Same as It Never Was
Some airports, forts, and boondoggles were never meant to be
The BoondoggleIt's different from most vacant buildings, this red brick structure at the intersection of Ed Bluestein (Highway 183) and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (FM 969). Many buildings have stories to tell from decades or even centuries of existence. But not this one. The building seems to have started one day some years ago and then just stopped before it was ever completed. It has walls and a roof but no parking lot or windows. Rather than a history of who worked there or what its cultural significance was, the structure tells the story of the wear of many Austin years: the massive rains of 1991, 1998, and 2001 and the ice storms of 1994, 1996, and 2003.
Next to no information is available on the mysterious building. A search of city building permits reveals no record. Property-tax records show the location was purchased by Spindletop Savings of Beaumont, Texas, July 7, 1987. The Resolution Trust Corporation took over Spindletop, March 1989. THA Investments bought the place three years later. A call to the number on the for-sale sign reveals that it is now for sale at $5 a square foot. Is its story -- or lack of one -- that unique?
As a result of the big economic boom-bust cycle of the late Eighties/early Nineties, there were many half-built projects in Austin. Some were fortunate enough to have suddenly sprung back to life when things turned around. The turnaround seemed to miss our building on East MLK.
But there is always more to a story like this. Someone came up with the idea for the building. Someone drew up the blueprints. Several other people worked on the construction crew. We just may never know this one.
Some ideas don't make it. In any community, there are projects planned but never completed. Maybe money runs out or voters turn it down, or maybe the need just no longer exists.
For better or for worse-- you be the judge -- these projects were planned for Austin but never realized.
UT (West) AustinIt all started June 17, 1910, when San Antonio banker George Brackenridge donated 445 acres along what is now Lake Austin Boulevard. According to the deed, he was giving the land "with the request that it may never be disposed of but held permanently for such educational purposes." He intended the land to be developed as part of the University of Texas. There were some other provisions, as well. If the land was sold before five named people -- all were children in 1910 -- died, the money would go to Jackson County, Texas' public-school system. With just a few buildings at what is now the current campus location, moving UT back then would not have been that big a feat.
Brackenridge died in 1920, and a year later UT's 40 acres were feeling cramped. The board of regents, mindful of this available expanse of land, voted to move the campus. The Austin Chamber of Commerce liked the idea and so did editorials in the local papers. But businesses and residents complained, so the plan was dropped. That left UT holding a lot of land; land they couldn't just sell and profit from due to the provisions in the deed.
The Lion's Club built a golf course on the land in 1926, and the city took it over in 1937, leasing it from UT for $60 a year. Homeowners also leased land, but in 1957 the leases were not renewed, and the area was cleared for married-student housing. But the terms of the lease delayed building the apartments. Finally, Senate Bill 428 was passed in 1965, giving UT a clearer interest in the land. A year later, UT bought out Jackson County's interest in the property for $50,000, and a bill in 1967 gave UT the right to sell.
Now the area is home to UT Austin's Biology Lab, some offices, the UT Rowing Center, and the aforementioned married-student housing. The headquarters of the LCRA, a number of restaurants, a Randalls grocery, some retail stores, and apartments also occupy the tract -- probably not what Mr. Brackenridge had in mind.
Imagine watching the Longhorns play at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium with a view of Town Lake in the background, the UT tower looking down on Deep Eddy, or the Drag being the nickname for Enfield Drive.
If the UT regents had their way back in 1921, it would have happened.
Manor AirportAfter 40 years, Austin was outgrowing its cozy, convenient Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. By the 1970s it began to show.
In what is still Austin's worst air accident, a private plane with six people onboard crashed into a house at 916 E. 48th in April 1970, killing the young couple who lived there as well as all onboard the aircraft. The house was in a residential neighborhood on the approach to Mueller Airport, only a quarter-mile from the threshold of the longest runway. In 1974 the Citizens Airport Advisory Committee recommended closing the airport and moving it to Bergstrom Air Force Base on Austin's southeastern tip, but the Air Force denied the request.
In April 1975, Texas Monthly published an article on the state's most potentially dangerous airports. Austin was labeled "High Risk," the worst rating. According to the article, any trouble during landing or takeoff could send a plane onto I-35, the Capital Plaza Shopping Center, or the Morris Williams Golf Course.
