Swimming leads to snacking. That’s been a fact of life at Austin’s Barton Springs Pool for at least a century, with the first mention of concessions served to bathers at the spring-fed swimming pool — “hamburger and the like” — appearing in the Austin Statesman in 1918. But in 2016, the Zilker Cafe at Barton Springs closed and stayed closed. Turns out the pool’s 1960s-era concessions building was “in shambles:”
Forget a new coat of paint; the cafe, built in the 1960s, needs pretty much everything, said Marty Stump, assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department: electrical work, plumbing work, even possible lead and asbestos removal. And starting such major work could mean the building would have to be upgraded to comply with federal rules for the disabled persons’ access.
— Austin American-Statesman, 2016
The cafe building may not look like much, but like the rest of the structures around the pool, it’s included in the Barton Springs Archeological and Historical District, part of the federal government’s National Register of Historic Places. Contrary to what you might think, that wouldn’t necessarily stop the city from tearing the structure down and starting over, but the historic nature of the building means rehabilitating the property takes priority, if at all possible — and the effort such an undertaking represents to Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department has kept the concession stand closed for more than two years.
Still, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Zilker Cafe — the city’s Historic Landmark Commission recently approved a design proposal for the building’s renovation, and according to the Parks Department’s current timeline, the process of soliciting a new concessions vendor could begin by December 2018. Though an actual opening date for the new facility is unclear for the moment, Christina Bies, project coordinator for PARD, tells me that the building’s renovations are currently projected for completion by fall 2019.
Though the history of snacks at Barton Springs goes back to at least 1918 and likely much earlier, the first architectural record of a concession stand at the site begins in the early 1930s, with “sandwiches, cold drinks, popcorn, cigars and cigarettes and ice cream” sold from a Dutch windmill-shaped structure on the north side of the pool not far from where the existing cafe building now sits.
The concession stand’s whimsical design was the product of famed local architect and city planner Hugo Kuehne — whose most recognizable surviving building in town is probably the Renaissance Revival structure formerly used as the city’s central public library, which now houses the Austin History Center.
The windmill structure was torn down to make room for the current concession building, a flat-roofed cafe designed by architect Paul Roesle and built in 1960. The structure has been heavily modified in the decades since, with its current mansard roof added in the 1970s to hide the many rooftop mechanical systems retrofitted to keep the building up to code over the years — it seems we’ve upped our standards for ventilation and air conditioning over the last half-century.
The city’s upcoming renovation of the cafe, working in partnership with CasaBella Architects, will attempt to restore the building to its 1960 appearance as much as possible by removing the mansard roof, renovating the interior, cleaning the exterior bricks, replacing the glass service windows, and converting the structure’s two existing employee restrooms to a single ADA-compliant restroom. Here’s what we can expect the remodeled cafe to look like:
The building’s new flat roof design will include a screen hiding the mechanical systems atop the structure, but is less disruptive to the spirit of the cafe’s original look than the mansard roof, at least according to the Historic Landmark Commission. You’d be surprised by how much thought goes into such a seemingly small project like this — in fact, the first iteration of CasaBella’s design for the cafe’s renovation wasn’t received quite as warmly by the commission, which didn’t like the look of its vertical profile or exterior columns:
The applicant came before the Certificate of Appropriateness Review Committee with an earlier design that was much more vertical in its composition and relied on exterior columns. The Committee recommended that the applicant modify the design of the new roof for the structure to be much more in line with the original appearance of the building, stressing the horizontality of the roof and accurate restoration of the glass on the building.
— Historic Landmark Commission Certificate of Appropriateness Review Committee, August 27, 2018
Now that the design is settled for the Zilker Cafe’s next generation, one final mystery remains — who will the city choose for a vendor? Pleasing everyone is going to be exceedingly difficult, judging by the responses PARD received back in 2015 after conducting a survey on the public’s preferences for what kind of food their ideal concession stand would serve.
