Jill and Stephen Wilkinson take up the cause of Heritage neighborhood Aldridge Place couple wants to preserve nearby district’s eclectic integrity.
By Michael Barnes AmericanStatesman Staff
Wednesday, July 08, 2015
The first house that the Wilkinsons saved sat across the street from their Aldridge Place home. “It was sort of unpleasant,” says Stephen Wilkinson, a retired lawyer and banker. “The house was about to turn into all bedrooms. They wanted to put as many people in it as possible. Experts looked and said: It’s a disaster. Historic people didn’t see it that way. We ended up buying and renovating it. It’s a nice house now.” Subsequently, more alert to preservation issues, he and his wife, artist Julia “Jill” Wilkinson, turned their attention to the neighborhood across Guadalupe Street from Aldridge Place. The Heritage district, which lies between West 29th and West 38th streets, with North Lamar Boulevard as its western boundary, is an extremely eclectic enclave. Unlike Aldridge Place, developed in the early 20th century, Heritage has grown piecemeal since the 1840s. That makes it especially vulnerable to those who would like to turn homes — from the boardandbatten boxes behind Texas French Bread to formal residences on Washington Square and on West Avenue — into unlovely, overcrowded “stealth dorms” or perhaps oversize starter mansions. So the Wilkinsons are buying up vulnerable properties and saving them for families, sometimes with makeovers, sometimes by building something more modern but sensitively scaled to the neighborhood. “In Heritage, the idea is not totally historic preservation, but rather maintaining the neighborhood as mixed and vibrant,” Stephen says. “Don’t give the land over to stealth developers.” Jill: “And don’t tear something down to become big house.” Growing informally, organically If Austinites know Heritage at all, they know its margins. The northsouth streets along its borders, Guadalupe and North Lamar, once led out of town. They have long hosted popular, linearly arranged businesses. West 38th, the district’s northern boundary, now seems a midrise outcropping of the Seton Medical Center. A few famous businesses on southerly West 29th — Texas French Bread, Breed & Co., etc. — go back many decades in different forms and feel like they belong to studentheavy West Campus to the south. “It’s not an extension of West Campus,” Stephen insists. “Before the turn of the century, the Texas French Bread building was outside the city. It was a construction place. On Guadalupe, if you look back on old maps, cottages were randomly spread out here. These were oneroom cottages for workers.” 85° 0 According to an article written by Charles Brian Owen and published on the Heritage Neighborhood Association website, that area of little cottages just west of Guadalupe was labeled “Gypsy Grove” on maps dating to 1890 and 1911. Oral tradition suggests that not just migratory workers, but also Roma people, commonly called “gypsies,” lived there. Alerted by a University of Texas expert on the Roma, Owen guessed that they might have been associated with the racetracks located in what is now Hyde Park. Before the workers’ cottages were built — in the mid19th century — Heritage was likely a wooded prairie that stood high above the Shoal Creek valley to the west and a tributary of Waller Creek to the east. Some of the oldest surviving trees go back to this period. The plateau was exposed to the Comanche raiding trails along Shoal Creek, as settlers who lived downhill at what is now Seiders Springs learned to their detriment. At least one stone Heritage structure still stands from the days of earliest Anglo settlement. The renovated house at 3112 West Ave. — called Heritage House — is said to have been constructed in 1840 — or at least in the 1840s — which would make it a rival to the French Legation and parts of Boggy Creek Farm for the oldest structure used as a residence in Austin. For the neighborhood association newsletter, Anna Olivia Boyer interviewed Myrle Penn, who could remember when her family’s lands included much of what is now the Heritage district. It was almost completely rural when her fatherinlaw, District Judge Robert L. Penn, moved the family there in 1903. He and his wife, Ada, and their nine children lived at Heritage House, which was expanded frequently over the decades. Painter Gordon Fowler also later lived there. Myrle Penn said that Ada convinced the city to rename the stretch of Asylum Avenue that led to the “State Lunatic Hospital” as West Avenue. She also arranged to have Grandview Street cut in order to offer a view of the western hills. Penn remembered that various judges, professors and coaches lived in the area during the 20th century. Her husband, Albert W. Penn, lettered at UT and was one of legendary baseball coach Billy Disch’s athletes. It is possible that some of the boardandbatten houses near 29th Street are farflung remnants of Wheatville, the freedmen’s community that grew up in West Campus after the Civil War. A few noble Victorians survive, too, along West 32nd Street, probably the first interior street developed for residences. One of those bigboned houses at 613 W. 32nd St. was home to famed suffrage activist Jane McCallum. In 1903, McCallum moved to Austin with her husband, Arthur Newell McCallum, who became school superintendent, a job he held until 1942. Jane raised a family and entertained at the 32nd Street house, which she designed and had built in 1907, according to an article by Charles Brian Owen. Life at home, however, was not enough for this educated woman. She joined the Austin Women’s Suffrage Association in 1914 and became president the next year. In 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, but Jane McCallum didn’t stop lobbying for better education, prohibition, prison reform and child labor laws. She served as Texas secretary of state under two governors from 1927 to 1933. She also rescued the original copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence and wrote a weekly column for the Austin Statesman. She died in 1957. Why so eclectic? “If you look at the plats, there were many subdivisions,” Stephen Wilkinson says of Heritage. “Parts of the neighborhood are stable, parts unstable.” One reason it is hard to date the older structures: What is now Heritage was once out of town, so it doesn’t appear on crucial records like the Sanborn Insurance maps. The Wilkinsons are renovating one of the oldest, a Cumberlandstyle cottage with a tiny porch at 621 W. 30th St. At a nearby spot on Washington Square — not a square, but rather one block of mixed houses along a particularly wide street — they built a new residence that would fit on a narrow corner lot. Location near the UT campus has slowly changed what was a semirural suburb into a lure for student housing. Apartment complexes, large and small, dot the area. Recently, New Urbanist units were built above shops that are meant to complement what was once the North Austin Fire Station — also formerly Ballet Austin’s studios — on Guadalupe Street. In many ways, Heritage resembles Bouldin, Old West Austin, or some eastcentral Austin districts in its eclectic nature. The top touring shows coming to Austin in June What’s the connection between the Salvation Army and National Donut Day? Plus, where to get a free one today Unearthing wine richness in the Spanish foothills Savannah woman featured on Food Network competition show Flag cheesecake bars are the easy, festive dessert your cookout needs “It was developed before they had zoning in place,” Stephen says. “You’ll get houses two on a lot right next to a property line. Odd arrangements of houses that make it difficult to regularize them. Jill bought two little houses on a long thin lot. Because of this hodgepodgey way, it makes it hard to regularize. Our goal is not to be a landlord, not to be investors, but to get them back to where families can live in them.” More Austin history For 25 years, Michael Barnes has written about Austin’s culture and history. Among his recent stories have been reports on ancestral Austin families, local desegregation and life on East Avenue. To sample more than 100 of his history stories, go to mystatesman.com/austinhistory. Reader Comments Next Up in Austin360 More Stories B