R. Dixon Speas Associates was commissioned to find a suitable location for a new airport. In May 1979, they recommended a number of sites: one northeast of Pflugerville, one near Blue Goose and Giles Roads in East Travis County, and a 3,200-acre site just on the other side of Manor. The Manor location was also recommended by the city's airport task force five years later.
Many folks, however, were not interested in moving Mueller Airport. The airport was paid for and located in Central Austin, a short drive from downtown and UT. In January 1985, voters rejected moving the airport.
Despite the referendum, the momentum to move Mueller didn't slow. The airport task force recommended the Manor site again two years later, and in the November 1987 election, the tide had turned. It was official: The airport was moving to Manor.
Remember, this was the Eighties, and other changes were afoot. The Cold War was thawing, Communist governments were collapsing, and U.S. military bases were closing. In January 1990, Bergstrom was on the list as a possible closure. A year and a half later, it was announced that Bergstrom would be one of them. A new election was held.
May 1, 1993, marked the death of the Manor airport; 63% of voters approved $400 million in revenue bonds for what would become Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Six years and 23 days later, Austin-Bergstrom International opened to much fanfare.
Visiting the area of the Manor airport today, one can see the flatlands that drew the consultants to recommend the place. Today, it looks pretty much the same as it did 24 years ago. Some new homes and a subdivision under construction (about where the airport's driveway would have met Interstate 290) are just about the only signs of time passing.
Few people noticed the recent 10th anniversary of the death of Manor airport, but out at the crossing of Johnson Road and CR 973, one marker stands. It looks like a big bowling pin or sombrero but is actually a VOR antenna, guiding pilots flying to and over Austin. With a little imagination, it can serve as the memorial to the airport that almost was.
Le PalestraIn 1983 Austin was downright giddy. The Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, popularly known as MCC, announced it would move to Austin, despite competition from other cities vying for the high tech firm. A high tech city, thought some, would bring in lots of wealthy people who would just love to wake up every morning to see the sun rising over downtown Austin from their West Austin hillside. And Le Palestra at 1008 Baylor could be just the place. Or so it might have been.
In 2003, a visit to 1008 Baylor reveals not high tech professionals sitting on their balconies with glasses of wine and their laptops, but slabs of erect concrete crumbling slowly with the settling of the hill. A large chainlink fence keeps the area off limits to graffiti artists, explorers, climbers, malt-liquor lovers, and handball players. In Austin, for a brief, shining microsecond, high tech happened -- but Le Palestra didn't.
Developer Richard Hardin began construction in late 1983. By July 1985 work had stopped over a dispute between the developer and the construction company. Foundation problems were showing up, and neither party would assume the costs of changes. Nevertheless, the goal was to have the project ready by that November.
But it was never to be. The building permit expired in October 1987. Two years later, NCNB Texas National Bank purchased the site for $377,000. The construction turned to destruction as what was built was taken down. Only the concrete walls remain. One neighbor remembered "Austin's Boomdoggle" painted on the walls. A "whatever happened to" article in the Austin American-Statesman in August 1990 included a photo of the site that looked much like it does now.
The property is now owned by prophetically named Lazarus Investments, established by Kay Bradley Hulse, sister of local developer Gary Bradley, whose office is in "the castle," right above the site.
Fort Magruder"The possibility of Fort Brown, Brownsville, and the control of the Rio Grande on the Texas bank would do something toward stopping an enormous Mexican and foreign trade," said an Austin paper, The State Gazette, Oct. 21, 1863, in anticipating Union activity in Texas. They were on to something. A month later, the Yankees took Brownsville. Could the capital city, 350 miles to the north, also have been on their agenda?
At that time, Austin was protected by one fort on the east side of town and one in the city proper. The south side, however, remained vulnerable.
Maj. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder, commander of the Confederate District of Texas, ordered fortifications built to stop the possible invasion of Austin. Slaves were drafted off the farms from counties including and around Travis. Advertisements asked farmers for half of their male slaves between the ages of 16 and 50 years old. Send them to Austin, and have them bring picks and shovels, the ad implored.
High ground overlooking the San Antonio Road (now South Congress) a few miles south of town was the site for this proposed Fort Magruder. The project started just before Christmas and just in time. U.S. troops were moving north just as the L-shaped trench was being dug for the fort. Union troops made it to Corpus Christi; then the majority was sent to Louisiana for a campaign into that state and a possible later attack of Texas from the east. Most Confederate troops in Texas were sent to the other side of the Red River to fend off that attack. The attack on Austin, however, never came.
