As tireless advocates for the joys of urban life, we believe everyone in Austin has the right to live downtown. That’s why we support dense development and the growth of diverse housing types beyond single-family homes — it makes that life far more accessible to a wider population. That’s also why we’re so excited to see Preservation Austin’s upcoming 2020 Homes Tour embrace that diversity of downtown housing, with its April 25 tour event focusing on “Downtown Doorsteps.”
Six living spaces are in the spotlight this year, and only one of those is a traditional single-family home — the rest are doing something far more interesting:
Sayers House – 709 Rio Grande Street
Architects Charles Henry Page and his brother Louis Charles Page, who laid the groundwork for a firm that persists in Austin to this day, completed this home in the venerable American Foursquare style for former Texas governor Joseph D. Sayers in 1905. You probably won’t be surprised to learn it’s a City of Austin Historic Landmark.
Since then, its owners haven’t messed with it too much, and according to Preservation Austin the home retains much of its original interior woodwork and a “mysterious fireplace mantel” emblazoned with Masonic symbols. That’s…pretty cool?
Burke-Besserer Building – 1310 San Antonio Street
This charmer was first built as a single home in 1890 by tax collector and Union Army veteran Major Joseph W. Burke, but converted to a four-unit apartment building in 1925 by local stenographer Clara Besserer — kinda goes to show how many living spaces you can create out of one large home when you put your mind to it.
The current owner, who purchased the property in 2002, had to reverse a few questionable decisions from the years following the structure’s apartment conversion — some genius apparently decided somewhere along the way to convert the first story into offices complete with drop ceilings and fluorescent lights. That was a really stupid idea! Anyway, the building’s been restored and returned to its use as a four-unit apartment building, and it’s never looked better.
Metz-Fielding Building – 706 Congress Avenue
It’s not often you see a residence on this stretch of Congress Avenue, but this isn’t the building’s first act by any means. First built in 1872, the landmark structure at 706 Congress Avenue has housed offices, saloons, a shoe store, a hat store, the headquarters of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, a Mexican restaurant, a salsa dancing club, and who knows what else over the last 148 years.
Its original facade was marred in the 1950s by the addition of modern cladding, one of the lesser innovations of the midcentury design era, but in 2003 the building’s current owner came on the scene and spent more than two years restoring the structure’s exterior masonry to its historical appearance based on old photos.
Now, it’s a happy family all in one building — commercial space on the ground floor, a vacation rental property on the second floor, and a third-story penthouse added during the renovation. That’s what density can do for you!
Brown Building – 710 Colorado Street
One of downtown Austin’s only options for true historic loft living, the Brown Building originally opened in 1938 as an office tower with design by the architects at C. H. Page and Son — you’ll recall the Page brothers, who got around, from earlier in this very article. Converted to condos in 2004, the building’s Art Moderne stylings are a rare find around town, and the exposed concrete and other industrial-style historic materials in its units keep things interesting beyond the lobby.
Cambridge Tower – 1801 Lavaca Street
An underratedly striking work of midcentury New Formalism, the 15-story Cambridge Tower was Austin’s tallest apartment building when it opened in 1965. The city’s gotten higher since then, but this building’s concrete breezeblock balconies, crowning arches, “Mediterranean-style” swimming pool and porte-cochère entrance will keep it swinging for the foreseeable future.