While digging up the history of what’s changed and what hasn’t on our city’s most famous street a few months ago, I stumbled upon a handful of articles from the Austin American-Statesman detailing a 1976 proposal for significant modifications to Congress Avenue. The plan was presented to city leaders by John Andrew Gallery, then the dean of the University of Texas School of Architecture.
I contacted Gallery — who now lives in Philadelphia and has spent a large portion of his life as an advocate for historic preservation, along with shooting a mean game of pool — to ask about the details of the 1976 proposal. I was curious to see if any pieces of his plan had come to fruition in the 41 years since it was introduced.
It was unexpected enough that I received a reply, but Gallery had more to offer: A poster from the original presentation was still lying around in his archives, and he was happy to mail it to me. It’s an incredible find, and we think it deserves to be seen — click the image below to view a high-resolution copy:
Man, this thing is quintessentially 1970s — right down to the header set in Eurostile Bold Extended, essentially typographic shorthand for “this is the future.” The improvements outlined in the proposal strike a balance between reasonable and sort of outlandish. The bits about reclaiming unused alleys to create walkable retail spaces and public plazas off the street are straight out of the modern urbanist playbook, while the plan to paint red, white, and blue stars at the center of every intersection is something else entirely.
But perhaps the proposal’s strangest idea — at least to our current sensibilities regarding urban design — is the preservation of historic facades along the avenue by creating a long, connected band of elevated signs along the curb, separate from the buildings behind it, to identify different businesses on the street.
It’s unclear from the drawings if these signs would use a standardized typeface for every business name, but the focus on legibility makes me wonder. I actually love a lot of the ideas on this poster, but this one’s a real relic of its time — I can’t imagine getting anyone excited in 2017 about making Congress Avenue look like a strip mall.
The proposal’s plan to encourage high-density residential development between First (Now Cesar Chavez) and Fifth Streets could hardly predict the city’s booming residential tower market. Of course, the area described as a transitional zone between the lake and Congress Avenue is now thick with hotels and offices instead — but at least we’ve got the Austonian.
As the city fires up its latest attempt to improve Congress Avenue, I think it’s important to get a little perspective on how visions for the street’s future have changed over time — so a truckload of special thanks is due to John Andrew Gallery for sending us this amazing piece of history.
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