In 1839, Edwin Waller — storied signatory of the Texas Declaration of Independence, framer of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, and first mayor of Austin — had the rare pleasure of designing the very city he would be elected to lead only one year later. That layout, with a few notable exceptions, remains an accurate map of the downtown area to this day:
Waller’s original plan for the City of Austin is a one-square-mile grid of pleasing bilateral symmetry, its main central square occupied by the State Capitol and its grounds, bisected from above and below by the main thoroughfare of Congress Avenue. Spaces for churches, schools, a courthouse, a jail, a hospital, and a military armory are thoughtfully included — but perhaps the most obvious pattern in the plan is the designation of four public squares below the Capitol, situated at the corners of a rectangle six blocks high and eight blocks wide:
We’re familiar with three of the squares on this map — Wooldridge Square on the top left, Republic Square on the bottom left, and Brush Square on the bottom right. But where’s the fourth? Well, it’s kind of a long story.
Just because Waller listed the four spaces as public squares on his map didn’t mean the city treated them how we might expect today. Wooldridge Square was famously used as a garbage dump for 70 years after its designation, while Republic Square was best known for some time as an informal marketplace for its neighborhood’s Mexican-American population, and became a parking lot from 1950 to 1976. Brush Square, for many years, was where you went to buy cotton.
The squares weren’t even named until 1888: Bell Square (now Wooldridge Square), Hemphill Square (now Republic Square), Brush Square (hey, still Brush Square!), and finally, Hamilton Square — the city’s now-missing northeastern fourth public block. Hamilton Square was bound by Ninth, Tenth, Trinity, and Neches Streets, a block now occupied by the city’s First Baptist Church.
The Hamilton name itself is of imprecise origin — the square could have been named for either Andrew Jackson Hamilton, former governor of Texas during the Civil War era, or his older brother Morgan Calvin Hamilton, an Austin merchant and politician. Frank Hamilton, Andrew Jackson Hamilton’s son and a prominent local banker and civic figure, is also a strong candidate.
Regardless of its namesake, Hamilton Square remained empty long after its designation, and during the 1880s, the question was raised of whether the Waller plan actually granted the city control over these designated public grounds, or if their development and use was at the will of the state — and though it requires a little reading between the lines, there’s probably a very good reason for that.
Remember, Waller’s plan labeled the half-blocks directly beneath Austin’s two northern public squares as spaces intended for churches. Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church, a congregation of freed slaves founded in the Austin area in 1865 after the end of the Civil War, had fast outgrown its humble building at Fourth Street and Congress Avenue — and so, in 1882, a two-story stone chapel was constructed by the congregation at the corner of Ninth and Neches Streets, directly to the south of Hamilton Square. Soon after its completion, the chapel building provided classroom space to Andrews Normal College, a coeducational school for African-Americans that would eventually become Samuel Huston College, and later, East Austin’s Huston-Tillotson University.
This appears to be roughly the time when the city’s political apparatus began to wonder about its level of control over the public spaces of the city plan, with this 1884 editorial in the Austin Daily Statesman specifically mentioning the church renting space to the school board:
If by some legal hocus-pocus which we cannot comprehend the city has acquired the right to control the public grounds, what is the extent of that right? Can the state confer a right she does not possess? Has the state after dedicating a square by solemn enactment to a certain purpose the power to divert it from that purpose, thereby violating a contract with purchasers of adjacent resident lots? Has the state clothed city with a power she could not exercise?
This inquiry is the result of a determination of the churches occupying a certain square again, as we learn, to rent their houses to the school board for the purposes of colored schools. If the question of right has to be adjudicated, it may be well to settle at the same time the legal status of the whole question. We are making no captious opposition to churches, but we do think that churches occupying the common property of the citizens as squatter sovereigns, or at best, under a lease of doubtful validity, should keep strictly within the pale of the law, and conduct themselves with that decorum and propriety that will give the least annoyance to the residents in their immediate vicinity.
