Though you’ll find examples here and there, there’s not a ton of Art Deco architecture in Austin, and if you’re searching for this style on Congress Avenue you’ll most likely stick to the Scarbrough Building at 522 Congress Avenue — not just the city’s first modern tower, but also overflowing with Deco’s classic geometric ornamentations at its grand entrances, particularly eye-catching since many are finished in metallic gold.
Although the Scarbrough is gorgeous and through-and-through historic, the building itself dates back to 1909, a few years prior to the origins of Art Deco which peaked in the 1920s and ’30s through the start of World War II — while the beloved ornamentations that make many folks think of the Scarbrough as an original Art Deco building weren’t actually added until a remodel in 1931.
Despite this larger structure taking up much of the oxygen for Art Deco lovers in this area of downtown, if you cross the street and head north a few blocks you’ll find the Mutual Building at 905 Congress Avenue, a much more understated 1930 Art Deco remodel of an 1870s storefront as a headquarters for the now-defunct Mutual Deposit and Loan Company that we somehow missed on our first survey of the style — it’s possibly the most authentic take on this type of architecture in the area, but its comparatively small street presence is easy to overlook.
That would be a shame, since its cream-white limestone facade overflows with detail thanks to designer Hugo Kuehne, an Austin architect famous around these parts for classic buildings like the former 1933 library that’s now home to the Austin History Center at 810 Guadalupe Street, along with the Mission Revival-style shelter still standing at Little Stacy Park in the Travis Heights neighborhood of South Austin.
Last month, the City of Austin’s Historic Landmark and Planning Commissions both approved the Mutual Building for historic zoning designation, which should enable its recognition and preservation for years to come — and that’s an especially welcome change for this area of Congress Avenue, where profoundly historic structures are often left vacant and crumbling to a degree that borders on criminal.
The Kuehne façade consists of a pair of fluted pilasters, one on each side of the recessed central entry. Four vertical panels above the entry feature stylized floral bas-relief; the panels graduate down in size from a central panel containing geometric chevron motifs. The base of the parapet is delineated by a horizontal band of stylized waves.
— City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission
The application for historic zoning here came from the property’s owner since 2002, Brad Nelsen of architecture firm Nelsen Partners, which now uses the building as its offices. But that’s only the latest life of the Mutual Building, which prior to its 1930 remodel served as a shoe store, an ice cream parlor, and most notably the editorial offices of the Austin Daily Statesman newspaper during the 1890s.
The Mutual Deposit and Loan Company eventually relocated in 1952 to a larger office at 1005 Congress Avenue in 1952, with a kosher deli known as the Manhattan Restaurant taking over the 905 building, its back room quite possibly serving as the city’s first gay bar, no small feat in the 1950s — though historical research by city staff in preparation for the zoning case emphasizes that it’s difficult to determine with certainty whether this took place at the 905 location or the deli’s later home at 911 Congress Avenue, where its owners relocated in 1957. Either way, Nelsen Partners has a great photo of the cafe’s interior that now serves as their offices.
The Household Finance Corporation of Dallas, a personal loan business, took over the then-vacant building in 1961, operating there until 1980 when the building was converted to offices. That remodel installed a steel canopy over the front entrance, replaced the beautiful glass-block window seen in the image above with ordinary glass windows, and damaged the exterior limestone carvings of the structure with some extremely misguided sandblasting — this softened the building’s Art Deco carvings and reduced their impact somewhat, but according to the city’s research, “enough remain to project the original design of the facade.”
This is the epitome of a landmark.
— Kevin Koch, City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission
With its newfound historic designation and architecturally-minded owners that clearly appreciate the idea of preserving the old and integrating it with the new, we’re confident the Mutual Building will keep Art Deco fans happy for many years to come — just keep the sandblasters away from the carvings, please!