O. Henry Hall, a historic downtown building located at 601 Colorado Street, originally opened in 1881 as a federal courthouse and post office. Designed by architect James G. Hill, its construction was overseen by famed antebellum-era master builder Abner Cook, whose best-known work is probably the Texas Governor’s Mansion. The structure’s Renaissance Revival-style architecture makes it noteworthy among the institutional buildings of the era, according to the inscription of its historical marker:
Architecturally, the building is considered to be of national significance because of its exact symmetry and pure lines apparently inspired by the design of Italian High Renaissance palaces popular in the late 1870’s. Compared to typical architectural design of federal courthouses in this period, this building is unique both in Texas and the nation.
– Texas State Historical Marker #15479
After the completion of a new post office across the street now known as Claudia Taylor Johnson Hall in 1914, O. Henry Hall continued to operate as a courthouse and government offices until 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson deeded the building over to the University of Texas System.
As part of the UT System’s restoration of the building in 1971, it was renamed O. Henry Hall, honoring the famous pen name of short story writer William Sydney Porter, who lived in Austin between 1884 and 1895. Ironically, O. Henry was tried and convicted on charges of embezzlement in the courtroom of the same building that now bears his name. Considering his penchant for plot twists, I think Porter would probably get a kick out of that.
Like the Block 71 complex just across the street, the structure housed administrative offices for the UT System until the completion of its new headquarters earlier this year. But the college days aren’t over for O. Henry Hall — the Texas State University System now owns the property, and plans to use the office space for its new Austin headquarters.
But first, there’s some work to do. After all, this building hasn’t received much attention since its 1971 restoration. Work is already underway to bring O. Henry Hall back to its former glory, with help from local preservation architect Tere O’Connell and design firm Lawrence Group. Here’s our inside look at the project.
By the way, my partner for this tour was award-winning architectural photographer Patrick Wong, who shot us some mind-blowing views of this historic building — let’s just say you’re not gonna have a hard time telling which photos he took.
Mike Wintemute, deputy vice chancellor for marketing and communications at the Texas State University System, pointed out some features of the ongoing restoration at the building during our tour. For one, the system plans to add the seals of its partner universities to the blank wall you can see in the photo above facing West Sixth Street.
The building’s main lobby on the ground floor will also receive some polish. If you look closely at the columns on both sides of the room, you’ll see that the “marble” is just a wallpaper-like adhesive, and some of it’s peeling off. That’s probably not sticking around much longer.
When the UT System restored the building, it installed drop ceilings in some of the lower sections of the building, hiding the original masonry. This has thankfully been removed as part of the restoration, and the original arched shapes of the ceiling will be preserved, though the bricks will receive a coat of plaster. You can see the line of the old drop ceiling by the positions of the vents in the photo below:
Perhaps the most stunning detail of O. Henry Hall is also the hardest to see. When the building was a courthouse, its courtroom included a high vaulted ceiling, with significant ornamentation and decorative moldings on the walls.
As part of the office conversion in 1971, this vault section was closed off with a lowered ceiling and used as attic space for the building’s retrofitted HVAC system — after all, when it opened in 1881, modern air conditioning didn’t exist.
Still, it’s a shame to see these decorative features hidden among catwalks and vents inaccessible to the general public, so I’m glad we got up here to take some pictures at the very least.
One of the more surprising goals of the restoration involves the building’s original carpentry, particularly the window frames of its offices. Wintemute tells me that due to the quality and longevity of the old-growth cypress used for these features, the project can restore and painstakingly reassemble the original 1880s woodworking around the windows.
That’s also the case for the exterior wood around these windows, with the inner frames being repainted their original forest green — you can see a little of it on the right in the photo below:
The building is intended to be ready for move-in by mid-January 2018, according to the TSUS. We took these photos a couple of weeks ago, so they’ve probably gotten a lot of the work done by now — we’ll have to stop back by once it’s finished and get a look at the results.
Just one more thing. It’s not related to the restoration of this building, but I’ve saved the best for last. Remember how O. Henry Hall is directly across Colorado Street from the Block 71 complex? For decades, the UT System operated offices on both sides of the street, at O. Henry Hall, Claudia Taylor Johnson Hall, and our favorite punching bag of a building, Ashbel Smith Hall.
There’s a large underground parking garage beneath Block 71 used by UT System employees, some of whom must have worked across the street at O. Henry Hall. To make their walk from the parking garage to the office easier, the UT System built a tunnel under Colorado Street connecting Block 71’s underground parking directly to the basement of O. Henry Hall. It’s not quite as exciting as the “secret” tunnels under the university itself, but I had no idea this thing existed — and I’ve never seen another photo of it anywhere.
Man, I love this thing. Unfortunately, Block 71 and O. Henry Hall aren’t owned by the same folks anymore, so the tunnel will remain locked and inaccessible to the public. I’m glad we got to see it before it’s closed off for good.