Developing Stories: The Norwood Posse Wants You!

Travis Heights neighbors have revived the Norwood House restoration effort – are they too late?

How the Norwood House looked in better days
How the Norwood House looked in better days (Photo courtesy of The Norwood Posse)

Next time you're driving along Riverside Drive, look up on the hill by the dog park, just west of I-35, and you'll notice a derelict, boarded-up old house surrounded by a chain-link fence. As an Austinite, you are part owner of that depressing sight – the once-glorious 1922 Norwood House. Now a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring the historic home that sits on city park land wants your help. Ideally, the Norwood Posse (www.restorenorwood.org) would like to see 30,000 Austinites chip in $10 each to raise the $300,000 needed to turn an eyesore into an amenity. To kick off active fundraising, the group is holding an event at the Continental Club on Sunday, Oct. 11, from 3 to 8pm.

If there's a patron saint of historic preservation lost causes, the Norwood House needs her special intervention. The once-fine example of Craftsman-style bungalow architecture, designed by Hugo Franz Kuehne (a founder of the UT School of Architecture and director of the Texas Society of Architects), was among the most elegant homes in Austin when it was built in 1922 for Ollie Osborn Norwood. Norwood was responsible for the Nor­wood Tower Downtown, another icon of Austin's architectural history. An elegant showplace for hosting society parties, Norwood's Travis Heights home boasted Austin's first swimming pool (spring-fed) and a beautiful garden and grounds, sited amid beautiful old trees on a bluff overlooking the lake.

Six decades later: Enter big, bad condo developers. They bought the land intending to tear the house down. South River City Citizens intervened to save it, but that first preservation effort was sadly bungled and incomplete. When the city of Austin eventually bought the three-acre site for $2.5 million in the mid-1980s, it moved the house next door, which damaged it; elements such as exterior brickwork were removed and lost. The interior had already been compromised during the house's use for two decades as an office. The city assigned the land and house to the Parks and Recreation Department. But in a woeful lack of stewardship, the city and PARD never did anything to restore the house and grounds – or even to minimally protect the structure from decay. Around 1990, the Women's Chamber of Commerce of Texas announced a preservation effort, pledging to PARD that it would restore the house and grounds and raise the $500,000 required. But after the house was moved back to its original site, the effort foundered. So despite its historic significance, the house has sat deteriorating for two decades.

"The city's neglect of this jewel borders on criminal," said supporter Bill Fowler. Its "disastrous state of disrepair" constitutes negligence "in direct violation of city building codes," asserts Posse leader Wolf Sittler. Indeed, the house is now in such desperate shape – holes in the roof have caused extensive water damage, among other serious problems – that one could argue it should simply be razed and put out of its misery. On March 26, 2006, City Council voted a second time to designate the house historic – once again, without funding a restoration. Budget-stressed PARD has no resources available for such a project; many other deteriorating parks facilities regularly used by Austinites also have pressing needs.

The Norwood House today
The Norwood House today (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Sittler asked, in an e-mailed essay, "Why has this public park building been allowed to gradually self destruct?" He says PARD is not the real villain: "Each year it gets less than needed to adequately maintain property for which it has responsibility. Consequently it must prioritize needs, and only the needs near the top of the list get attention." Indeed, the disgraceful state of the Norwood House is only too visible evidence of PARD's predicament. Sittler identifies systemic problems: "Involved is how $84 million of bond money, approved by voters in 2006, has been allocated. A focus on acquisition of new parkland has not been balanced with funds for the maintenance of park facilities already in place."

Last year, a group of Travis Heights residents and friends (including some who had originally fought to save the house in the mid-1980s) formed the Norwood Posse "to arrest the prospect of demolition by neglect," said Sittler. Professional firms have generously pledged to donate services, to keep the basic price tag around $300,000; the angels include Parshall & Associates Arch­i­tects, general contractor HHCC Inc., and civil engineers Urban Design Group. (More help of all kinds is needed.) On the exterior, the Posse hopes to restore the Norwood House to its original 1922 condition. The whole site, now 11 acres, needs major landscaping help as well. For the interior, its friends envision a new facility for community use, ideally one that's financially self-sustaining but within the city's public park system. Another systemic problem Sittler noted was that PARD doesn't get to keep the income from its own facilities to fund their maintenance and upkeep; instead, all earnings go to the company store – aka, the city's General Fund. The South Shore planned unit development project developer, Grayco Partners, has offered $25,000 toward the Norwood House restoration as part of its effort to meet new standards for community benefits (which include historic preservation) provided by PUDs – an interesting precedent.

The exact future uses for a restored Nor­wood House remain open – options discussed with PARD and the Austin Parks Foundation include a special-events space similar to the Zilker Clubhouse, rentable for weddings and such, and a picnicking spot from which to enjoy a striking view of the lake and the Down­town skyline. Unfortunately, it also overlooks I-35 traffic – and highway noise is loud in that spot. The Texas River School, which provides nature experiences for inner-city youths, has expressed interest. If a new boardwalk extension to the hike-and-bike is completed, it will run along the base of the Norwood House's bluff, so waterfront access is possible.

"It is high time that our elected officials figure out a way to maintain and upgrade publicly owned property," Sittler scolded. "As our city grows, so does the need for public recreation space and facilities. To continue on our current path is to guarantee second-class status, or worse, to our park system."

If this latest Norwood House preservation rally fails, the city could always just accept failure, of course, and sell the waterfront bluff back to condo developers. Now, where did we put that checkbook?

The Austin Parks Foundation has established a fund for the Norwood House restoration. To donate, visit www.austinparks.org.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Norwood House, Parks and Recreation Department, Norwood Posse, Austin Parks Foundation

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