence. J.S. Simpson acquired the property in 1901 and operated a hardware store here for over thirty years.

The Ritz
320 East 6th Street

The Ritz was planned by local impresario J.j. Hegman to be the first movie house in Texas constructed solely to show the new “talkies.” It opened on October 13, 1929, screening the first run Westerns that were a staple of early Hollywood. The theater was designed by Hugo Kuehne who would go on to become the founding dean of the University of Texas School of Architecture. Like most urban movie houses the Ritz sputtered through the 1960s and 1970s, spending time shuttered and also serving as an adult theater for a spell. It has since re-emerged as a movie theater and live stage and is still owned by the Hegman family. 


Central Presbyterian Church
northeast corner of Brazos and 8th streets

This congregation can trace its beginnings all the way back to 1839, ten weeks before the town was chartered, and a service held in the Bullock Hotel. The first church was built on this site in 1874; the current stone sanctuary dates to 1957.


Millett Opera House/Austin Club
110 East 9th Street

Charles F. Millett, a captain of the Texas infantry in the Confederate army, established a steam saw and planing mill in Austin after the Civil War. Millett’s lumber was used in many of Austin’s early buildings and his furniture sat in the town’s homes. In 1878 Millett hired esteemed Victorian architect Frederick E. Ruffini to construct the town’s opera house, as any performance space for lectures, plays and entertainment was known in the19th century. Ruffini used two-foot thick limestone walls to construct the largest opera house in Texas outside of Galveston. Millett died in 1890 and the building was transformed to a skating rink in 1896. It did duty as a clubhouse for the Knights of Columbus, who added the Neoclassical portico in 1911, and has been owned by the Austin Public Free Schools since 1940. In 1980 the Austin Club, founded in 1949 with 483 members, moved in on a 50-year lease. Although since demolished Charles Millett’s Victorian mansion once stood on the corner next to his opera house where the parking garage is now.


Cathedral of St. Mary
203 East 10th Street at southeast corner of Brazos Street

A small congregation of Austin Catholics raised their first meetinghouse one block south on Brazos Street in the 1850s. The cornerstone for this building was laid in 1872. Architect Nicholas Joseph Clayton drew up the plans for the Gothic-flavored church that helped start his career as one of Galveston’s leading Victorian designers. St. Mary’s was a parish of the Galveston diocese until it became the cathedral for the new Diocese of Austin in 1948. 

James E. Rudder State Office Building
1019 Brazos Street at southeast corner of 11th Street

This imposing Neoclassical state office building, constructed with generous helpings of marble and granite, joined the roster of state office facilities in 1918. Several important state agencies have headquartered here through the years; presently it is the Secretary of State’s turn. The building is named for James Earl Rudder, a Texas A&M graduate who commanded an Army Ranger Battalion during D-Day on the coast of France during World War II. Rudder was wounded twice in the landing but survived to become a full Colonel by war’s end and a Major General in the United States Army Reserves afterwards. Rudder served as Texas Land Commissioner and the third president of his alma mater in College Station, transforming a small land-grant college into a nationally known university.  

Dewitt C. Greer State Highway Building
125 East 11th Street at southwest corner of Brazos Street

This Art Deco creation from 1933 came from the pen of San Antonio architect Carleton Adams. The building is liberally ornamented with decorative scrolls and floral designs and the entrance is guarded by stylized eagles. The state office building carries the name of Dewitt Carlock Greer who served over four decades with the Texas Department of Transportation during which time the paved roads in Texas expanded from a few thousand miles to more then 71,000 miles of highways.


General Land Office Building
108 East 11th Street at head of Brazos Street

This is the oldest state government building in Austin, completed in 1857. It was also the first structure in town to be constructed on plans drawn by a professional architect. That was German-born Christoph Conrad Stemme who tapped a variation of the Romanesque style popular in his native land known as Rundbogenstil. Hallmarks of the style are the prominent arched windows and a vague resemblance to an medieval castle. The land office moved to bigger digs across the street in 1918 and the building did duty as a museum until a restoration in the 1890s. Today it serves as the Capitol Visitor’s Center. Short story writer William Sydney Porter, better known for his plot-twisting endings as O. Henry, toiled in this office from 1887 until 1891.