Last week, the City of Austin marked the triumphant return of what must be one the oldest public restrooms in town at Austin Memorial Park Cemetery, located inside an elegant six-sided stone tower near the site’s main entrance at Hancock Drive. The restroom, originally known as the “service tower,” was built across the driveway from the cemetery’s administration building in 1928 by a private firm known as the Austin Memorial Park Corporation, with both stone buildings designed by San Antonio architect and cemetery developer Will Harry Chambers.
The City of Austin didn’t acquire the cemetery until 1941, but the tower restroom was part of the deal — according to James H. Wheeler, a landscape architect with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department who oversaw the restoration of the 137-square-foot facility, the restroom’s original design predated city water service, and operated its toilet via a gravity-fed system using a water tank hidden in the tower’s attic.
Although the renovation of the tower took pains to preserve its original exterior appearance due to the cemetery’s historic designation, the interior of the 96-year-old restroom has been thoughtfully updated — the space is now fully accessible with a baby changing station, motion-activated lighting, and other modern comforts.
The project was fully funded by a 2018 bond proposition for ADA-compliant parks facilities improvements, and is intended to preserve the facility as a community resource for decades to come, according to the Parks Department.
The proposed restroom renovation will provide a family restroom with a locking latch from the inside. The ADA-compliant restroom will include a 4-foot-wide accessible path, new lavatory sink, mirror, floor-mounted toilet, baby changing station, hand dryer, grab bars, fresh ventilation, and LED lighting with occupancy sensors.
All proposed improvements inside the restroom will maintain the historical character while providing updated features. No changes to the exterior façade are proposed. All wood windows, trim, and doors will be refurbished or replaced with like materials in accordance with historic preservation practices.
It may seem like a small project to celebrate, but there’s really nothing like a good public toilet. If people remember this blog for one thing, we’d prefer it to be our tireless advocacy for abundant and comfortable restroom facilities across the city — they are critical infrastructure for urban life, a key element of vibrant and inclusive public spaces. They’re also fairly rare in America these days, but Austin’s done a decent job shoring up our toilet gap over the last few years by adding new facilities and restoring a number of existing park restrooms in disrepair after decades of deferred maintenance. It’s just a nice bonus when they look like a little castle.