What was the first high-rise apartment building in Austin?
This is obviously a trick question, but the people who keep track of this stuff will generally tell you it’s the 15-story Cambridge Tower, which opened in 1965. Using the modern (and not entirely agreed-upon) definition of a high-rise, they’re absolutely correct — especially because we’re not counting the single penthouse atop the Norwood Tower or the Driskill Hotel’s rooftop “bungalow,” both of which were built earlier than Cambridge, since one apartment does not an apartment building make.
But what if we’ve forgotten the city’s first modern apartment tower — the first to rise more than a couple of floors, the first with an elevator, and the largest and most luxurious of its kind built in the city at the time? You’d barely notice it in today’s Austin, but in the late 1930s, Normandie Arms was all this and more.
At five floors and only 16 units, calling it a “tower” might sound like a bit of a stretch — but the orange-brick apartment building completed in late 1938 or early 1939 at the northeast corner of 15th and Colorado Streets directly north of the Texas State Capitol grounds by oil millionaire James P. Nash was, by all accounts, the biggest and tallest exclusively-residential structure developed in Austin up to that point.
The building, consisting of four main floors, a basement below, and a penthouse on top, will include 16 apartments ranging in size from one room and bath to four rooms and bath, will face on West 15th Street with an 83-foot frontage there, and will be 35 feet deep along Colorado Street — the largest building of its type in Austin . . . in addition to the apartment building proper, the construction work will include the building of a motor court to house automobiles of the apartment building tenants and an incinerator for the disposal of garbage.
The building will include such features as an automatic elevator, enclosed fire stairs, terrazzo floors in the corridors, sound proof walls, kitchens with many built-ins including a refrigerator, stove and cabinet in one unit. Each kitchen will also be provided with forced-draft ventilation.
— The Austin Statesman, February 9, 1938
Designed by architect Charles Henry Page, celebrated locally for Art Deco-era projects like the Brown Building — but also remembered for the firm still bearing his family name nearly a century later — Normandie Arms was also a potential record-setter for the total cost of its construction, which the Austin American-Statesman reported as approximately $100,000. For a little perspective on that number, at the time in 1938 you could buy a shiny new five-bedroom house in Hyde Park for $2,750.
The building’s proximity to the halls of power — not to mention an unbeatable view of the Capitol dome — encouraged many of the state’s most notable people to hang their hats inside its walls, with residents including the likes of Beauford Jester, Harry Ransom, and plenty of other state senators, representatives, lobbyists, and so on.
Still, if you’ve never heard of it, you’re in good company. The few remaining records of the apartment not lost to time frequently misspell its name as “Normandy,” an error probably best explained by Americans becoming a lot more familiar with the English translation of that word than its French spelling after certain events on June 6, 1944.
In 1965, the aging structure was purchased by the state and converted to office space for various government agencies — including the headquarters of the Texas State Historical Survey Commission, now known simply as the Texas Historical Commission, the preservation archives of which contain most of the photos in this article. But there’s another reason Normandie Arms hasn’t gotten much attention in the annals of Austin’s architectural history — it was torn down in 1980 and replaced by a parking lot, which remains at the northeast corner of 15th and Colorado Streets.
By then, the building’s demolition wasn’t even considered noteworthy enough for a full article in the Statesman, showing up instead as a small item in a roundup of local business news. However, you’ll note that the article calls it our city’s first high-rise apartment building, even though the 1940 opening date it mentions is off by a bit:
Despite all of the project’s previously-unseen features for the era of its construction, the rapid obsolescence of Normandie Arms in the face of later, larger residential development like Cambridge Tower sealed its fate — a building this small was never going to stand out for long, even if it was ahead of its time by Austin standards. Sometimes getting there first isn’t everything, but it’s still nice when people remember that you did.
Despite the recovery of the construction economy in Texas cities during the second half of the 1930s, multi-story apartment buildings were not built, making the Normandie Arms Apartments in Austin (1939) an exception. The next episode of high-rise apartment construction occurred in Texas during the 1950s.
— Texas Historical Commission