The puzzlement of Austin’s original city plan

Should we credit Edwin Waller or L.J. Pilie for the elegant design?

The first hint of puzzlement came from a stranger to town.

At a Preservation Austin luncheon last year, Charles Birnbaum, founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, spoke about the rational beauty of Austin’s original 1839 urban design. He approved the notion that Edwin Waller followed William Penn’s idealistic layout for Philadelphia when he planned the 1-square-mile grid for what is now downtown.

Hold on. What? The idea for Austin came for Philadelphia? That stunning claim deserved investigation.

A quick look at the 1682 Penn map makes certain similarities self-evident. Large public squares — in Austin’s case, the Capitol grounds — dominate rectilinear grids of streets that stretch between parallel waterways and make room for four smaller squares.

Penn was not, however, the first to use a grid model. The Greeks employed grid-planning more than 2,700 years ago for their colonies in Asia. Many others followed.

The puzzlement: Where exactly did Austin’s first mayor get the idea, since the streets in many early North American cities followed the curves of the terrain instead?

James Oglethorpe’s 1733 design for Savannah, Ga., uses an ingenious, more complicated grid plan. The Allen brothers’ 1837 plan for Houston is a clipped, less rational grid alongside Buffalo Bayou. Even the French Quarter in New Orleans takes the form of a grid.

A day spent at the Austin History Center unearthed no direct link between the Penn and Waller plans. A lot of material — including a large, revealing copy of the elegant original design, drawn by surveyor L.J. Pilie — turned up. But no smoking gun.

Time to consult an expert.

“I have seen numerous references to Philadelphia’s influence,” says Austin place interpreter Ted Eubanks, who champions the vision of the Waller Creek Conservancy and has done extensive work in that Pennsylvania city. “But no direct quote or reference from Waller himself.”

Eubanks points out that Waller was from Spotsylvania County, Va., not far south of Washington D.C. (which overlays radial avenues over grids) and he did not come to Texas until age 31. It’s entirely possible he visited Philadelphia in his youth.

Yet what was his training in urban design?

“I have seen no evidence that Waller had any experience as a surveyor,” Eubanks says. “So I can only assume that he used the simplest system that he had seen when he laid out Austin.”

With that, Eubanks might have inadvertently pointed the way to an alternate solution to the mystery.

Waller and Waterloo

One of the biggest caches of information on our first mayor comes from P.E. Peareson’s 1874 “Sketch of the Life of Edwin Waller.” The slender book concentrates on Waller’s heroic efforts as a pioneer and fighter during the Texas War for Independence.

Peareson also reprints a Jan. 24, 1839 act authorizing the permanent location of the seat of government in Austin. As President Mirabeau B. Lamar’s agent, Waller was given $113,000 in Texas scrip to start the project. The sale of Austin city plots would bring in another $300,000 to build the capital.

“He had but 200 laborers,” writes Peareson. “A motley crew, drawn from all the nationalities of the world — of all colors, classes and characters.”

Notably, Waller chose a “canyon” for Congress Avenue, which explains its innate sense of processional place — and its frequent flooding in later days.

In Mary Starr Barkley’s “History of Austin and Travis County,” we learn of the enthusiasm from surveyor William H. Sandusky, later secretary to President Lamar, for Austin’s site and early settlement.

It “rises three miles from the Colorado Mountains on a beautiful rich prairie about 40 feet above the level of the river,” Sandusky writes in an 1839 letter. “Extending back one half mile to the bluff and gradually rising to 60 or 70 feet where is a place for the public square (15 acres), with an avenue rising up from the river of 120 feet wide, through a narrow valley which appears as if made by nature expressly for this noble purpose.”

Curiously, Sandusky left behind his own map of Waller’s Austin’s that is severely truncated, or perhaps just condensed.

A 1954 article by Ronald Hawk noted that Congress was a “old creek bed” later filled in with dirt. It took decades before this “hog-wallow” was paved.

The sale of the original Austin lots, by the way, was announced in the Houston Morning Star, May 8, 1839: “Payment for lots must be made in gold, silver, promissory notes of the government, or audited paper of the government.”

More than a century later, Austinite G.G. Lemmons discovered: “The lots were laid out 23 by 46 feet because sawmills were equipped to cut logs 12 feet, which made girders overlap 1 foot.”

The 306 tracts went for between $120 and $2,000. Most sold for less than $500. Waller purchased one of the most expensive lots.

Closely examining Pilie’s exquisite map — Charles Schoolfield also receives a credit in the lower left corner for his survey work on the map — one finds all kinds of valuable data.

The blocks were numbered 1 through 179, starting in the southwestern corner near the mouth of Shoal Creek, where the penitentiary was slated to go. The blocks set aside for public squares, courthouse, jail, Capitol, university, academy and hospital are not numbered. Half-blocks were designated for markets, churches, a post office, the president’s house and national departments of government.

Interestingly, University Medical Center Brackenridge stands almost exactly where the original hospital was planned. Austin High School, now Austin Community College, sits where the university was supposed to go on “College Avenue,” now West Twelfth Street.

All in all, it’s a glorious plan. A masterpiece.

Which leads to the biggest puzzlement of all: Didn’t Eubanks say there’s no evidence that Waller had any surveying or design background? What if, instead, Pilie, an educated, well-traveled man with roots in New Orleans, according to several sources, actually laid out the plan, rather than just surveying it?

Should we call it the Pilie Plan rather than crediting Waller? Was he our Pierre “Peter” Charles L’Enfant, who designed Washington, D.C.? Worth more investigating. And if true, more things should be named for Pilie.

For the future, however, what’s important is that Austin has done gross injustice to the brilliant plan.

One of the four subsidiary squares was used for a garbage dump before it was rescued — more than once — as Wooldridge Square Park. Another, Brush Square, houses a fire station and two sadly misplaced historic houses. A third square disappeared under a modernistic church. And once again, we are debating how to make the fourth, Republic Square Park, worthy of the investments poured into the surrounding blocks.

“While Waller may have been inspired by Philadelphia’s grid,” Eubanks says. “And he passed that tradition on in his plan of Austin, he failed to inspire the people of Austin to value these public spaces. This lack of inspiration and valuation continues to this day. … Great cities have great public spaces. If Austin is going to join the ranks of great cities, I would suggest starting by re-visioning these public squares and public spaces.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Charles Birnbaum's name.

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