Excavating the history of the former Aggie Embassy in downtown Austin

11:08 a.m. Monday, June 12, 2017 Lifestyle
The historic Hirshfeld-Moore House in downtown Austin once housed the governmental relations offices of the Texas A&M University System. Soon the historically protected complex will go on the market. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Like an enclave of foreign sovereignty in the heart of Austin, a compound once half-joshingly called the “Aggie Embassy” rises downtown behind sturdy iron fences, half hidden by shade trees, a puzzle to many passers-by.

From 1987 to 2016, however, the Hirshfeld-Moore complex housed the Austin offices of the Texas A&M University System. Located on West Ninth Street between Lavaca and Guadalupe streets, the half block includes a stately Victorian mansion filled with prudently chosen antiques, an older honeymoon cottage, and a traditional two-story carriage house out back.

Late last year, A&M System workers moved a few blocks northwest to offices in the handsome new St. David’s Foundation building. Ownership of the compound reverted to the Texas A&M Development Foundation, which plans to put it on the open market, confirms Timothy Walton, who handles real estate for the foundation.

“It’s a very special property,” Walton says. “We’ve been very fortunate to have such an iconic building for our use for decades. We just outgrew it.”

No asking price has been determined. Don’t fret: It’s not in any danger of demolition.

WATCH: The restoration of Austin’s historic Hirshfeld-Moore House and Cottage

Hirshfeld-Moore is protected, first, by a deed of covenant with a previous owner, the Heritage Society of Austin, a nonprofit group now called Preservation Austin. It’s also in the Capitol View Corridor, so no tower could shoot up there.

“The property has every available historic designation,” says John Volz, a preservation architect whose wife, Candace Volz, directed the restoration of the Hirshfeld-Moore interiors, “with the exception of a National Historic Landmark. But it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also a Texas Historic Landmark, a State Antiquities Landmark and a City of Austin Landmark. Also, I think that the preservation community would have a ‘call to arms’ if it were seriously threatened.”

Looking backward and forward

Nevertheless, Hirshfeld-Moore needs key repairs as well as a new role to go along with its new owner.

According to deeds, the property encompasses Lots 7-10 in Block 100 as laid out the 1839 Republic of Texas plan for Austin.

The mansion was built from 1885 to 1887 in the Eastlake style for banker and merchant Henry Hirshfeld, a German immigrant, and his wife, Jenny Melasky Hirshfeld, according to a short, unsigned and undated history of the house.

The couple had seven children, one of whom died in childbirth. Their first home in Austin was the cottage built next door in 1873 in a pattern-book Italian style. It was later used as a first home for their children and other young Austin couples, hence the name honeymoon cottage.

Prominent in many ways, Henry Hirshfeld was a co-founder of Austin National Bank and made numerous contributions to the city’s commercial and social life. Among other things, he co-founded Temple Beth Israel, the city’s first Jewish congregation.

The Hirshfeld family occupied the house continuously for 85 years. It was sold to the Heritage Society with financial help from the Hirshfeld heirs when Henry’s daughter Leila Bernheim died in 1973.

In 1977, oilman and investor Joe Hiram Moore, a past president of A&M’s Association of Former Students, and his wife, Betty, purchased it from the Heritage Society. They began restoring it and gave it to the Foundation. They also formed Friends of the Hirshfeld House, which counted more than 200 members according to a surviving directory from the 1980s, to purchase the correct Victorian-era furniture for the place.

The Texas A&M University System took it over for offices in 1987. It was considered a coup for a university that had experienced trouble recruiting top students and was still building on its considerable credentials. Bonus: The original paint on the exterior woodwork, restored in the 1970s and ’80s, was maroon.

“It’s a window on A&M in the Capital City,” Joe Moore told American-Statesman reporter Lee Kelly during the spot’s Victorian-themed 100th anniversary party in 1987. The heady affair was attended by Marie Hanna, grandchild of Henry and Jenny Hirshfeld.

In 1988, Candace Volz compiled an amazingly detailed and well-documented furnishing plan for the complex. Not just any Victorian furniture would do.

“Almost all of the pieces are in the Eastlake — sometimes called Modern Gothic — furnishing style popular in the United States between approximately 1875 and 1880,” she wrote. “It is known from photographs and family oral history that it was furnished in fashionable, up-to-date furnishings.”

Volz and other researchers were helped out by a treasure trove of Hirshfeld papers housed at the Austin History Center. They include accounts ledgers, a diary, a biographical pamphlet, photographs, letterhead, cookbooks, household tips, novels, games, a war ration book, vendor receipts, tourism pamphlets, letters, a passport, as well as a last will testament.

The objects tell the story of a loving family that faced its share of personal challenges, but who also had the luxury to travel, see plays and live comfortably.

MORE AUSTIN HISTORY: Austin says goodbye to Brackenridge Hospital after 133 years

Instructions to volunteers, preserved in a handbook for the Heritage Society’s 1994 homes tour titled “Victorian Austin: The Age of Opulence,” puts the Hirshfeld House in the company of other established wonders from that age: Flower Hill on West Sixth Street, Eugene Bremond House in the Bremond Block, Littlefield Mansion on the UT campus, the Academy in Travis Heights, Kopprel House in Hyde Park, Wolf House on East Cesar Chavez and Tips House, moved to South Congress Avenue to become a bank and now a boot shop.

What sets Hirshfeld-Moore apart from many of the gems from that period is the degree of actual restoration, not just renovation.

“Clearly, it was and remains one of the most accurately and meticulously restored groups of historic buildings in Austin and in Texas,” John Volz says. “The attention to detail is exceptional and was facilitated both by the quantity of original materials remaining in the buildings (mantels, doors and other woodwork with original finishes and hardware), and surviving fragments of missing original finishes (carpets, paint, wall and ceiling papers), as well as ghosts of other materials (plaster cornices and ceiling medallions) that allowed precise restoration.”

Providing depth, authenticity and richness to the interiors, he adds, was the return of original Hirshfeld furniture and also A&M’s support to meld modern office functions with carefully selected period-appropriate antique furniture and accessories.

“This was a unique approach for an office interior in the 1980s, particularly in Texas — and still is today,” John Volz says. “Hopefully, new owners will be found who appreciate the history and unique qualities of the property and who are willing to preserve its integrity.”

Downtown real estate expert Jude Galligan is not worried about its future, in part because it has very limited development potential given all its legal protections.

“The type of use could change from office to events venue, for example,” he says. “The target buyer is thus likely to be an end-user looking for a cool space.”

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