Fort Magruder was abandoned before it was finished. That January, slaves were sent back to their masters' farms for their second-to-last planting season. Austin somehow escaped the tragic fates of Southern strongholds like Vicksburg, Atlanta, and Memphis.
Civil War scholars like Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, or James McPherson don't ever mention the fort. It didn't end up in Ken Burns' documentary series and probably won't be shown in the sequel to Gods and Generals. Homes were built over the location in the mid-20th century in the area called Fortview, and Fort McGruder Lane runs nearby. An undated brochure attested to historical markers at the site. Today, even they have long since vanished.
Interestingly, the mid-1990s are when most of the fort's history was written. Archeologists began research on the area in the spring of 1992 near Wadford and Dunlap streets. Homes covered the area, and the frontage road of Ben White was soon to cover the east-west trench. The team of researchers found where the trenches were and how they were filled. The north-south trench was 260 feet long and met the 470-foot east-west trench. But no Civil War-era artifacts were unearthed. Not a cannon, not a rifle, not so much as a minié ball. A report written by John W. Clark Jr. and David Romo, "Archeological and Archival Investigations at Fort Magruder, a Civil War Period Fortification in Austin, Travis County, Texas," published by the Texas Department of Transportation, is by far the most comprehensive history of the fort or, more accurately, construction site. "The fortifications of Fort Magruder for all practical purpose never got off the ground, and to date no documented evidence has surfaced that Fort Magruder was ever garrisoned by troops for the military threat to Austin never materialized," the report said.
Walking through the neighborhood one sees modest homes and hears the rush of cars going over the Ben White frontage road where one of the trenches once was. The high ground has been utilized for its strategic advantage, this time for a cell-phone tower.
Capitol Town CenterA mall, a movie theatre, office space, and a hotel by both the interstate and downtown on a hilltop offering a postcard view of the city ... That was the Austin development dream of a California company in the late Eighties. Right now, that very plot of land looks much the same as when developers were pitching the idea to City Council some 12 years ago.
Robertson Hill is the area bounded by I-35 on the west, the French Legation Museum on the south, San Marcos Street on the east, and East 11th on the north, and it has been part of the local history for almost as long as there was an Austin: The French Embassy opened when Texas was a Republic, the Henry Madison Cabin was built during the Confederate era, and it was home to Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson) six years before the first Longhorn went to class.
Fifty years ago, the city directory showed 82 homes and a few businesses in the Robertson Hill area. There were about half as many in the 1963 and 1973 directories. By 1983, there were only 19 homes and businesses. In the early Eighties, the city proposed turning the area into park land. Bennett Consolidated of California purchased the land and razed the remaining houses for the retail/office/hotel center in 1986. One home belonging to the Lopez family on East Ninth had been there since the mid-Fifties and was the only one not to sell.
On June 21, 1991, Bennett Consolidated presented the plan to the city for the 1.2 million-square-foot development (which would make it larger than Highland Mall in terms of actual square feet). The company solicited input from East Austinites. Some welcomed the opportunity for new jobs and shopping. Others resented the idea of a megacomplex invading their residential area. The complex was to include: a 400-room hotel; 200,000 square feet of office space; 500,000 square feet for major anchor stores; 200,000 square feet of mall shops; and an eight-screen theatre.
The developers were shooting for a spring 1994 opening. The theatre could have been showing The Lion King and Forrest Gump. The development was big news for the desolate hillside that had been empty by this time for several years. The city gave permission, but only if construction began before July 1, 1993.
Not much seemed to be happening. One article in The Austin Chronicle said the city had sent a crew out to cut the overgrown weeds and billed Bennett Consolidated for the trouble. Then came July 1993. Construction had still not commenced. Some utilities were moved, but the city said that did not a construction project make. The property was finally sold in March 2000.
About the only use for the area now is billboard space and a basketball court for students at Ebenezer Baptist School. Weeds are overgrown and trash has been dumped by people who assumed no one would care. East 11th is getting a face lift, and residential values in the neighborhood have skyrocketed -- almost three fold between 1998 and 2002, according to tax appraisal records. Could development be far behind?
Remember the Lopezes, the people who refused to sell their home? They are still there, in their house, with their postcard view of downtown.
Sources: The Austin History Center. Archives of the Austin American-Statesman, Austin Business Journal, The Austin Chronicle, Texas Monthly, The Texas Observer, and Douglas Johnson's series on the UT Brackenridge tract from the University of Texas Journalism Department, 1988.