Storied local music venue Antone’s hasn’t had the luxury of staying in one place since its birth in 1975, and that’s putting it lightly.
The original Sixth Street location moved to Anderson Lane in North Austin in 1980, then apparently immediately moved again to Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas in 1981. In 1997, the club moved once more to a building on the corner of West Fifth and Lavaca Streets — that’s the one we’re interested in today, although the venue moved yet again to East Riverside in 2013 and finally returned to a different building on Fifth Street in 2015, this time on the east side of Congress Avenue.
Phew, you get all that? The history of the building at 213 West Fifth Street, on the corner of West Fifth and Lavaca Streets, that housed the itinerant club from 1997 to 2013 goes a lot further than Antone’s, it turns out — according to city preservation officer Steve Sadowsky, the building dates back to 1919.
Its first major use was from 1922 to 1929 as a service station and distributor for Exide brand automotive batteries. It’s not as weird as it sounds today — the area known as the Warehouse District in downtown Austin used to be dominated by auto repair shops and car dealerships, which is why the original design of the building had an open front for drive-in service, as you can see in this historic photo:
The address housed filling stations, car dealers, tire shops, and other mostly automotive-related businesses until 1981, when it was converted into a financial investment firm. In 1995, the building was remodeled into a bar known as Jellyroll’s Nightclub, laying the foundation for Antone’s to take over the space in 1999.
It apparently wasn’t until then that the front side of the building was enclosed, but other modifications probably took place over these decades — long story short, here’s what the address looks like today:
I struggle to understand the logic behind cladding the original building with a bunch of stucco seemingly intended to drain, vampire-like, any character its exterior may have originally possessed — but we here in the present tend to think a lot of ideas from past decades are a bit silly. Anyway, I’m taking a painfully long time to get to the point because I think there’s a lesson here about the value of historic context in urban design, namely its ability to create a sense of place that can’t be easily replicated overnight by new development.
Urbanism-minded folks tend to gaze warily upon the notion of historic preservation as a natural enemy of density — and perhaps then, in the final sense, as an enemy of equality — but I think there’s value in the preservation of historic spaces, even mundane ones like auto repair shops, if their past usages can be reasonably adapted to the modern needs of the city. Without these considerations, things might start to feel a little postmodern, or like the setup to a riddle: What do you call the Warehouse District after you replace all the warehouses?
All that long-winded nonsense aside, I’m happy to say that this building’s getting a new lease on life, and gaining some of its original character back in the process. We first heard plans earlier this summer that the space would soon be occupied by a new branch of SPiN, a ping pong-centric bar and restaurant chain originally co-founded by actress Susan Sarandon — though she’s made it pretty clear in the story above that she’s no longer actively associated with the company, so you’d better watch out.
Anyway, what we didn’t know until now is that Barker/Nestor, the Chicago-based architecture firm remodeling the space for SPiN, now plans to carve away the stucco veil and restore the quirky historic exterior of the original building. I guess we’ll chalk it up to serendipity that the top of the original facade looks like a ping pong ball.
That’s pretty much the spitting image of the building’s original service station look — the only thing that’s missing is the open front, and that retractable awning on the right gets the job done anyway.
These elevations are basically all we know at the moment, with a briefing regarding the project scheduled for the October 23 meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission. I just thought it was something worth celebrating — practical preservationism that ends up giving us a nicer building in the end. Leave it to Austin to actually get me kinda excited about a ping pong bar, I can’t even play that game to save my life. Do they do beer pong?