PARD Considers the Future of Historic Home on Lady Bird Lake
Travis Heights citizens have fought to get it rehabbed for 40 years
High on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River valley, an idyllic home once stood. It was an Arts & Crafts bungalow built by investor Ollie Norwood with symmetrical brick siding, large windows, hardwood floors, a low-pitched roof, and a pergola raised on pyramidal columns of river rock. Its doors opened onto rose gardens, a fountain, a greenhouse built into a hill, a tennis court, a gazebo, and a bathhouse with a large spring-fed geothermal pool.
But that was long ago. Little is left of the Norwood estate today. Only a few crumbling walls show where the outbuildings once stood. The pool was filled in as a safety hazard – an off-leash dog park sits over it now. The view from the property at I-35 and Riverside Drive is still there though, taking in Lady Bird Lake and the Downtown skyscrapers. Then there’s the house itself, a stripped, wooden box behind a chain link fence, utterly unrecognizable.
Travis Heights resident Charlotte Bell told us the Norwood House was still beautiful as recently as the 1980s. That is when a group of neighbors cut a deal with a condo developer to designate the house a historic landmark to keep it from being bulldozed. The condo project fell through but not before the house was temporarily moved, causing its brick facade to collapse. The city purchased the lot in the Nineties, and the Women’s Chamber of Commerce made plans to turn the house into a museum. They abandoned the project in 2000. By 2011, holes in the roof had let water ruin the hardwood floor and compromise the framing. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department examined the house and recommended it be torn down.
At that point, a second generation of Travis Heights citizens sprang up, named themselves the Norwood Park Foundation, and convinced the city to let them rehabilitate the house. “The idea was for NPF and the city to combine private and public money to get this old house back to its original appearance,” said Bell’s husband, Wolf Sittler. “Then it could be used as a publicly owned event space like the Zilker Clubhouse, another historic house with a gorgeous view that can be rented out.”
NPF almost made that happen in 2021, after PARD allocated $3 million for the project from bond and hotel tax revenue. The foundation got its design plans approved and secured the permits to begin work. But then, former NPF President Colleen Theriot said, the COVID pandemic suddenly drove construction prices up, doubling the cost of the project. Unable to raise the extra funds, NPF pulled out of the deal and dissolved in the summer of 2022, after 10 years of effort.
PARD told us it has moved the money for the Norwood House to other uses. The department proposed two options in a Jan. 25 memo: The city could take complete control of the property and create an event facility, as originally envisioned. Or it could remove the Norwood House’s historic landmark designation, demolish it, and do something else with the site, like creating an overlook with exhibits describing what was once there.
PARD said it will make a recommendation in the fall. Kim McKnight, the department’s manager of historic preservation, said their goal is to raise awareness of the options and open a dialogue with city leaders and citizens to see if there is enough will to re-create the old house.
PARD met with a new group of neighbors calling themselves the Revive Norwood Alliance on Jan. 30 as part of that outreach. Bell and Sittler were present and said PARD appeared open to going forward with the original plans. “Their position seemed to be that since someone is now advocating for the house they’re more inclined to go with what the advocates want,” Sittler said. “But the parks department has never been adequately funded. We need private money to get this done.”