Even a ribbed, boxy concrete structure located in a suburban shopping center can excite the memories of Austin Found readers.
On Sept. 9, we published speculations about a large building in the Lone Star Center at Burnet Road and U.S. 183 (Research Boulevard). It now houses a Furniture Row outlet. A reader wanted to know whether, because of its shape and formal entrances, it might have been a multiscreen movie theater when it opened, in the late 1970s.
So far, nothing indicates a direct connection with Hollywood glamour.
Archival newspaper reports and display ads confirm that, in fact, it opened in 1979 as a Levitz Furniture store, part of a nationwide chain that sold its wares partly through room displays and partly through steeply stacked easy chairs, overstuffed sofas and modern dinette sets in an open, attached warehouse. The easier to send the customer home with desired objects sooner rather than later. The store closed in 1999.
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“They had a unique, for the time, merchandising scheme,” reader Julie Albrecht recalls of the spot at 9012 Research Blvd. “At many (other) stores, you would choose a sofa and a fabric and wait a few months for the special-order sofa to arrive at your home. Levitz carried a huge inventory of ready-made sofas in all sorts of colors and patterns. They stacked them up on steel shelves, and a forklift would go and get the one you wanted. Hence, the extra-tall building.”
Albrecht never made a purchase at Levitz but recalls visiting the store.
“It was amazing to see how tall the stacks of sofas were,” she says. “My problem with them was that they were all sort of ‘generic’ — in whatever colors or fabrics that were in style or popular at the time. There wasn’t a lot of variety in colors. I think perhaps they had sofas, loveseats and possibly chairs, too, all matching.”
If you have a hard time visualizing this shopping experience, we’re sharing a display ad that was published in the American-Statesman on Jan. 26, 1980. It shows not only the exterior of the crisply delineated building as it looked when it opened but also, crucially, the vast warehouse area, which looks not unlike parts of a present-day Costco or Sam’s Club.
Reader Mary Dickens Jackson, who purchased a dresser at Levitz, remembers that the showroom/warehouse was purpose-built for the furniture chain.
“It was in the clearance area,” she says of her dresser. “It was a big deal that Levitz came to Austin back then.”
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Happily, Jackson also remembers a movie theater in the area. Not a multiplex, however, but rather the Longhorn Drive-In at 8900 Research Blvd. That would put the outdoor theater just east of the later Levitz site.
According to the Cinema Treasures website, the Longhorn opened on Oct. 2, 1953, with Randolph Scott in “The Man Behind the Gun.” Lin Harrington operated the theater. For a while, it was owned by Gulf States Theatres Inc. It closed in December 1973.
“You drove north on Burnet Road and took a right onto Research and it was just east of Burnet Road on the right side,” she recalls of the theater. “I remember going there to see ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in 1968. Before that, at 8711 Burnet Road, was Green Acres Golf and Driving Range. It was on the east side of Burnet Road. It was one of the coolest places to go play miniature golf and had an amusement area.”
That Green Acres address places it just to the south of the later Levitz site. At this point we should note that the driving range and drive-in each required a considerable amount of land, so either could have included the footprint of the Levitz store.
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Numerous fans of Facebook pages about Austin nostalgia also shared their guesses as to what happened at — or near — the site before and after the Levitz years (1979-1999).
Brush Freeman thinks there might have been a feed store there before the 1970s, which would have made sense, since much of the land north of Research Boulevard was undeveloped.
Nancy Scaggs offers a tantalizing hint about life in the ribbed building after Levitz and before Furniture Row.
“Didn’t it turn into a flea market-type place with antiques?” she writes. “They had car shows there in the late ’90s.”
For his part, reader Ted Stanfield concentrated on a concept eatery in the same center.
“There used to be that restaurant there with the giant grill in the middle,” he writes. “You Grill? U.R. Cooks? It was there forever.”
It was indeed located close by: U.R. Cooks, which opened in 1984, stood at 8833 Research Blvd., where the Olive Garden operates now.
One last note on that eatery:
“When you work with a gimmick, the gimmick better work,” wrote reviewer Susan Brownlee in the Onward section of this newspaper for Dec. 18, 1984. “It does that at the new steak house U.R. Cooks. The restaurant at Research Boulevard in the Emporium features ‘the finest cook in the world’ at the grill — you. Though full service and a grill cook are available, customers are encouraged to select, season and prepare their own dinners.”
Personally, your columnist prefers to cook at home but expects experts to prepare his meals when he goes out.