"It's Just Different Here"

Austin's once-forlorn South Congress neighborhood is flourishing again—with all of its quirks intact

Learn more about the 2010 National Preservation Conference in Austin

To experience Austin, Texas, you could take a walk up Congress Avenue, starting at the Ann W. Richards Bridge that spans Lady Bird Lake, the dammed-up part of the Colorado River that runs through the heart of this city. Heading north, you'd pass the city's leading banks, tallest condos, finest law firms, and most influential lobbying firms, as well as an art museum, a jazz club, and fine-dining restaurants. In about 15 minutes, you'd reach the Renaissance Revival Texas State Capitol, the best-known landmark in the Lone Star State, with a dome that stands 15 feet higher than the one in Washington, D.C.

But to immerse yourself in this city's quirky personality, turn around and go the other way. Head south from the bridge, past the bat statue, and up the hill along South Congress Avenue to the intersection with Academy Drive.

The landmark to look for is the Austin Motel, a spiffed-up classic of the American West. A message at the bottom of the red neon sign out front reads, "So close yet so far out," and the other side says, "No additives, no preservatives, corporate free since 1938."

That pretty much sums up the funk and cool that is South Congress and announces that you're not in normal Austin anymore: This is the Other Austin, the Austin whose peculiarities separate it from everywhere else in Texas. Creative enterprises here have attracted the kind of bustling street life that makes urban planners drool. Only no one planned, envisioned, or designed this. A series of serendipitous accidents involving some uniquely Austin characters are responsible. In other words, no planning has been the most effective planning of all.

Austin in October

The National Preservation Conference will take place in Austin on Oct. 27-30, 2010.

Locals refer to the idiosyncratic retail and entertainment district either as South Congress or SoCo. (Abe Zimmerman dubbed a cluster of restored shops here the SoCo Center in 1999, trying to make use of an old sign that was missing a few letters.) But no matter what it's called or how you pronounce it, you've got to admit South Congress is a testament to the power of creative restoration and reinvention.

Take the Hotel San José, one block up from the Austin Motel. A lavishly tiled "ultramodern motor court" when it opened in 1936, the Spanish Colonial Revival structure gradually fell into disrepair, functioning as a brothel for legislators for a period, then a Bible school, then a flophouse. In 1995, Liz Lambert, an attorney with West Texas roots who'd worked for the New York district attorney before she became homesick, bought the hotel for $500,000. She thought she would redo the 24 rooms one by one—until Lake/Flato Architects convinced her otherwise. The motor court was instead reimagined as an understated, almost minimalist space—ultramodern once again—with a zen-like courtyard, a pool area, and the inviting open-air Jo's Hot Coffee café across the parking lot. The hotel and coffee shop were immediate hits and have become the major alt community gathering spot on the avenue, so compelling that singer Raul Malo wrote and recorded an ode to the hotel.

The Continental Club, across the street from the San José, is one of the longest-thriving and most popular music clubs in an admittedly music-obsessed town. The modernist Continental opened as a private cocktail lounge in 1957 and later featured touring burlesque dancers Candy Barr and Bubbles Cash. In the 1970s, it was revived as a rock and blues club. Then Steve Wertheimer quit his job as a comptroller for a real estate firm to restore the club's Eisenhower-era splendor, and he reopened the venue as a roots rock and alt country showcase.

"I'm a preservationist by nature," Wertheimer says, about his restoration efforts. "I'm stuck in that period of the '50s, from the clothing and the music to the cars and the architecture. Those glass blocks at the entrance had been covered up. They needed to be brought back."

One block south and across the avenue from the Continental, in a century-old building that formerly housed Central Feed and Seed, is Güero's Taco Bar, which owners Rob and Cathy Lippincott opened in 1995 after moving their restaurant from its original location a couple of miles away. Six months after opening, President Bill Clinton stopped in for dinner ("He cleaned his plate"), business shot up 40 percent, and it's been busy ever since.

South Congress is just as distinctive for what isn't there: national clone restaurants, large chain retailers, and retail clusters amid a sea of asphalt. No master plan was sketched out to make it happen. No tax breaks were requested for improvements (in marked contrast to The Domain, a planned mall and residential development on Austin's northwestern fringe that is the beneficiary of tens of millions of dollars in tax abatements from the city). South Congress merchants just want to be left alone.

Austin was always different from the rest of Texas. It was established in 1839, not because of the area's strategic location but rather for its aesthetic beauty. The second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, killed a buffalo near the present capitol building and noted that the area's hills, waterways, and pleasing surroundings would make a fine place to locate Texas' government.

