The Dickinson-Hannig House looks for a home
Wrapped in black plastic, propped on metal beams, the historic Dickinson-Hannig House patiently waits on the southern side of Brush Square to be moved to its final destination. But where the house (named after Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson and her fifth husband, furniture maker Joseph Hannig) will finally reside -- and when -- is anyone's guess. Since the house relinquished its 130-year post at Fifth and Neches to the Convention Center hotel-in-progress, the City Council, Historic Landmarks Commission, and Parks Board have approved its removal to a sliver of land deeded to the city by the state at 10th and Congress. But the move has been delayed by conditions on the deed to the land.
The Heritage Society of Austin has proposed moving the stone house instead to Brush Square's northeast corner, beside the O. Henry Museum and closer to its original location at 501 E. Fifth. Placing the house shoulder-to-shoulder with O. Henry, says Heritage Society Historic Preservation Committee Chair Wayne Bell, would create more green space on Brush Square by allowing the two houses to share a back garden. It would also increase tourist traffic on the square, with two house museums, a historic fire station, a steam engine, and parkland. "We feel [10th and Congress] crowds the house very much into a commercial area and leaves it as an isolated small residence," Bell said.
Other downtown groups have joined in support. Friends of the O. Henry Museum board members voted Nov. 13 to approve the Heritage Society's recommendation, despite concerns that moving the O. Henry house closer to the street -- as required for the Dickinson-Hannig move -- would inflict damage and jeopardize years of restoration. Earlier this month, the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association also endorsed the Brush Square site and sent its recommendation to the City Council. Finally, although the Downtown Austin Alliance hasn't taken an official position, members have informally indicated a preference for Brush Square.
The city had wanted the house to remain in a central downtown location, but hadn't considered Brush -- one of three remaining downtown parks originally plotted by downtown planner Edwin Waller (the others are Republic and Wooldridge). "It's a little more sacred in how you view parkland," said City Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Stocklin, comparing the Square to the 10th and Congress site. Adds Downtown Austin Alliance Executive Director Charlie Betts, "Brush is kind of problematic because it's no longer just a park. Theoretically -- and I underline theoretically -- if we could wave a magic wand, we'd like to restore it to its original use as a park. It's not the intended use of the square to store historic properties. ... But so much is going on there, that trying to restore it as parkland is not practical."
The city hasn't yet given up on 10th and Congress, partly due to recommendations for that site by the Parks Board and the Landmarks Commission. But the board of the Old Bakery and Emporium (next door to the proposed site) voted unanimously to reject the building, due to the deed conditions on the land. According to Council Member Will Wynn, "part of the board's rationale is that the state wouldn't allow the house to be relocated to 10th and Congress because the deed doesn't allow for it." The city is petitioning the state General Services Commission to amend the deed.
Until the location issue is resolved, fundraising and restoration plans are on hold. The Texas Historical Foundation has agreed to raise awareness of the house and help with fundraising post-restoration. According to a THF spokesman, the foundation would be happy with either proposed location. Wherever the house finally rests, said Stocklin, speedy efforts will be necessary to prevent further deterioration and to transform Dickinson-Hannig from a series of worn-down limestone walls into a functional historical landmark, at an estimated cost of several hundred thousand dollars.
Despite the house's current dilapidated state, 501 E. Fifth and the adjoining area has come a long way since 1869, when Joseph Hannig bought the lot for just $200. (The following year, after the house was built, tax rolls estimated the value of the property at a more respectable $2,500.) The oldest known residence in Austin, the house has in recent years served as an auto parts storage site and for several restaurants, most recently the Pit Barbecue. Convention Center hotel developers -- coincidentally called the Landmark Organization -- considered using the house as a bar inside the hotel lobby until Council recommended the 10th and Congress site.
Landmark has paid for moving the house as well as for its maintenance, design, and foundation, but the bill is adding up. "It's costing them thousands of dollars a month while we take our time," lamented Wynn, also a real estate developer interested in historic preservation. "This is Austin, where we strive for perfection. But I tell people that nothing's perfect."
Wynn shares the hope of everyone involved: Save the home and maintain its historic integrity. But growing support for the Heritage Society's proposal might require the city to reconsider how best to accomplish that goal. "We're not trying to throw a kink in the plan," Bell said. "We're just trying to find the best site. ... Admittedly, we're sort of Johnny-Come-Lately on this."