Saving Woody and the Woodburn

In the late Seventies, Betty Baker lent a hand to help rescue a cat named Woody and ultimately the old house on whose roof the cat was stranded

The Woodburn House
The Woodburn House (Photo By Jana Birchum)

In the drawn-out development battle between the Hyde Park Baptist Church and its Hyde Park neighbors, there has been no love lost between Betty Baker and the neighborhood group that she voted against many times over as chair of the city Planning Commission.

But Dorothy Richter, one of Hyde Park's most august citizens, recalls the Betty Baker of 20-odd years ago, when, as a city staffer in the planning department, she was more inclined to stand up for neighborhood interests. In the late Seventies, Baker lent a hand to help rescue a cat named Woody and ultimately the old house on whose roof the cat was stranded. At the time, Baker handled historic zoning cases, one of which pertained to the Woodburn House, which the Baptist church had bought and planned to demolish to make way for its expansion. Richter and the neighbors were steadfastly opposed to losing the beloved but battered structure, then located at 40th Street and Avenue F.

Built in 1909, the dwelling was in a sorry state of disrepair, its only occupant a cat named Woody, abandoned by his previous owners. Richter and the neighbors looked after Woody, as did Baker, when she made her rounds through the neighborhood. Woody would frequently climb up the tall cedar trees to the roof of the house. While he was up there one day, the Baptists – anxious to start their demolition proceedings – cut down the trees, unbeknownst to Woody.

To Richter, a stranded cat represented a dire emergency, so she alerted Baker at home late that night. Richter thought that since then Mayor Carole McClellan (now state Comptroller Strayhorn) was also a cat lover, she would pull some strings to rescue Woody. Baker, breaking all staff protocols, bypassed her supervisors and went directly to the top – to her friend McClellan. The mayor sprang to action, setting Operation Rescue Woody into motion. She directed the fire department to hightail a cherry picker down to the Woodburn house. Since the Baptists owned the home, church deacon Dan Gardner was called to the scene. He agreed to go up in the cherry picker to retrieve Woody. "Well, Woody bit the deacon so the city wanted the cat held for observation. And the neighbors wanted the deacon held for observation," Baker deadpanned.

"It was straight out of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming," Richter recalled of the 1966 comedy of Cold War misadventures.

Woody was eventually cleared and adopted by one of the veterinary employees and lived happily ever after on a farm in Williamson County. But the fate of the Woodburn house was not so certain. More wrangling with the Baptists ensued; Baker helped negotiate a deal that would free up space for the church's expansion and preserve the house in one neat little package. In the end, the Woodburn was relocated from its original site to 4401 Avenue D, where it is now fully restored to its old glory and serving as a bed and breakfast.

Meanwhile, the battle between the church and the neighborhood continues, and it is Baker's last vote – in favor of the church – that the residents remember; Woody and the Woodburn are a distant memory.

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Betty Baker, Dorothy Richter, Woodburn House, Hyde Park Baptist Church

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