South Congress Avenue was South Austin's main street from the very beginning and, with the advent of the automobile, the main highway south to San Antonio. Increased traffic inspired the construction of one- and two-story storefronts in the 1920s and 1930s, followed by motels and cafés. But after the Interregional Highway, now Interstate 35, opened in the early 1960s, the road-oriented businesses declined and much of South Congress emptied out.

That was the state of the avenue in 1988, when Kent Cole and Diana Prechter fixed a beat-up wood-frame building that had operated as Flossie's bar and the Austex Lounge, and reopened it as Magnolia Cafe South, a second location for their homegrown eatery famous for gingerbread pancakes and comfort food. Why South Congress? Mainly because the rent was cheap, they say. "The only pedestrians on the sidewalks were hookers and drug dealers," Cole remembers. "Normal people did not walk South Congress."

It was so dicey the first year and a half that Prechter kept her day job while Cole started looking for other employment. A last-ditch decision to expand operations to 24 hours changed everything. The café tapped into the city's sizable late-night crowd, and the staff stepped up their game so that Cole and Prechter could make enough money to begin buying nearby properties, some of them historic. "In Austin, parking is everything," he says—a constant danger to the historic fabric of older neighborhoods. "So we would buy adjacent businesses and rent them to tenants who were sympathetic with Magnolia Cafe South, allowing our customers to use the spaces in front of their storefronts."

Memories of drug dealers and prostitutes began to fade in the 1990s. Austin, a relatively small city for most of its history, suddenly enjoyed a tremendous economic boom that attracted new residents and drove an increased demand for older housing stock in the Travis Heights and Bouldin Creek neighborhoods. That in turn spurred massive renovation along South Congress and throughout old South Austin.

A $4 million bond issue passed by the city council in 1998 for sidewalk, bicycle, and pedestrian enhancements improved the avenue's curb appeal. But when city planners followed with a long-term plan for South Congress that included light rail on the avenue, the merchants allied with the neighborhoods to stop the project.

Six months to a year of construction would be fatal to the many small businesses whose profits were marginal, merchants argued. "That's an awful long time to take a high-traffic street and close it," says Gail ­Armstrong, owner of Off the Wall antiques. "No one here could survive that. And if we did survive, most of us couldn't afford the spike in real estate prices that comes with rail."

"It's a complicated area," admits George Adams, assistant director in the planning and development review department for the City of Austin. "Its development has been more organic, or market-driven, which complicates any attempt to do things. You start out with certain attitudes: 'What's wrong with these people? Don't they know we're trying to help them?' Over time, we've come to understand the benefit of doing things incrementally, how to make changes and accommodate the needs of the small businesses and of the residents. South Congress has taught us a lot."

Preservationists agree. Dealey Herndon, who is overseeing restoration of the Governor's Mansion, sees the avenue as part of Austin's historic fabric: "The vibrant evolution of South Congress is a great example of bringing older neighborhood business areas to life by celebrating the eclectic character of the architecture, the simpler life of a city in an earlier era, and the creativity of new one-of-a-kind businesses. Every business is unique, every building has a personality, and all of this comes together to create a part of Austin that is universally appealing."

Today the avenue remains extraordinarily popular and largely "corporate free." When a Starbucks opened on South Congress as part of a new apartment complex built closer to downtown, merchants held their collective breath. Two years ago they exhaled when the franchise shut down.

Zoning restrictions that limit commercial businesses to no more than a half-block off South Congress, the small footprints of existing buildings, the high bar the city sets for teardowns, and the lack of parking are some of the reasons why the chains and big-box stores haven't gained much of a foothold. A bigger factor is the transition of pioneers like the Lippincotts, Cole and Prechter, and Wertheimer from renters to owner-operators and landlords.

Wertheimer misses the days when his hotrod buddies had the avenue all to themselves, when there was a liquor store on his block, and Just Guns occupied the space where American Apparel, one of very few national chain stores on the avenue, stands now. "We don't own it like we used to," he laments. But as an investor in the San José, Perla's Seafood and Oyster Bar, and Home Slice Pizza, and as a property owner who has increased his holdings over the years, he realizes he can influence future growth in his own small way, as he did three years ago when he bought and restored the Avenue Barber Shop, one of the oldest businesses on South Congress. "It's one of those things I didn't want to go away," he says. "That's where I get my hair cut. It still smells like it's 1933 in there."

Whatever happens, Wertheimer and his neighbors hope some degree of funk and cool continues oozing through. If places like the barber shop and people like Wertheimer go away, it won't be South Congress anymore. And without South Congress, Austin wouldn't be quite as different from everywhere else.

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