Edwin Waller called it his “grand plan.”
When the native Virginian was hired in 1839 to design a capital for the newly minted Republic of Texas, a hamlet he would carve out of the scruffy woods alongside the Colorado River, the entrepreneur and signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence drew a town site 14 blocks wide by 14 blocks long.
On the pen-and-ink map of Austin, he designed a hill north of the Colorado River as “Capital Square.” It was ringed by state office buildings and the “President’s House.” Other blocks were designated for churches, an armory, a hospital, a penitentiary, a market, a university and an academy.
And there were four “public squares,” spaced equidistant from the new capital’s center.
Over time, those squares transformed from green space to horse parking to industrial sites to the location of a fire station, a church and a museum, with the details of why and how mostly lost to time.
Now, the Legislature is considering two bills that would officially lease the three remaining squares to the city of Austin for perhaps the first time since Waller’s vision became a reality 174 years ago. The move follows decades of legal questions and lawsuits over the squares’ ownership.
“It’s something that was probably overlooked a long time ago,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, explaining why the land-grant legislation is needed now after so many years have passed, at least a century after the city of Austin took control of the sites. “I think we’re straightening out some history here.”
The Austin City Council has approved a resolution supporting the bills, noting that voters last November approved $1 million in capital improvements for the squares.
Covered by Senate Bill 1023 and House Bill 2604 are the three remaining one-block squares: Republic Square at Fifth and Guadalupe streets, Wooldridge Square Park at 10th and Guadalupe streets, and Brush Square at Fifth and Trinity streets — each with its own murky history.
The site of the fourth square, at Ninth and Neches streets, was sold years ago, state officials said. Currently, it is the site of the First Baptist Church.
After Waller’s plan was used to sell town lots in the new capital, the squares drew scant mention in historical files. In 1917, the Legislature approved a 99-year lease of Republic Square to the City of Austin, for use as the site of a municipal auditorium and a market square.
There, the agreement states, the city could operate “theaters, operas, concerts, lectures, fairs, shows and public exhibitions and entertainments generally … conducted with and without pay.” In the market, the deal stated, “all kinds of produce may be bought and sold either in the open square or in a market house constructed thereon.”
The other squares? No mention.
In 1930, an attorney general’s opinion blocked the state from selling Republic and Brush squares to Travis County.
Nine years later, ownership questions lingered, as state officials tried to clarify tracts they could lease, sell or keep. A legislator, state Rep. Eugene V. Giles, was informed by the attorney general’s office that the state had clear ownership of Republic and Brush squares, though no mention was made of the other two.
In 1948, then-Land Commissioner Bascom Gilesasked for a ruling on whether the state could sell Republic and Brush squares, the latter upon which the city had built its Central Fire Station and where the O. Henry Museum was located. Price Daniel, the attorney general who would later become governor, said no.
He noted that the squares were part of a land grant from the Mexican government in June 1835 to Thomas Chambers.Questions about public ownership of the sites apparently lingered for years, until the state established its ownership in 1925 and settled with Chambers’ heirs for $20,000, according to Daniel’s opinion letter.
During the 1950s, the city sued the state to ratify its control over Republic Square, which was a surface parking lot. In February 1957, state District Judge Charles O. Betts affirmed the city had control over the site. No mention was made of the other squares.
A 2004 opinion by Attorney General Greg Abbott affirmed that only Republic Square — which had been called Hemphill Square from the late 1800s until its name was changed in 1975 — had a lease in place.
For Watson, the history of the squares is personal. He announced his successful run for mayor in 1996 from the historic stage in Wooldridge Square, named for Mayor A.P. Wooldridge at the square designated by Waller, who served as the first mayor of Austin.
“These squares have certainly been a part of our history,” Watson said, noting that Lyndon Baines Johnson continued a long tradition of political speeches at Wooldridge Square by announcing his 1948 campaign for U.S. Senate there. “After all these years, with the lease on Republic Square running out, it’s time we clear up any issues there are for all the squares.
“It’ll be our contribution to history.”
For their part, state officials say they favor resolving the issue after all these years.
“This goes back to the days when Texas was a Republic, when Austin was first platted, and Austin is the only place that has this issue because it was set up as a government city, sort of like Washington,” he said.
Mike Ward has covered historical and preservation issues for the American-Statesman for more than two decades, including the recent restoration of the Governor’s Mansion and the 1990-94 renovation of the Capitol.