A good gargoyle is hard to find in downtown Austin. That is not to say that the mythical creatures can't be found on some lofty perch staring down on the equally strange throngs of oblivious passersby. Nor does it mean that downtown Austin buildings are without subtle adornments.
A walking tour of downtown Austin can uncover many easily overlooked architectural treasures. It is impressive that 65 percent of the buildings along East Sixth Street have survived since before 1900.
Much of the early architecture of Austin reflected the frontier style. With building materials scarce and expensive (the railroad did not arrive until 1871), limestone rubble was the prevalent construction fabric for early commercial buildings. Ornate trim such as gargoyles were an unnecessary expense.
Gargoyles first flourished in the Middle Ages and were used almost exclusively on cathedrals. A human or animal figure, gargoyles were originally used as water spouts to throw rainwater clear of a building. They later became ornamental and assumed many forms.
The two most prevalent uses of gargoyles seem to be as sermons in stone or to frighten off evil spirits. Common usage of the word refers to gargoyles as any grotesque sculpture used to decorate a building.
For a short tour of some of downtown Austin's most decorated buildings, find a
parking place around Seventh and Colorado Streets and inspect the architecture on foot.
The most traditional use of gargoyles in downtown is the 28 little men with pointed ears and wings crouched on the third-floor windowsill of the Gothic Revival-style Norwood Building at 114 W. Seventh. Built during the prosperous period before the Great Depression, the 14-story office building was Austin's tallest when it opened in 1929 and the first totally air-conditioned office building in the United States.
Heading north on Congress Avenue, the Paramount Theater, 713 Congress, has three gargoyles in the trim of the red brick building. The large faces with open mouths is reminiscent of a Celtic design used as a threatening gesture. The name Joseph Nalle in the stonework belonged to the father of the builder and Austin mayor. It was built as the Majestic Theater in 1915.
Across the street from the Paramount is the Walter Tips Building, 710 Congress, one of the avenue's most elegant buildings. Although it has no gargoyles, notice the grape clusters in the stone trim and other fancy carvings. Built in 1877, it was designed by the same architect who did the Driskill Hotel.
Walk two blocks west to Guadalupe Street and north to 12th Street. The Central Christian Church has some of the most unusual adornments of any building in downtown. The main entrance on the Guadalupe Street side has pillar-statues adorned with faces, lions look out from corners, helmeted soldiers adorn other corners, and a side door is watched over by stylized owls. Completed in 1929, the yellow brick church with a red Spanish slate roof blends several architectural styles for a unique visual experience.
Walk back past the 1888 State Capitol Building to Congress Avenue.
The Lundberg Bakery, 1006 Congress, doesn't have any gargoyles, but does have an eagle overlooking the street. The adornment was added to the 1876 building to commemorate the U.S. Centennial. Around the corner, the 1933 State Highway Building, 125 E. 11th St., has two Art Deco eagles above the front door.
Head south on Brazos Street. At the corner of 10th and Brazos Streets, construction of St. Mary's Cathedral began in 1874 and took a decade to complete. The large round window above the main doors is one of only two officially designated rose windows in Texas. (The second graces St. Joseph's Catholic Church in San Antonio.)
Walking south at Sixth and Brazos streets, The Driskill Hotel has dragons clutching their tails at either end of the 1886 hotel's name. The sculpture of a Longhorn's head above the entrances was added because "the cows paid for it."
Jesse Driskill made and lost a fortune in the cattle business. It is his bust that looks down from high above the Sixth Street entrance and the likeness of his sons on the east and west sides.
Free guided tours of downtown begin at the south entrance of the Capitol each Thursday through Saturday at 9am and Sunday at 2pm, March through November (weather permitting). Other guided tours include the Capitol Grounds on Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 9am and the Bremond Block on Saturday-Sunday at 11am.
The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, 201 E. Second St., has brochures on self-guided tours of downtown. For more information, call the bureau at 478-0098. For more on gargoyles, see http://www.grfn.org/~garg/gargoyle.html.
Coming up this weekend...
O'Keefe and Texas, an exhibit that focuses on the influence the state had on Georgia O'Keefe when she was a resident from 1916-1918, is at the McNay Museum in San Antonio Jan. 27-Apr. 5. 210/805-1754.
Asian Lunar New Year brings a Far Eastern tour to the San Antonio Museum of Art with food and entertainment, Feb. 1. 210/978-2100.
Big Bend Ranching Heritage Trail Ride mounts up for a three-day ride from Lajitas to the old headquarters of the Big Bend Ranch, $420 all gear included, Feb. 21-23. 915/424-3238.
Texas Rangers Winter Carnival in Arlington features vendors with a variety of sports memorabilia, Feb. 5-8. 817/459-5000.