Life flourishes on both sides of Northwest Hills in Austin

The rugged west meets the tamer east in this neighborhood of contrasts founded in the 1950s.


Picture in your mind Northwest Hills, the Austin neighborhood encompassed loosely by MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) to the east, Loop 360 to the west, RM 2222 to the south and Spicewood Springs Road to the north.

What do you see?

Relatively mild suburban land with gently curved and landscaped streets leading to offices, stores, apartments, parks and schools? Or precariously high hills creased by deep canyons and dotted with dramatic cliffside homes?

These contrasting terrains both represent Northwest Hills, but it’s hard to stitch these two pictures together in your mind unless you live, work, shop or play there regularly.

Its eastern boundary along MoPac follows a low mesa populated by office buildings and apartment complexes. This buttress of regularity doesn’t attract much attention from the mobile passerby, even at the entryway to the district’s commercial artery on Far West Boulevard, which cuts alongside a former limestone quarry on its way to Mesa Drive and beyond.

At the same time, much of its southern and, especially, western boundaries are extraordinarily rugged. Shady canyons rip through some of the region’s highest hills, including spiky Cat Mountain, in the neighborhood’s southwestern sector. Anyone cruising by Northwest Hills on RM 2222 or Loop 360 can’t help wondering how those houses poking out from the stark cliffs got there in the first place.

Who thought that all this belonged together?

The late David Brown Barrow Sr., who moved to Austin in 1909, served in the Army during World War I and became an almost accidental co-founder of Northwest Hills after World War II, had roamed the wild verges of Austin as a youth. That liberating experience helped inspire his designs for a green neighborhood named with romantic whimsy — Northwest Hills — by his wife.

“I thought when I was a boy I was going to be an artist,” Barrow said during a 1964 interview recorded for the Austin History Center. “I used to draw quite a lot. And I drew for the high school annual. And I also drew when I was in the university for the periodicals they put out. And to lay out streets in irregular land like this … involves, I think, an artistic sense to know where to put the streets as not to damage the land too badly.”

Although Northwest Hills is composed of more than a dozen subdivisions, this affluent neighborhood, developed in stages mainly from the 1950s to the 1980s, seems a remarkably close match to its landscape.

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“I have used extreme care in laying out the area … in order to make it very attractive,” Barrow said in 1964. “Of course, nature’s responsible for a whole lot of that. That area’s beautiful, and you have beautiful views from most places, in some places views of the lake and the western mountains.”

The Balcones and Mount Bonnell faults to the west helped create this dramatic dichotomy. Meanwhile, Bull Creek and its tributaries slice through the limestone rises in the far western reaches of Northwest Hills. The rises are draped with junipers and oaks, except where subdivisions intervene and residential trees were planted — including a mature magnolia tree that the family of LBJ adviser George Christian brought back as “a stick” from the White House magnolia planted by President Andrew Jackson.

Early days

Journeying through — and surviving on — this rough land was of utmost importance to the Tonkawas and Comanches, who used Spicewood Springs as a key camping ground.

History advocate Richard Denney describes an 1844 kidnapping of the Simpson children, a boy and a girl, from the lower Shoal Creek Valley in or near Austin. The girl was killed at the main spring, which can be found today at Ceberry Drive and Spicewood Springs Road. After being ransomed, the boy led Austinites back to the site, where the girl’s remains were identified.

During the 1860s, the remote Bull Creek Valley sheltered pioneers from families who resisted the Confederacy during the Civil War while holed up the area’s hollows and caves. As described in Ken Roberts’ excellent new book, “Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing,” Dick Preece arrived in these hills as early as 1850. He is reputed to have killed the last male buffalo in Travis County and to have given Bull Creek its name. The Preece family was among the “Bull Creek Clan,” fiercely independent, mostly Scots-Irish migrants who had trickled down from Appalachia into isolated pockets of the Texas Hill Country.