— The Austin Daily Statesman, 1884
During this same time period, one of Austin’s many enclaves of freed slaves existed along Red River Street and the path of Waller Creek, roughly situated between Eighth and 13th Streets and only a block removed from Hamilton Square. It is no great stretch to imagine the placement of a colored school in this area was a source of discomfort to nearby white residents, given the final lines of the quote above — another article published a year later in the Weekly Statesman argues that the “conveyance of public ground to colored church societies, first made by the military under reconstruction,” was an “illegal use,” and urged the state legislature to regain control of the city’s public spaces. An 1893 survey of the city’s various public land indicates that Hamilton Square was “entirely unoccupied,” and “in a state of nature.”
In 1887, Andrews Normal College no longer needed space at the Wesley Chapel, having received new digs and a new name courtesy of benefactor Samuel Huston. By 1899, property owners around Hamilton Square petitioned the city and legislature to set aside the space for a high school, and later that year, a bill passed in the house during the 26th State Legislature turned the property over to the city for this purpose at no cost.
The high school building opened at Hamilton Square in 1900 was the first structure built for Austin High School, though the school itself was originally formed in 1881, holding its classes in the former temporary State Capitol building located at Congress Avenue and 11th Street.
As Austin’s population continued to increase after the turn of the century, the school expanded to fill more of the Hamilton block in 1913, but the city’s growth continued. In 1925, Austin High School swapped buildings with the junior high school located on the other side of downtown at 12th and Rio Grande Streets — now part of the Austin Community College District — and the building at Hamilton Square became John T. Allan Junior High School.
Requiring further space for the junior high campus, the Austin School Board acquired the Wesley Chapel half-block property at Ninth and Neches Streets in 1928, paying the congregation $17,500. Perhaps not coincidentally, 1928 was also the year the city adopted a master plan advocating for the creation of a “negro district” in East Austin, which aimed to segregate the city by relocating its black schools and all other public facilities for African-Americans on the east side of the city, far removed from downtown proper. The Wesley Chapel congregation built a new church building between Navasota and San Bernard Streets in East Austin soon after, where it remains to this day — and the elegant former chapel at Ninth and Neches Streets became a gymnasium for Allan Junior High.
Allan Junior High prospered for decades, until a fire of unknown origin struck the main building in 1956. It’s unclear how much of the campus burned or whether the Wesley Chapel building was even harmed, but regardless, Hamilton Square and the former church site sat bare once again. Only a year later, a lengthly legislative process began on a three-way land deal between the school district, the state, and the city’s First Baptist Church. The deal would allow the state to purchase, for $300,000, a vacant block owned by the church bound by 14th, 15th, Brazos, and San Jacinto Streets — now part of Texas Workforce Commission’s headquarters in the State Capitol Complex — and in turn, the church would give that $300,000 to the Austin school district in exchange for the former Allan Junior High site, which included both Hamilton Square and the former Wesley Chapel half-block to the south.
After significant delay and controversy over the re-opening of the stretch of Ninth Street between Trinity and Neches Streets, which had previously been closed to traffic for the safety of students at Allan Junior High, First Baptist finally broke ground in 1969 — and the modernist church building has remained at Hamilton Square ever since. The half-block directly south of the church, where the Wesley Chapel once sat, is now a parking garage.
With the recent revitalization of Republic Square, the city seems to recognize how Austin’s original public spaces might better serve downtown’s social environment as parks and gathering places — and perhaps finally realizes its mistake in practically giving away one of its public squares all those years ago. The 2010 Downtown Austin Parks and Open Space Master Plan describes the lack of a public block in this quadrant of downtown as an inequality, and imagines a plan for Hamilton Square’s eventual return — though it also indicates the church on the site has no interest in this sort of take-backsies:
In the long term, (e.g., in 25 – 30 years), the City could pursue the acquisition of the original “Northeast Square” for conversion back to a public open space which could become an anchor for the redevelopment of the surrounding properties. Today, the square is owned and occupied by the First Baptist Church, representatives of which have indicated that they have no interest in selling the property. Acquisition of the open space would require a willing seller, and any redevelopment of the area should include a new site for the church, perhaps with its strong orientation to a restored square.
With these two additional open spaces, the downtown system would achieve a fairly ideal distribution of parks and open spaces, serving future residents, employees and “strollers” more equitably.
— Downtown Austin Parks and Open Space Master Plan, 2010
I tried to connect with representatives of First Baptist myself regarding the future of the property in preparation for this article, and received no reply. Honestly, I don’t really blame them — no matter what Waller’s original plan might have imagined in 1839, they own this block, fair and square.