Cambridge Tower, a 15-story residential building at 1801 Lavaca Street near West Campus, was downtown Austin’s tallest apartment tower when it first opened in 1965.
Though you might not give the building much thought now, the innovations of its time were significant — with an assortment of amenities for its residents including restaurants on the ground floor, valet parking, and concierge service, the building was likely the highest-end apartment community in the city when it opened, until changing its usage to condos in the late 1970s.
A few weeks ago, the review board of the Texas Historical Commission passed an application for Cambridge Tower to be included in the National Register of Historic Places — meaning that the building now only has to receive final approval from the National Parks Service to enter the register. It may not be downtown’s most stunning building, but there’s a pretty good argument for granting the tower historic recognition. Let’s take a look.
Cambridge Tower’s architect, Thomas Edward Stanley, lived in Dallas, and was perhaps better known for his work there — including a striking modernist 20-story office tower completed in 1958 at 211 North Ervay Street.
Within the modernist style of architecture so prominent in the midcentury era, Stanley often dabbled in a subset of design now known as New Formalism, which might be described as essentially a modernist take on classical architecture, rejecting some of modernism’s boxier tendencies for curves and ornamentation in the form of arches, columns, and domes. Still, you wouldn’t exactly mistake Cambridge Tower for a classical building.
According to the Texas Historical Commission, local architects Fehr & Granger were the first architects to integrate elements of New Formalism’s classical styling into a major project in Austin with the design of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport terminal and control tower, completed in 1961. Still, Cambridge Tower might be one of Austin’s more prominent examples of this architecture.
Cambridge Tower is significant not only as an excellent example of the classic aspects of the New Formalism Style in Austin, but also as the embodiment of a certain exoticism and romanticism, additional characteristics of the expressive architectural style. Cambridge Tower displays this in two ways, with the classical columns and arches around the building as well as the decorative concrete block balustrades that frame the terraces.
At the grid of balconies around the building, thin non-structural concrete columns form the “support” for rounded arches that span each vertical bay. In their reference to classical architecture, these simplified and abstracted columns and arches became typical of New Formalist design.
— Cambridge Tower’s NRHP Application Form
Stanley designed other buildings in relatively the same midcentury time period that share obvious DNA with Cambridge Tower, even at first glance. The arches found on his iconic former Sanger-Harris department stores built in the mid-1960s around Dallas are instantly familiar compared to this building’s look.
According to the NRHP application, the tower’s former retail spaces — which used to house several restaurants and a barbershop but are now used as office space — are historically very popular with architecture tenants. In fact, local design firm Alterstudio currently operates out of one of Cambridge Tower’s ground-floor offices, and they seem to like it very much.
We’ll find out soon enough if this tower’s historic status is recognized on the national level. Until then, just enjoy the understated beauty of this building — in my book, it’s one of the secret gems of an otherwise rather dull corner of downtown.
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