By the 1880s, gentle glens below the central mesa to the east had become picnic spots for urban Austinites. Denney found a poem from 1880 that calls the land around Spicewood Springs — the hills were covered with American spicebush — “enchanted ground.” This oasis, 8 miles out of the city, was reached by rail as part of a service promoting Waters (or Watters) Park on Walnut Creek to the north.

In the late 19th century, the International-Great Northern Railroad — later known as the Missouri Pacific Railroad, hence MoPac — helped open up the farmlands to the east of the tracks in today’s Allandale. With less fertile soil and narrow roads not much bigger than “cedar-chopper” trails, the Northwest Hills side of the tracks remained the firm redoubt of scattered rural families for another 70 years.

According to Roberts, despite their “hillbilly” reputations and extremely modest digs, the Hill Country clans made the most of the terrain, tracking game, growing little patches of corn for coarse meal, livestock feed and moonshine, and especially cutting old-growth cedar where it grew tall in the shadowy canyons. The red-hearted wood was highly prized far and wide for its durability as fence posts and as the source of charcoal.

During the 20th century, a rail spur served the Texas Crushed Stone Company’s quarry, which mined lower-quality limestone that was mostly used for gravel, concrete and lime, right in the middle of what is now Northwest Hills. As aerial photographs show, the mine left a big white gash on the land right up to the MoPac tracks.

By the 1980s, this razed land had become the commercial center of the neighborhood along Far West Boulevard. The only clearly visible sign of the former quarry are the too-regular walls to the north below the Dell Jewish Community Campus.

A measured project

David Barrow Sr. and his brother, Edward — joined later by David Barrow Jr. and his associate Chuck Stahl, who both attended UT and created Barrow & Stahl Architects in the 1960s — saw the value of the land around the quarry as early as the 1940s. Acquiring the land gradually, they started out with a subdivision just south of RM 2222, pushed west toward Mount Bonnell, then expanded north and west into the heart of the current neighborhood.

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In his valuable but incompletely transcribed oral history, Barrow Sr. talks about acquiring land from the Milton Hart family — namesake of Hart Lane — the Wendlandt Estate and Wilbur Allan’s family. By the end of the 1950s, his team owned or had options on more than 2,500 acres, more than half the total in the district.

Although his father had been in real estate, Barrow Sr. made his career in railroads and insurance. With money from his successful insurance consultancy, he, along with his brother and sister, purchased land around Mount Bonnell and Mount Barker. In fact, at one point he told the city that he owned Mount Bonnell.

“He loved being out there on the land,” architect Stahl recalls about Barrow Sr. “And he realized that the growth direction for the city would be north and west.”

According to Barrow Sr., he allowed Texas Crushed Stone to quarry on the land for a time before the company consolidated operations in Georgetown just north of Round Rock.

“We were already developing some of the land close to it, and the quarry, of course, was a hindrance to the land because of the noise and the blasting and the dust,” Barrow Sr. said. Yet by moving soil from the quarry site into the valleys, the miners had unintentionally created decent land, where some of the first houses went in. Under the surface they found “Walnut Clay,” which later would bedevil the slab foundations of houses in the area.

The developers — the Barrows and their associates were not the only ones — thought long and hard about what they wanted for this almost separate suburban “city,” which in advertising they called “Beautiful Northwest Hills.” All along, they employed Barrow & Stahl Architects as professional planners as well as engineering consultants. Apartments were placed near commercial areas to cut down on traffic through single-family residential zones.

“We realized that Mr. Barrow had much more than good land for homes,” Stahl says. “He owned or had options on virtually another little city.”

A lovely but rough land-use plan, drawn by Barrow and Stahl, survives today with areas labeled “Flat Land,” “Rough Land” and “Really Rough Land,” along with a layout of nodes and road routes. The Barrow family refused to sell too many adjacent lots to the same builder in order to avoid a “cookie-cutter” feel.

