With its local history dating back to 1875, you might be surprised to discover that Huston-Tillotson University predates the University of Texas as Austin’s first institution of higher learning — and this East Side cultural landmark, originally founded as the segregated city’s only college for African Americans, should soon receive its due recognition with admission to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Texas Historical Commission is scheduled to consider the draft application for Huston-Tillotson’s designation as a national historic district at its upcoming State Board of Review meeting in September, but as we’ve seen from other recent items, once a potential application reaches the board’s agenda it’s unlikely to face any major challenges, especially considering the clear historic significance of this particular site.
For more than 150 years, the nominated property has provided educational opportunities for African Americans—from emancipation through the Great Depression, Civil Rights Movement, and today during the Black Lives Matter movement. More than “just” a college, Huston-Tillotson is a landmark where national, state, and locally influential Black leaders, educators, and students converged to learn, worship, share, debate, and socialize.
The university has occupied its 19-acre campus at 900 Chicon Street since 1952, when a mutual consolidation of the city’s two existing HBCUs — the Tillotson Institute and Samuel Huston College — facilitated a rapid expansion of the school’s educational facilities. According to the draft nomination prepared by the City of Austin’s Historic Preservation Office, there are 14 structures on the Huston-Tillotson campus contributing to its historic merit, with 11 of those built between 1951 and 1974.
That time period places the majority of notable architecture at this site firmly on the side of modernism — according to the draft application, “all but two of the historic-age campus buildings constructed after the merger were designed by variations of the partnership between Austin architects Kuehne, Brooks and Barr.” By far the most prominent structure rising from the university’s gently rolling hills is the brick-clad King-Seabrook Chapel and Bell Tower, built in 1974 by the architectural partnership then called Brooks, Barr, Graeber and White in a minimal brutalist style, its sleek bell tower highly visible from the campus-adjacent stretch of East Seventh Street.
Another contributing campus structure retaining a high degree of integrity is the Downs-Jones Library, designed by Kuehne, Brooks and Barr in 1960 and renovated in 2013 by CasaBella Architects — see a tour of the upgraded library below:
A full list of the 14 contributing properties from the draft registration application for what will be called the Huston-Tillotson Historic District is found below — though, as the document points out, the historic merit of this site goes far beyond its buildings.