The current heat wave hasn’t made it easy to notice, but fences are finally down at Brush Square in downtown Austin. After a year of construction and roughly five years of planning efforts, the first phase of improvements to this longtime downtown public space at 409 East Fifth Street are substantially complete.
Although you can go check it out for yourself right now, the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department will commemorate this milestone with an official ribbon-cutting on Sunday, September 17 at the wildly optimistic time of 1:30 p.m. Perhaps the heat will prompt you to also check out one of the air-conditioned museums at Brush Square, and that’s the other thing the event is supposed to commemorate — although it’s been open to the public since January, the O. Henry Museum is dedicating a nearly two-year renovation of its historic building, which served as its namesake author’s home back in the 1880s.
We’ve mentioned before that the downtown block containing Brush Square is sort of like that drawer where you put all the stuff that doesn’t fit in all your other drawers, with the O. Henry Museum, the adjacent Susanna Dickinson Museum, a functioning downtown fire station housed in a historic New Deal-era structure, and the open green space of Brush Square itself all rubbing shoulders without much connection to one another. The new renovations to this site by the Parks Department address this by adding a large back patio to the O. Henry Museum house that overlooks the renovated Brush Square, which plays nicely with the square’s new seating, event lawn, and a shaded deck beneath the site’s preserved heritage oak trees.
The 2019 Brush Square Vision Plan resulted from years of planning efforts and envisioned Brush Square as an inclusive, vibrant space in Austin’s rapidly growing downtown. The Phase I implementation includes improvements to the sight lines and circulation through improved grading and drainage as well as new walkways, an expansive event lawn, seat walls, raised decking, interpretive signage, new lighting and site furnishings, and landscaping.
The O. Henry Museum restoration includes roof repairs, window and door restoration, as well as wood siding repair and repainting. System upgrades include HVAC and security system replacement, new electrical wiring, and installation of a fire protection system. Site improvements include landscape, irrigation and lighting, and construction of a new stone patio at the back of the house.
— City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department
Like renovations to Republic Square back in 2017, these improvements are arguably intended to simply remind people that these downtown public spaces exist, with improved sightlines and circulation through the square bringing increased pedestrian activity in harmony with the adjacent bikeway and Red Line station. These upgrades will make Brush Square a suitable event location for celebrations like the O. Henry Museum’s annual Pun-Off, and we imagine the site’s proximity to the Austin Convention Center will influence further programming.
Even as you enjoy this first phase of improvements to the site, there’s a sort of elephant in the room — or standing on the square, in this case — in the continued presence of Central Fire Station No. 1 and its parking lot, which together occupy roughly half the block. Further expansion of Brush Square as a public space depends on the 85-year-old fire station eventually relocating to a modern facility elsewhere in downtown, which would allow the parking lot to be repurposed into more green space and the station’s current building to instead house some sort of park-friendly amenity like a downtown visitor’s center. Although we’ve heard this discussed by the city for years now, there’s no concrete plan at the moment — and with renovations to the fire station now visibly underway, that move could be years out. For now, it’s probably wise to simply enjoy the new Brush Square we’ve got. It’ll be pretty nice in the fall.