“Mr. Barrow held a Saturday afternoon barbecue lottery for lots,” Stahl recalls, “in order to avoid one builder taking a whole subdivision.”

Barrow Sr., who served on the Austin Planning Commission and died in 1972, is credited with lobbying for the construction of MoPac, which allowed Northwest Hills residents to commute downtown more directly than by taking North Lamar Boulevard. MoPac was first proposed in the 1930s but was not built until the 1970s after multiple failed attempts to win its approval by the Texas Highway Department and Austin City Council.

The Hills today

A few years ago, Jason Panzer was looking for a house for his growing family in Northwest Hills where he grew up.

Although the original 1970s and ’80s designs for the moderately sized suburban residences there were carefully chosen for each site, some of them rugged, others relatively flat, Panzer discovered that there were occasional reiterations.

His Realtor, Carol Dochen, an expert in the Northwest Hills, showed him a two-story house situated atop a shaded, pentagonal corner lot on Tallowood Drive.

He called his wife, Debra Danziger.

“I found the house to be oddly familiar, but it was Debbie who noticed it was the same layout and design — including the same Saltillo tile — as my mom’s old house, only flipped, that I grew up in, which was just a little over a mile away.”

For instance, the staircase was on the east side of his childhood home, while it rose to the west here. He took pictures and sent them to his siblings.

“Look where I am!” he texted. They texted back: “Oh my gosh, you’re in our old house!”

These days, nobody needs to sell Carol Dochen on the green appeal of Northwest Hills.

“People have a passion about Northwest Hills,” says Dochen, a Realtor who settled here 37 years ago and whose business is to know every inch of the district.

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In 1967, her husband Sandy’s parents built a house on Far West Boulevard in the heart of Northwest Hills. At the time, the street did not extend to Balcones Drive or MoPac. A UT graduate in communications and journalism, Carol came into the picture in 1977 after pursuing careers in Houston and Washington, D.C.

“I visited them in that house quite often, and we actually moved in with them in 1981,” she recalls. “Due to his parents’ deaths, we inherited the house in 1982. That is how I came to live in Northwest Hills, where we have lived ever since, first in that home and later in another home in the neighborhood.”

Now she owns Carol Dochen Realtors on Spicewood Springs Road. Although she and her team work all over the Austin area, they concentrate on Northwest Hills, where she has sold hundreds of homes.

She revels in the variety of house styles, from Colonial Revival to midcentury modern to ultra-contemporary, but acknowledges that during building booms, some plans were virtually duplicated, like the Panzers’. Not many parks were planned early on, according to Barrow Sr.’s record, other than those connected with public buildings like schools. Residents later fought for green spaces such as the Barrow Nature Preserve, the Stillhouse Hollow Nature Preserve, Allen Park and the Lower Bull Creek Greenbelt.

For the past few years, the neighborhood has fought an ongoing battle over the proposed Austin Oaks multiuse project, which would add a great deal of density, height and, perhaps inevitably, traffic at the Spicewood Springs entry into the area, albeit with some promised parkland. Another controversy for any older Austin district: Spacious 50-year-old homes in relatively good condition are being razed. That situation is complicated by the fact that foundations were laid on expanding and shrinking caliche clay soil. Plus, they often back up to canyons teeming with wildlife, which newcomers do not always appreciate.

“I am seeing homes going in the $500,000 to $600,000 range being torn down,” Carol says. “Who could have dreamt that when the original homes here cost about $35,000 to $50,000?”

The Dochens’ second Northwest Hills home is perched on more than an acre of land aside the lip of one of the area’s many canyons.

“You can hear the water rushing down below after a big rain,” Carol says. “We have great sunsets and some scary nights spent listening to the wailing calls of the coyotes when they have captured their prey. We are surrounded by nature, and it is fascinating. We have our share of foxes, birds, butterflies, bats, mosquitoes, bunnies, armadillos, scorpions and deer. Lots of deer. We have them all.”



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