The news, reported on June 10, that 80-year-old Hut’s Hamburgers would close its doors on West Sixth Street later this year raised howls of despair from the many fans of its juicy burgers and old-fashioned atmosphere.
Stories about the hamburger joint, which started in 1939 in South Austin, also evoked sharp memories for residents who remember other lost businesses in the West Sixth area.
One person in particular, former newspaperman Glen Castlebury, a periodic source for this column, generously shared recollections from a time when Austin seemed suspended within the frame of a black-and-white movie from the 1930s or ‘40s.
Castlebury worked in various Statesman newsroom roles from 1958 to 1972, then served as longtime aide to Texas politician Bob Bullock, with whom he shares the felicitous gift for telling well-garnished tales.
“My earliest recollection of Hut's Hamburgers is from the late '50s,” Castlebury tells us. “Hut's was a shack at the northeast corner of West Sixth Street and Wood Street.”
Located just north and west of the eatery’s current location at West Sixth Street and West Avenue — and only a block long — Wood Street was once the center of a historic African American freedom colony that suffered from frequent flooding along Shoal Creek. Almost invisible to most passers-by today, Wood Street now forms the eastern boundary of the main GSD&M building.
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“The hamburger joint was run by brothers Walter and Homer ‘Hut’ Hutson and their wives,” Castlebury says. “Walter was a card. In looks and demeanor, he very much resembled Red Skelton's comic character, Freddie the Freeloader.”
Castlebury insists that the Wood Street edition of Hut’s was just a small wooden shack.
“I'd call it a shanty, but that might confuse it with another shack diner run by Tommy Haffelder, appropriately named the Shanty on what is now Cesar Chavez Street,” Castlebury says. “It was in the postage stamp-size front parking at Iron Works Barbecue. Back then, the Iron Works building was still F. Weigl's blacksmith shop. Haffelder's Shanty was a burger joint, too, but also ‘famous’ for its out-of-place Hungarian goulash.”
The menu at Hut’s was simple, “burgers and beer, plus the obligatory fries and cokes.”
“Not so much a real kitchen, but more a hot plate-size grill on the back wall,” Castlebury says. “They sometimes had car-hop service, but that wasn't to be taken for granted on a daily basis.”
Castlebury recalls that the current Hut's building was operated during the 1950s by Ben Garza and his son, Eli, as a bar known as Eli's Lounge. That art deco-inspired building, according to some sources, goes back to 1939 as Sammie’s Drive-In, named for Sammie Joseph of the entrepreneurial Lebanese-Texan family, and a dining room was added in 1947. The Joseph family still owns the land.
It was, however, Eli’s Lounge when Castlebury hung out there.
“The front room of Eli's Lounge had a bar, a nice bar, but not much else,” Castlebury says, “but ‘the other room’ was a dark cave with booths surrounding a small dance floor. The only light came from the old Wurlitzer jukebox. You had to feel your way around the room until your eyes became accustomed to the dark. ...”
Castlebury’s next anecdote calls up images from old movies such as “Front Page” and “His Girl Friday,” a world of hard-bitten newspaper types who played as hard as they worked.
“The bar didn't open until midafternoon, but a bevy of desk editors at the American-Statesman's then ‘new building’ at West Fourth and Guadalupe streets carried keys to the place for morning and noontime use on their own,” Castlebury says. “(They’d) pop some cold ones and leave their money in a cigar box at the bar. Mr. Ben Garza laughed many times that he ‘came out better’ with the news guys' cigar box than he did with night waitresses and the cash register.”
Castlebury believes that Al Jennings, advertising director of the American-Statesman, bought the bar sometime after Ben Garza died in the 1960s.
The Hutsons leased the place in 1969. According to a 2008 Austin Chronicle story, the Picante Mexican Restaurant also slipped in between Eli’s and Hut’s. Mike “Hutch” Hutchinson and Chuck Gist took over Hut’s after several changes of ownership in 1981.
For his part, Eli Garza went on to manage the Alamo Lounge at the Alamo Hotel, a slowly fading establishment at the northwest corner of West Sixth and Guadalupe streets.
“The Alamo Hotel long had a lobby-level drug store in the Sixth-and-Guadalupe corner of the building,” Castlebury says. “Eli transformed that space into a beautiful bar — massive historic back bar, couple of booths, three round tables, lots of interesting paintings on the walls, leaded glass doors, windows up front, and a stand-up bar, no stools, as was the modus operandi in many beer joints back then. Beer only — we didn't have liquor by the drink back then. Eli's Alamo stayed there until the hotel closed and the property was redeveloped.”
Opened in 1925, the Alamo Hotel slowly declined from respectability to seediness during its storied six-decade existence on the western side of downtown. It was home to many characters, none more famous than Sam Houston Johnson, the hard-living brother of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Despite protests, it was demolished in 1984, after which a street minister named Tony Hearn laid a curse on the property where he had wanted to plant a homeless mission.
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