Austin’s most underrated downtown green space is almost certainly Duncan Park, located along Shoal Creek at West Ninth Street just east of North Lamar Boulevard. Despite its lack of prominence due to the location along downtown’s fuzzy western boundary, with development trends in the surrounding area we’re pretty bullish on Duncan Park becoming a more prominent community amenity as the immediate area’s population increases — it’s the natural gem of what we half-jokingly call the “Lawyer District” of downtown, mostly because of all the lawyers.
If it were up to us, we would call the whole little neighborhood between West Avenue and North Lamar in this area “Duncan Park,” just because it’s a nice name. Maybe we can work on getting people to start saying that after various upgrades for the space, now under construction by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, are completed sometime next year. But before we go slamming a new name down on the map, Gaylord Sackler style, let’s pause for a second and ask one very important question — who the heck was Duncan? In a city with an extensive historical record of leadership and various philanthropic ventures by public figures who also happened to be enthusiastic Klansmen, it’s wise to look into these things. But we have good news!
The site now called Duncan Park, along with the more wooded parkland directly south of West Ninth Street used since the 1990s for the Ninth Street BMX Park, was originally purchased by the City of Austin in the early 1930s. After sitting unimproved for about 40 years (nobody was in a hurry back then), in 1975 the Austin American-Statesman noted that the late Austin philanthropist Frances Nalle had donated $5,000 toward the improvement of the parkland with trails.
At the time of her death in 1973, Frances was married to George Nalle Sr., a prominent local businessman and the son of Ernest Nalle, who funded the construction of the Paramount Theatre. But her first husband was Addison Baker Duncan, a farmer and businessman who was elected mayor of Waco in 1927. Duncan’s death in in 1952 left Frances a widow, but she remained close with the Duncan family, which is prominent in Waco’s history — Frances and Addison’s oldest son, Addison Baker Duncan, Jr., died in 2019 at the age of 92, and is remembered for leading the integration of the Woodberry Forest School in Virginia while serving as its headmaster in the 1960s. The couple’s younger son, Malcolm Duncan Sr., died in 2021 after serving as Waco’s mayor in 1984, with his son, Malcolm Duncan Jr., also elected mayor from 2012 to 2016.
When Frances Nalle donated that $5,000 from her late first husband’s estate to Austin’s parks department, it was with the stipulation that the park would be given his name — Duncan Park. That’s the convoluted path that concludes with this largely unsung downtown park commemorating the legacy of a Waco mayor, not to mention his family’s ensuing political dynasty. The irony of Duncan Park is that present-day members of the Duncan family don’t seem to give it much thought, since it’s not like there’s much local familiarity with the park’s namesake anyway.
But the city’s ongoing upgrades to this green space could someday change that, with the 10-year long range plan created by PARD and approved by City Council back in 2019 containing a note that one of the goals for the park is the installation of additional interpretive signage, to “tell the story of how Duncan Park came to be a public park, and of A. Baker Duncan and his first wife, Mrs. Francis Nalle.” It’s not clear if this first phase of improvements to the park wrapping up next year will include any of these elements, but at least someone’s thinking about it.
Okay, so here’s one last weird thing. About 965 miles away from Austin’s Duncan Park, there’s another Duncan Park commemorating the exact same family — this one’s a mountain retreat and conference center owned by the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas, located in the Colorado Rockies 20 miles southwest of Boulder and named for its longtime benefactor, Addison Baker Duncan, Jr. If you’re counting, that’s two places called Duncan Park, named for two consecutive generations of the same Waco family, with neither actually located in Waco. Aren’t you glad we figured that out?