Austin’s friendly and magnetic personality shines through in the architecture that’s been a long time in the making.
It’s not the high rises of Manhattan or the blend of Victorian and modern architecture seen in San Francisco, but we have a mix of charming, sleek and tall. Of course, being the tallest in any region is one of the main bragging rights, so we rounded up a list of some of the buildings with impressive heights over the years.
As coming towers make their entry to downtown, the Domain and other booming areas, here’s a look back at where it all began.
Texas State Capitol, 1888
If any state capitol was going to be bigger than the nation’s, Texas was going to be it. The capitol stands about 14 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Taking just a little more than six years to build, it eventually reached 302.64 feet from the south front ground level to the tip of the star of the Goddess of Liberty. The building has such a captivating view that the state and city have worked to preserve it by limiting the height of other buildings in a corridor.
Design didn’t come locally: a nationwide competition led to Detroit-based architect Elijah Myers’ design, which incorporated the look at the nation’s capitol, the Michigan state capitol and the Denver, Colorado courthouse.
Scarbrough and Littlefield, early 1900s
\u201c#ThrowbackThursday: In 1931, the Scarbrough Building opened its doors at the corner of Congress Avenue & Sixth Street. With 8 stories, it was Austin's first skyscraper (it looks tiny now!). It was also the first retail store west of the Mississippi with air conditioning! \n#AE125\u201d— Austin Energy (@Austin Energy) 1583436304
These buildings, which came to Austin through two Confederate veterans, drew attention in another part of downtown through their impact on the early business center.
In 1910, the Scarbrough building was completed and stood at what was once an impressive feat: eight stories. Emerson Monroe Scarbrough, owner of E.M. Scarbrough & Sons department store, brought the skyscraper to the southwest corner of Sixth and Congress. Bartering was still a common practice then but Scarbrough changed things up by setting prices and extending credit, reporting by the Austin American-Statesman notes.
While this was happening, president of the American National Bank George Littlefield broke ground on a building. In 1912, it was completed with a roof garden for parties. Littlefield later enclosed the garden to create a ninth story—just one story taller than Scarbrough’s.
In 2012, the buildings marked their 100-year anniversaries with a public celebration attended by the mayor and members of both families.
Imagine an office building without air-conditioning. That’s what people had before Norwood stepped onto the scene as the first office with AC and the first “motoramp” for parking. With its castle-like build on West 7th Street, Norwood Tower set the stage for office buildings downtown with rooftop gardens and a penthouse. Its owners also have deep roots in Austin as members of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s family.
With its neo-gothic architecture, Norwood drew attention as the tallest commercial structure and its bashes. In 1939, a party for Austin High graduates was held and one attendee, Liz Carpenter, talked about the experience in the 14-story structure. “It was thrilling and at that point frightening to be up so high,” Carpenter said.
The University of Texas at Austin Tower, 1937
Sonic fast food workers and librarians at UT had a thing or two in common. The main building and its 27-floor tower were originally intended as the campus central library where librarians stationed on every other floor roller skated to requested books. They’d then pass the books along to students down below through a small freight elevator.
Known for its orange glow to mark victories and special occasions, the 307-foot UT tower was the tallest building in Austin for many years.
Ernest O. Thompson State Office Building, 1940s
This 136-foot building was formerly known as the Austin Daily Tribune Building since the headquarters of a newspaper was once housed there.
The site at 920 Colorado joined the national register of historic places years ago and was renamed in honor of the former Texas Railroad Commissioner.
Westgate Tower, 1966
This 26-story high rise stirred some controversy when it was in the works. Some weren’t keen on having a building so high near to the capitol at 1122 Colorado St. Even then Gov. Price Daniel noted his opposition to it in an address to the legislature.
Earlier this year, it applied to become a city historic landmark given that politicians like Lyndon B. Johnson and former Lt. Governor David Dewhurst made appearances there. Plus, the 24th floor was the location of the headliners club.
Chase Bank Tower, mid-1970s
(Chase Tower ATX)
Twenty-one stories of golden mirror beauty. That’s how this tower described itself in an advertisement published in the Statesman in 1973. Aside from height, the building played up strengths like its 750 parking spaces and personal banking center.
This $17 million building enjoyed a year as the tallest building until the Austin National Bank Tower came out to be 14 feet taller.
One Eleven Congress, 1980s
Over 391 feet, this building formerly known as One Congress Plaza has now fallen on the list of tallest Austin buildings. But when it came onto the scene in the late 80s, it was one of the most notable during the tower boom of the time.
Today it features a food hall with eateries like Little Wu and Taco Pegaso. It also includes a conference center that can accommodate up to 75 people in a standard classroom setting and a fitness center to work out in.
Frost Bank Tower, 2004
A pyramidal crown topping off 33 stories, Frost came onto Congress Avenue standing at 515 feet and quickly got a reputation as the “owl building” given its bird-like appearance with eyes in the bank’s logo.
But as KVUE and others have confirmed, none of the architects have a connection to Rice University, so the eyes aren’t a jab at UT. It’s not connected to the Illuminati either—if you were wondering.
360 Condominiums, 2008
Breaking the Frost tower’s streak of 515 feet, this residential skyscraper went 47 feet higher. 360 is a reference to its numbered address on Nueces, and its 430 units are the envy of many. With a concierge and ground floor retail, it’s also in a prime location by the pedestrian bridge leading to Town Lake and 2nd Street stores.But its time as the tallest didn’t last long. The Austonian arrived in 2010 with 56 floors that took over 360’s reign. Residents there enjoy amenities like a spa room, a library, a wine cellar, a theater and more.
The Independent, 2019
The "jenga tower," or the Independent, stands at 685 feet tall and houses 58 stories. The year of its opening, the 363 condo units there reportedly ranged in price from $400,000 to $5 million.It proudly touts itself as the tallest residential tower west of the Mississippi, but it has other offerings like an outdoor lounge, a heated pool, a coffee bar and more.
Into the future
That brings us to now where we’re seeing some Scarbrough-Littlefield type of drama play out. The 66-floor tower known as Sixth and Guadalupe is set to house Meta. But it’s going up against another contender for the tallest building, a mixed-use project at 98 Red River St., which could end up being the tallest building in Texas.
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By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.