Austinite Rowland Cook and his wife Diane have been going to Lady Longhorn basketball games at the Erwin Center for about 30 years. They’ve been parking in the nearby Trinity Garage since it opened in 2002.
He told me about this in an email under the subject line, “A puzzler.” Specifically, he’s puzzled by a building he sees on campus between the garage and the games.
Knowing I’m a sucker for stuff people can’t figure out, Cook turned to me in my role as commandant (and sole staffer) of the American-Statesman’s “What IS It?” team.
“Sandwiched between the garage and the medical school is what looks like a single family house that at one time was pretty nice,” Cook reported. “But now it is boarded up, covered with vines and is surrounded by high fences. It’s hard to see it.”
Yes, it is. The building is just south of the Trinity Garage and just north of the Nursing School, which is at 1710 Red River St.
There’s lots to report on this but I’ll jump right to the troubling bottom line: The oldest building on the UT campus is in architectural hospice care.
What we have here is the Arthur P. Watson House. The UT Facilities webpage says it’s a 1,650-square foot, two-story building that’s been a university property since 1993.
An online photo shows a boarded-up house with a greenhouse. The building is obscured by trees and fence and is easy to miss, even if you’re one of the many folks who walk by it en route to the Erwin Center. One of the best views is from the top floor the Trinity Garage.
At ground level on Red River Street there are two signs marking the driveway leading to the house. One sign is modern, generic and aimed at folks looking for the Trinity Garage: “Private Residence Drive. Not Garage Access.”
Private residence? On campus? Hmm.
The second sign is more stylized, vintage and intriguing, featuring metal characters attached to the wall: “50 East Eighteenth. Private Road.”
Turns out a zero is missing. The address is 500 E. 18th St.
Cook and I walked up the driveway, slaloming around a downed limb or two, until we got to the padlocked gate where we could get a glimpse of a house clearly past its prime. What’s the category just below fixer-upper?
Eager for a closer look, I asked UT if I could get beyond the locked gate. No, I was told, “due to safety risks for both you and any potential accompanying staff.”
I filled in Cook on what I had found out at the time, including the fact that Watson was a noted interior designer who died in 1993. There were no surprises in most of UT’s answers to my queries. The property is not in use. UT acquired it in 1993 after Watson’s death. He bought it in 1959.
Oh, and there’s this from UT:
“The Watson House was first built in 1853 for Mrs. Margaret Neville Bowie, sister-in-law of Jim Bowie. She sold the property after the Civil War.”
1853. As in 30 years prior to the opening of UT, which now says the Watson House is the oldest building on the main campus. (Second oldest is the nearby and well-preserved Nowotny Building, built in 1856 as the Asylum for the Blind.)
Cook was as surprised about the Watson’s House history as I was, both about its age, the fact that UT didn’t own it until 1993 and that somebody lived in it until a few years ago.
“I just assumed it had been owned by the university for long years because they own everything around it,” said Cook, who, as a retired lawyer, should know better about assuming.
Next, we need to talk about the home’s first resident and straighten out something about America’s most famous knife.
According to the Texas State Historical Association’s “Handbook of Texas,” Margaret Neville married the fabulously named Rezin Pleasant Bowie in 1814 in Opelousas, La. He died in New Orleans in 1841, leaving a wife, some kids and a knife for the ages.
“Rezin Bowie was best known in the nineteenth century … as the inventor of the famous Bowie knife,” the handbook says. “His brother James brought fame to himself and notoriety to the knife when he killed Major Norris Wright with it in the noted Sandbar Fight on September 19, 1827.”
Margaret Neville Bowie, born in 1796, died in New Orleans in 1876. Repeating here for emphasis: A woman born in 1796 lived in a house still standing (sort of) on the UT campus.
“If it were in a regular neighborhood people would be tagging it for an historic property and it would require that it be maintained and kept in good condition,” Cook said of the house.
But it’s not in a regular neighborhood. It’s at UT, near a big arena (whose future also is in doubt though it’s been around for only 40 years).
UT, through spokeswoman Shilpa Bakre, says the Watson House has no historic designation. That’s partly because through many owners and renovations, the home has what UT calls “reduced historical architectural features.”
That’s too bad.
UT determined in 2009 that the house is not worth fixing up. A 1972 effort to get it historical designation when it was privately owned failed, Bakre said. “Although Mr. Watson modified the interior and grounds extensively during the 1970s, the building and grounds were in very poor condition by the time UT Austin received them.”
UT estimates it would cost at least $1 million to make the house usable. Another $1 million would be needed for site modifications. The numbers just don’t work, the school says.
“Furthermore, a need for an area that small hasn’t surfaced which can’t more easily and less expensively be met using other existing buildings,” Bakre said.
The bottom line is UT “has opted to not proceed with renovations at this time” and has no plans for the building. No plans sounds like no plans to fix it up and no plans to tear it down. The university says it now has what it calls “caretaker status” of the house.
That sounds like hospice for a house, doesn’t it?
In 2012, the greenhouse and several other small building on the site were demolished and the pool was filled in “to discourage occupation by wildlife and transients,” Bakre said.
It all adds up to what looks like a sad, lingering end for a house with a history.
Sad indeed, says the last person to live in it. Robert Garrett, who was Watson’s business partner, said he lived in it from 1959 until he decided to move out in 2009. UT says Garrett was allowed to remain in the house the school acquired after Watson’s death in 1993.
Garrett said the rapid growth of the campus around the house was never an issue for him.
I asked Garrett if he thinks the home has historic significance.
“Well it was built in 1853, and, at that time, that was the northeast corner of Austin,” he said.
“I’d hate to see it torn down,” he said. “But knowing how the modern world is galloping, it’ll probably be torn down … because they need the land for other things.”
“That’s the way American society is these days,” Garrett added: “If it doesn’t work for you, get rid of it.”
Progress, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.
See video with this column at mystatesman.com