An application to demolish the 109-year-old former warehouse building currently occupied by the Vince Young Steakhouse in the Vegas-lite heart of downtown’s Convention Center District has run afoul of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, and the situation presents a philosophical quandary — if a building survives for a century, how do you distinguish its long presence in history from actual historic merit?
The plan to demolish the steakhouse/warehouse at 301 San Jacinto Boulevard, along with a concurrent application to remove the 1938 warehouse currently home to event venue the Sunset Room next door at 310 East Third Street, would clear the half-block north of East Third Street between San Jacinto and Trinity Streets — almost certainly the vision of unknown tower developers hoping to raise something much taller here. The Sunset Room demolition passed the HLC without controversy, as the building has been modified too extensively over the years to retain sufficient historic character — but commissioners believe the steakhouse still has merit, and moved to initiate the landmark designation process for the site, to continue at its meeting later this month.
So, what’s the argument for historic designation? The building was first constructed around 1912 as a wholesale warehouse for the Nalley Grocery Company, performing a similar role under the Shear Company from 1917 to 1923 and subsequently home to the grocery and coffee roasting operations of businessman John Bremond until the 1960s before becoming an auto parts seller in the late 1970s. True Austinheads will recall the building became a fake house in 2005 for the filming of MTV’s reality show The Real World: Austin, before a remodel into the restaurant space we know today.
That means historically speaking, we’re looking at more than 60 years of grocery business at the warehouse, long enough for the commission to consider it a representative example of the railroad-enabled supply chains that allowed Austin to grow from sleepy town to big city — and they cite this as the main source of its historic merit rather than its appearance, with the city’s own staff report on the structure summing it up as “a utilitarian building with little architectural flourish.”
The railroad transformed Austin from a settlement to a city, and it was firms like Nalley, Shear, and John Bremond that brought the urbanizing influences of foods to the burgeoning city . . . The building is part of an extensive, and quickly disappearing warehouse district on the east side of downtown, and thus does contribute to the character, image, or cultural identity of the city, the neighborhood, or a particular demographic group.
We’re pretty sure that last bit of the above quote from the commission’s staff report tells the real story behind this preservation push. Downtown Austin has lost a lot of its warehouses to tower development in recent years, particularly in what we still call the Warehouse District despite many of those namesake buildings no longer standing.
We love this style of architecture and would like to see West Fourth Street’s entertainment strip of converted warehouses near Lavaca Street preserved, possibly helped along by a district-level historic designation — but the steakhouse building, surrounded mostly by the uninspiring chain restaurants of the Convention Center District, isn’t really reflective of its area’s character in the manner of structures in the Warehouse District proper. If we didn’t know better, we might think the commissioners simply regret those past demolitions of old warehouses downtown, and are using this latest case as an opportunity to take a stand and oppose the removal of another by contriving a pretty flimsy argument for this specific building’s historic merit.
The very thing that reignited the growth of downtown many years ago…is about to be gone, and it will just be a bunch of people in towers staring across the chasm. I think we need to do everything we can to retain these properties.
The building exemplifies the ⋯ utilitarian architecture integral to Austin’s transition from settlement to city⋯
“This is probably the best example of a warehouse in this part of the city,” Commissioner Kevin Koch said [presumably with a straight face].https://t.co/0TwXWmma8v
— Dan Keshet (@DanKeshet) October 28, 2021
We’re not opposed to celebrating the history of groceries, but does this structure’s past really merit the prevention of another building here? You might just as easily pursue this line of reasoning about the warehouse’s appearance on The Real World — its airing in 2005 was an early signal of Austin’s growing status as a cultural icon, and MTV’s choice to put us on a national stage by filming a season of the show here was one of the many economic drivers allowing the city to boom in population so rapidly during the early decades of the 21st century. But no one would seriously argue for the building’s preservation on those grounds, of course — that would be ridiculous.