Built:
1839–present
Architect:
Edwin Waller
Historic Status:
National Register of Historic Places

Description

Stretching north-south from the Colorado River to the Texas State Capitol, the Congress Avenue Historic District is Austin’s most important thoroughfare. Established in 1839, this stretch of road, which divides Austin’s downtown grid into two halves, is the address of many of the city’s most architecturally and culturally significant places.

Placemaking

The history of Austin is written along this thoroughfare. Congress Avenue has existed since Austin’s earliest days, when Edwin Waller laid out his plan for a capital composed of a 14×14 grid of streets bisected by a 120-foot-wide boulevard. Known simply as “The Avenue” for the first 70 years of its existence, today Congress plays many roles: it is a ceremonial approach to the Texas State Capitol; an important commercial and cultural corridor; the site of major gatherings and events; and a symbolic source of civic pride. When Texans march on the Capitol to make their voices heard, this boulevard serves as the people’s podium.

In the late 19th century, the view from this point would have been quite different. At that time, Congress was an unpaved road traversed by horse-drawn carriages and streetcars powered by mules. Because the road was built over an existing creek, natural springs would periodically bubble up, while wastewater and sewage flowed into the river. Nevertheless, the Avenue was considered a prime location for commercial enterprise—a reputation that was solidified with the completion of the capitol building in 1888. Façades dating from this period reflect a remarkable variety of styles: Victorian, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Venetian, Classical, etc.

Over the years, Congress has risen and fallen with downtown Austin. Gaslights were installed in the 1870s; the roadway was paved in 1905; and sidewalks were added in 1910. In the first few decades of the 20th century, Congress Avenue reached its early zenith, illuminated by the bright lights of numerous theaters. By mid-century, downtown was in decline; the 1950s and 1960s saw extensive demolition and alterations of significant buildings on Congress Avenue. Influential landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, visiting Austin for the Texas Society of Architects convention in 1965, described Congress as “a vast sea of concrete” and likened the pedestrian experience to that of a “rat in a trap”. Evidence of this downtown decay is still visible in the empty storefronts between 9th and 10th streets (with the exception of the Art Deco jewel at #905).

Following a few misguided proposals for its renewal (including a scheme to transform the entire street into a shopping mall by enclosing the sidewalks in an air-conditioned glass structure), Congress began to show signs of life. Trees were planted in the 1970s and 1980s, and the hard-fought restoration of the Paramount Theatre in 1978 showed that Austinites were dedicated to protecting their architectural heritage.

Today, Congress is once again abuzz with activity at all hours. The construction of the Frost Bank Tower in 2005 heralded a building boom that shows no signs of abating. In 2018, the City of Austin and the Downtown Austin Alliance teamed up to present “Our Congress Avenue”, a vision to revamp Congress that emphasizes pedestrian-oriented enhancements and green infrastructure. Only time will tell what comes next for Austin’s main street. – Bud Franck, RA

Photo Credits:

Patrick Wong, Austin History Center