A few months back, downtown Austin’s changing skyline went viral. A photographic comparison from roughly the same vantage point demonstrating the building boom over the past decade bounced around Twitter and Facebook and Reddit for several weeks, often accompanied by sneers and jeers from cats who pined for those sunny slopes of ten years ago.
Never mind the fact that people in 2008 had determined that the city had lost its soul in 1998, and that people in 1998 had determined that the city had lost its soul in 1988, and that people in 1988, etc.
The name of this website being TOWERS.net, you can probably infer our opinion on the matter: Change isn’t prima facie bad, and downtown development is largely good — though if anyone wants to help create a bunch more economic diversity, we’ll buy you a cigar.
But rather than leave it at that, we’ll offer you a case study in the opportunity costs of opposing new skyscrapers. Strap into the TOWERS.net Time Travelomatic and let’s zip-zap our way back to the heady, roaring, and deeply problematic days of 1920s Austin!
90 years ago, Austin was celebrating its 90th birthday. The backwater village of huts and hovels on the Colorado had spilled out of its original Waller-designed grid to host a population north of 50,000. The only thing more popular back then than the Lindy Hop, bathtub gin, and violent, racist mobs was automobiles, whose local market was hot enough to warrant the unfortunately titled column in the Austin American-Statesman, “Keen Komment on Kars.”
Another technological innovation of the time was the mighty skyscraper. By 1928, Austin could claim three of its own stately towers: The Littlefield Building, the Scarbrough Building, and the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. But business was booming across the country and big things were a’cooking here in the capital city.
In 1926, prominent local businessman Ollie O. Norwood began construction at W. 7th and Colorado streets on his Motoramp Garage, a state of the art multilevel car storage facility that featured offices on the first floor and fueling and service stations on each of the three floors above it. It was the first garage in Austin to feature ramps rather than elevators, thus ushering in our present age of structures that will likely be unable to be retrofitted once robot cars or whatever render parking unnecessary.
The Statesman’s breathless coverage of the Motoramp is a thing to behold — declamations about the four-story structure’s contribution to the skyline abound — but Norwood’s next trick was even more ambitious. He proposed to build next door a 12-story office tower that, fast-forward to today, is one of the most iconic vintage buildings in our present downtown.
The gothic revival Norwood Tower is indeed a stunner, even if its once-grand scale is somewhat diminished by the much larger modern towers that have sprouted up around it.
The concrete exterior — designed to mimic Austin’s local limestone — is an orderly orgy of right angles and straight lines until you get to the top where the fun happens. Finials, gargoyles, and trees crown the penthouse residence of Luci Baines Johnson, whose father once taught high school in Houston. Her mother, a local media magnate, wildflower buff, and paddle-boarding icon, once remarked, “The Norwood Tower is the most beautiful building in Austin. We used to call it ‘frozen music.”
But back to the 1920s! The rise of the automobile triggered a knock-on effect, and brother, we’re still wrestling with it today. Car-mania brought with it a frenzied proliferation of gas stations, whose applicants clogged up City Council business just as effectively as their customers did the city streets. This headache was apparently one of the prime arguments for a comprehensive planning and zoning ordinance.
Perhaps reflecting America’s penchant for latent fascism, both urban planning and zoning were also en vogue during this era — along with the Klan, coincidentally. In addition to notoriously reaching for ways to consolidate Austin’s cats of color into one corner of town, the 1928 plan the Council ultimately approved also called for citywide height restrictions.
Unsurprisingly, the proposed 100-foot ceiling was rationalized as a matter of protecting the majesty of the State Capitol, that dumb dome of cravenness where our part-time legislators occasionally gather to torment our most vulnerable neighbors.
This created a momentary crisis for Mr. Norwood and his planned tower. For a week in early 1928, before Council had even adopted the plan, the threat of the nascent Planning Commission coming out against the project loomed like a towering refinery next door to a quaint bungalow. According to a Jan. 12, 1928, Statesman article, the commission had geared up to block a separate skyscraper project — the Ernest Nalle Tower at Congress and 8th Street, a real whistler that was tragically done in by its owner’s financial implosion — and had threatened to bring its weight against poor Ollie’s tower.
Luckily for all, Mayor P.W. McFadden announced on Jan. 17, 1928, that the Planning Commission’s Chairman William Caswell had backed down entirely.
In his mostly inscrutable statement, Caswell blathers on about how the draft plan doesn’t have height limits but that it calls for a zoning ordinance that would have them but that it doesn’t matter because the commission had only to that point just discussed them in theory. He then closes with a paragraph that was clearly written by someone being held hostage.
All of this is to say that planning is a fraught affair and that, as we close in on writing our latest revision of the zoning ordinance in the wake of the latest revision of our comprehensive plan, maybe let’s all listen to the wise and sagacious Statesman, which once decried the conservative forces who stand athwart Austin’s future in the name of a past they also tried to stop.