A historic East Austin home is still the exact same home as before — it just happens to be sitting 17 blocks north of its original address. That’s the latest news out of local real estate firm Cielo Property Group, which announced in a press release today that it has donated the historic house formerly located at 1608 East Fourth Street to Mary Clark, an East Austin resident recently left homeless after a fire last summer burned down a storage shed on her property at 1906 East 21st Street — a shed where she and her husband had lived without electricity or running water since 2011, when a previous fire burned down the four-bedroom home they had occupied for nearly 50 years.
Thankfully, the Clarks will soon have a better place to live, power and water included — according to the release, Cielo has already carried out the building’s 17-block relocation to Clark’s property, and will also pay for improvements including new flooring, appliances, and a fresh coat of paint.
This is good news for Cielo as well as the Clarks, since the home’s former address on Fourth Street was part of an assembly of property at the northeast corner of East Fourth and Comal Streets where the developer plans to soon break ground on Foundry II, a 160,000-square-foot office project that’s a sort of companion building to Cielo’s Foundry offices currently under construction at the southwestern corner of the same intersection. Previously known as 4 East, the Foundry II office building will feature design by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture.
The home, originally built in 1925, received historic zoning in August 2018 from Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission, and had its relocation approved by the same commission four months later. But what makes it historic in the first place? It’s not about the architecture of the home, but rather who lived there for much of his life — Albert Lavada Durst, better known as “Dr. Hepcat,” a blues piano player and singer who became Texas’ first black radio disc jockey on Austin’s KVET station.
Born in Austin in 1913, Durst gained a reputation in the city’s blues scene in the 1930s and ’40s for his rhythmic vocal style known as “jive talk,” which eventually got him work calling local Negro league baseball games. John Connally, owner of KVET and the future governor of Texas, attended one of those games and found himself drawn to Durst’s announcing ability, hiring him as a DJ and on-air baseball commentator in 1948 — a significant achievement in the segregated Austin of the era.
“Dr. Hepcat’s” cool jive-talk was a hit and made him a celebrity with the local white college students. He can be credited for introducing an entire generation of white Austin listeners to jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues.
Durst retired from KVET in the early 1960s and gave up performing the blues to become a minister. He was ordained at Mount Olive Baptist Church in 1965 and was named an associate minister at Olivet Baptist Church in 1972. In the mid-1970s, convinced that God wanted him to use his talents, he returned to performing the blues. For the next several years, he played “boogie-woogie barrelhouse blues” at festivals, museums, and other venues.
In addition to his musical endeavors, Durst worked for the city of Austin as director of athletics for the Rosewood Recreation Center. He retired in 1979, after working there for thirty-five years.
— Texas State Historical Commission
According to research from the city, Durst lived in his family home at 1608 East Fourth Street from 1926 until he and his wife, Bernice, moved to a home of their own in the early 1950s. Still, this address was where he began his career, and it’s also where it ended — in the mid-1980s, a retired Durst moved back to the house on Fourth Street to spend the rest of his life with his remaining siblings, who still owned and occupied the property. He died in 1995, fondly remembered as an Austin icon.
Albert Lavada Durst, who died Tuesday at 82, will be remembered for more than a few careers that helped bring people together in Austin. On radio, he spanned generations and the races as the jive-talking “Dr. Hepcat,” and that came after he stopped calling baseball plays. In music, he pounded a barrelhouse blues piano and brought the greats of his era to town. From his position at an east side recreational center, he put youths on paths to success in athletics and teaching. From the pulpit, he preached what he believed.
Durst died following a lengthy illness at the East Fourth Street home where he was born.
— Austin American-Statesman, November 1, 1995
Radio producer David Isay recorded a brief oral history from Durst prior to his death in 1995 for National Public Radio, which includes memories of his baseball announcing days, DJ career, and the legacy of jive talk. It’s one of the few recordings of the local legend available online:
Here’s more from Cielo’s press release:
Upon discovering that the house was historic, Cielo considered various ways to preserve the structure within the neighborhood before Council Member Greg Casar told the developers about an East Austin landowner in need of a home.
The effort received strong support from the neighborhood and its elected representatives.
“One of the first steps to preserve cultural legacy in East Austin is to fight displacement of black families. In this instance, displacement came as a result of an unfortunate fire,” said Nefertitti Jackmon, executive director of the non-profit Six Square, which works to preserve and promote African American history and culture in Central East Austin. “We are grateful to the entire Cielo team for their work ensuring that the legacy of ‘Dr. Hepcat’ will be revived and Mrs. Clark and her family can continue to build a positive future for themselves. This is ideally what preservation should be about, preserving the past to infuse life into future generations.”
Council Member Pio Renteria, who represents District 3 where the house was originally located, supports the move as does District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents the neighborhood where the house was moved.
“I’m so grateful for the community leaders who worked alongside Cielo to preserve a very historically significant house while providing a home to one of our neighbors experiencing homelessness,” said Council Member Pio Renteria, who represents the area where the house was originally located.
“This is a tremendous example of the power of collaboration,” said Harper-Madison. “Thanks to open minds and open dialogue, we have an outcome that helps a resident in need, preserves a piece of our cultural heritage, provides needed office space, and significantly contributed to affordable housing. There are lessons here all of us can learn from.”
— Cielo Property Group Press Release, Feb. 20, 2019