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We Built This City: Historical Austin Materials

quarry
Austin History Center

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We built this city. Not on rock ’n’ roll.

But rather on Butler Brick, Calcasieu Lumber and Austin White Lime. With a little help from Texas Granite and various skilled artisans working in iron, glass and other basic building materials.

If your Central Texas house, church, school or place of business was built before World War II — or even long after that — these companies were the sources for the structural ingredients.

The first permanent structures in Austin were made of logs with rubble infill. Even the Republic of Texas capitol building and the presidential residence were log cabins, as seen in drawings of Congress Avenue from the 1840s.

A dozen or so Central Texas cabins have survived, most of them very small and relocated to parks or other public spaces.

By the 1850s, Austinites built more sophisticated structures. Bastrop pine provided much of the early milled lumber, and quarries very near town supplied the limestone as well as lime for the connective mortar.

One particular quarry near Albata Avenue and Arbath Street in the Allandale neighborhood furnished limestone for the 1853 State Capitol that burned in 1881.

Limestone from Oatmanville — later called Oak Hill — was used for the foundation and basement of the current Capitol, built in 1883. Convicts furnished much of the quarry’s dangerous labor, hence the name for Convict Hill near the “Y” on U.S. 290 and Texas 71.

Austin white limestone — along with other color variations — can be finished rough, called “rusticated,” or sawed, or smooth and finely dressed, dubbed “ashlar.” Master craftsman Robert Stanley used multiple such methods for the Stanley House on Newtown Street in what was an African-American freetown called Brackenridge or sometimes Southside.

Lime was big business in Central Texas. William Walsh started a booming lime business at the base of Mount Bonnell in the 1860s. Cedar (juniper) was chopped on both sides of the river to cook the limestone in kilns located in what is now Tarrytown. One of those kilns survives in Reed Park.

Walsh moved his lime business to Round Rock in 1872.

A.F. Walker started Austin White Lime in 1888 near McNeil (sometimes spelled McNeal in documents at the Austin History Center), where a company store survived well into the 20th century. It’s still a family-owned business.

Founded in the late 1920s near Manor, Texas Quarries, like Austin White Lime, shipped out tens of thousands of tons of limestone by railroad each year.

An undated but very old newspaper ad for Austin White Lime promotes its core products: “Portland and Rosendale Cements, plaster, hair, sewer pipe, fire brick, etc.”

Abandoned limestone quarries caused quite a stir in the 1970s and ’80s when they were considered a danger to unsuspecting swimmers and divers. They have since been fenced off.

Austin supported many lumberyards, but the largest was Calcasieu, started in 1883 by the Drake brothers and later named after the superior lumber harvested in Calcasieu Parish, La.

“Better homes are built with better lumber,” reads an 1884 newspaper ad. “And that doesn’t mean high priced lumber either. Dealers in lumber, sash, doors, blinds, laths, piclets and all builders’ material.”

Early photos show a small lumberyard with a pitched roof and a hitching post for horses. Later, Calcasieu expanded over two blocks with a three-story building supplies store and two-story mill clustered around the intersection of Lavaca and East Second streets, where the sleek Second Street District now rises.

In the 1920s, it became a one-stop shopping center for home building. In 1949, a fire set by a teenage arsonist who had escaped from the State School for Boys in Gatesville caused up to $500,000 damage.

Under the name Mutual Lumber Co., Calcasieu opened numerous branches. It moved to southeast Austin in 1983 and was purchased by Carolina Holdings in 2000.

Brick arrived relatively late to the Austin building game. Irish immigrant Michael Butler opened his first Austin brickyard in 1873 on the north shores of the Colorado River at the dead end of East Avenue (so west of the Interstate 35 bridge over Lady Bird Lake).

The same year, he founded the Butler Brick Company five miles east of Elgin, starting the company town that bears his name. The company, anchored in Butler by 1903, assumed its more familiar name, Elgin-Butler Brick Company, now known as Elgin Butler. Headquartered in Elgin, it supplies architectural products for worldwide use.

After an 1875 flood, Butler moved his Austin operations to the south shore, digging up clay from South First Street to Barton Creek. The floodplains provided just the right material for “Austin commons,” a soft, buff-colored brick that one can find all over the central city. Bulter Park is named for this pioneer manufacturer and his family.

According to a 1990 American-Statesman article, 2 million Butler bricks were used in the State Capitol and can be found in 80 percent of the brick structures at the University of Texas.

In 1903, Andrew Zilker, the multi-talented businessman, planted a competing brick works — with their wooden frames, extrusion machines and high-heat kilns — on the bluff above what is now Austin High School. His clay was delivered from what later became the great lawns at Zilker Park in mule-drawn buckets strung along cables across the river.

“Workers frequently rode the buckets in those days,” said Mike Butler, grandson of the founder, in a 1986 interview. “There were just no bridges across the river at the time. Only the railroad bridge and the Congress Avenue Bridge. So one day, as I was riding back across to the north bank, one of the cables broke while I was in the bucket. I didn’t fall all the way to the ground, but there was enough slack in the cable so I sagged halfway down. They ran out ropes so I could climb down.”

The Butler family bought out Zilker around 1912 and continued to use his north shore plant. A wartime price freeze in 1942 persuaded the family to close the Austin brickyards, which were demolished in 1958.

Newcomers continue to fall in love with those gorgeous, old, buff-colored bricks.

“If there are any old buildings standing built from around 1870 to 1900,” Mike Butler said in 1984, “there could be a good chance of their having some Butler Brick.”

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