Should the cafe feature healthy food, or the junk food more typical of a poolside snack bar? Can we possibly find a way to bridge that gap and serve both without irritating everyone on the planet? Can we somehow also make it cheap? There are…a whole lot of conflicting public opinions on this subject, as you can see from some of my favorite responses to the survey:
Austin is known as a foodie town. It’s also known as the home of Whole Foods and healthy juice bars. There is a raw food retreat center nearby, in Bastrop County, where people come from all over to detox and regain their health (HINT: it’s the food, raw food and wheatgrass juice) They go into Austin to see the sights and sometimes have a hard time finding healthy food to eat, like salads. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE OFFER HEALTHY RAW FOOD, LIKE SALADS, JUICES, SMOOTHIES, SPROUTS AND NUTS AND SEEDS!!!!!!!!! Everyone will be happier and healthier, if you do. Break the addiction to junk food and sugar. Watch FED UP, Forks Over Knives, and Fat Sick and Nearly Dead. Watch Crazy Sexy Cancer for more info.
I hope the cafe offers food that is appropriate for the majority of park patrons, which, as someone who has been swimming at barton springs on a daily basis (year round) for 30 years, I view as families and health conscious individuals. Food odor from the restaurant wafts down to the pool, which diminishes from the experience of the beautiful, natural setting at the springs. Please consider not allowing for fried food to be prepared at the restaurant. As a parent whose children came to the park and pool every day for many years, I can say that I would have purchased snacks for them on a regular basis if there had been healthful offerings — not snow cones and cotton candy and burgers. Austin’s food scene has evolved, please let this location reflect the community’s emphasis on fresh and nutritious food. Please find a vendor worthy of Austin’s crown jewel (Barton Springs & Zilker Park) — and best if it is a local business.
Keep the prices low, please don’t make it fancy.
I would like snow cones to be eliminated from the menu because they attract bees to the trash cans.
I think the Zilker Cafe is perfect as it is. When we need a hot dog or some french fries, we can go there and buy those things at a reasonable price. That is exactly what a park concession should be – cheap and cheerful. Please, please do not make the Zilker Cafe into some kind of exclusive venue selling duck fat fries and pork belly sliders. Don’t get me wrong, I love both of those things. But, we already have more than enough of those shops along both sides of Barton Springs Road, a short walk away. Please just let it be a place for a quick, hot, greasy, unhealthy, inexpensive meal with our kids that we can enjoy.
please don’t get rid of pickles
I wish the city luck in their search for a cafe identity that somehow meets the needs of all of these (clearly very reasonable) people! Sad thing is, we actually already had the perfect new vendor for the cafe back in 2015, when beloved former campus burger joint Players was set to become the concession stand’s new operator — but after the city realized just how decrepit the building was, the deal fell through. I’d love to see this happen now that the city’s preparing to issue an RFP for a new vendor to operate out of the renovated space, but I couldn’t get ahold of the Players folks to see if they’d consider applying again.
Anyway, burgers and shakes likely wouldn’t satisfy the health-food crowd. If it were up to me, the vendor that might best straddle the fence between junk food and less-junk food would be Veracruz All Natural, a local chain comprising several area food trucks and two brick-and-mortar restaurants offering Mexican food, fresh juices, and smoothies — including the genuinely life-changing migas breakfast tacos good enough to score an appearance on the Food Network. Not only is the food great (and not too stupid health-wise), the business is also minority-owned, which the city lists as a proactive consideration in the vendor solicitation process.
No matter what the cafe ends up serving, it’s nice to see the city paying attention to such a comparatively small renovation — Barton Springs, as one of the Austin’s major tourist attractions, deserves something better than a closed building. I recently spoke with CasaBella founder Jaime Beaman about the renovation project, and though it’s admittedly a minor feature of the Barton Springs complex in comparison to something like the historic bathhouse, he considers it “an iconic, historic structure — and we’re trying to restore it as gently as possible,” he says. “I think it’s gonna be cool to take my grandkids here and tell them, ‘Granddad did this.'”