You’ve undoubtedly noticed the corner entry. The wooden pennant awning. The mural of boxers and the oversize red-and-black typeface.
The building at 1200 E. Sixth St. that long housed iterations of the Sport Bar and later Uptown Sports Club is one of the most iconic and recognizable abandoned buildings in Austin, with a history that dates back to the late 1800s. It has sat dormant for decades, but that will soon change.
A hospitality super team that includes Aaron Franklin; his Hot Luck co-founder, James Moody, who’s also co-owner of the Mohawk; architects Michael Hsu and Ken Johnson of Hsu Office of Architecture; and Tenaya Hills, vice president of design and development at Bunkhouse Group, intends to restore the historic building to create the new Uptown Sports Club, an all-day bar and restaurant.
The group coalesced around Fort Worth-based lawyer Jason Jones, who, along with his wife and another couple, purchased the building in 2016 from the family of the late owner, Ron Hernandez. Jones had worked with Hernandez and his mother, Connie, for half a decade in an effort to extricate the property from family legal entanglements that escalated to the Texas Supreme Court.
The bond extended beyond a professional relationship, as the two men formed a close friendship, attending sporting events together and socializing over beers. Before Hernandez’s untimely death in a motorcycle accident in 2014, Jones had signed a lease with Hernandez to create a bar and grill in the space, with the agreement that Jones would be allowed to hand-pick the team to bring the family bar back to life.
"He wanted to restore his family name and his dad’s building that he grew up in," said Jones, who gave the eulogy at Hernandez’s funeral. "He was a charismatic and engaging guy, very personable and very proud of his parents."
Hernandez was also a very loyal man, according to Jones. And it was a sense of loyalty to Hernandez’s dream for the revitalization of Uptown Sports Club and his own desire to preserve the family’s and building’s legacies that drove Jones to follow through on their agreement and preserve the faded East Austin gem.
"It would have killed me to see the building torn down," Jones said. "Ronnie trusted me with his building, to do something great for the neighborhood and to restore the building to its former glory, to honor his mom and dad. I saw a guy who just wanted his dad’s place open again. I promised myself that I’d make it happen the way Ronnie would’ve wanted it."
Although only Moody, who served with Jones as a pallbearer at Hernandez’s funeral, also personally knew Hernandez, Jones’ sense of mission seems to have informed everyone on the team. They all speak individually and collectively about the personal nature of what they see as a project of preservation and community building centered on an increasingly rare type of historic building.
"You have a responsibility to do your version of the right thing," Moody said of the group’s rare opportunity to create something special in a building that dates back to the 19th century, most recently serving as a bar and grill and de facto community meeting place for decades.
Jones, who knew Moody from his role at the Mohawk, wanted to honor his commitment to Hernandez to create a bar and grill, but the partners weren’t sure at first exactly what that would look like.
Unbeknownst to each other, both Franklin, who’s lived and worked in East Austin for the better part of the last two decades, and Moody, who owns a design and branding agency just a couple of blocks from Uptown, had been circling the building for years. Moody looked at the unattainable space as a location for his bar/music venue the Mohawk. Franklin had once envisioned it as the original brick-and-mortar home of Franklin Barbecue.
"I’ve drooled over that place for years," Franklin said on a recent rainy afternoon at the White Horse on Comal Street. "Austin has very few really cool buildings left that are that old."
Moody and Franklin would riff on ideas during their hours of working together on various projects, including their Hot Luck food and music festival. They’d bat around half-baked concepts and pipe dreams, with various old buildings discussed as potential homes. The two compare the process to guys hanging out and jamming together with no solid intention of writing a song or starting a band. And then something clicked around Uptown. Franklin initially offered some informal ideas to Moody about what a food program might look like at the restaurant and bar, and the next thing they knew, the James Beard Award winner and world-famous barbecue cook was offering to come on board as a partner.
"Let the wind guide you a little bit. You can’t force anything, but if something’s really calling you and you feel like you can really do it well or just do something good for the community. … I don’t like to push my projects, I like to be pulled in directions," Franklin said.
The touchstone of the project was always the 19th-century building.
"We kind of let the building tell us what to do with it, because it’s such a cool building and has so much history to it," Franklin said.
"We would never be doing this in a white box together," Moody added. "The building is everything."
The building, which at one point housed a German butcher shop and bakery before becoming a neighborhood bar, spoke to them with an unmistakable and languid New Orleans accent. It inspired them to envision a laid-back neighborhood haunt where people could come in the morning for a biscuit and a coffee, pop in for a sandwich at lunch and linger late into the night listening to music and sipping beers and cocktails in the back courtyard.
Uptown Sports Club will take its architectural cues from the original space, along with inspiration from New Orleans, France and South America. The culinary vibes will come from the Crescent City and the German influences of Central Texas.
Franklin, whose maternal grandfather was from Louisiana, grew up eating Cajun-inspired food and has been interested in the food of New Orleans since before he started cooking barbecue. That curiosity inspired countless hours of perfecting a gumbo recipe and later tinkering with dishes like boudin.
"I think of gumbo as like my liquid brisket, those hours and hours that it takes to develop stocks and the time it takes to make a super dark roux," Franklin said. "It’s super meticulous, all the details that go into that stuff. I can super nerd out on that stuff for sure."
Though the small menu is still a work in progress, Franklin says diners can expect a fried shrimp po’boy, roast beef debris po’boy and a seasonal option. The sandwiches will be served on rolls from Leidenheimer Baking Company of New Orleans.
Franklin, who compares the Uptown restoration project to his DIY interests in restoring old houses and trucks and building his barbecue business by hand, will build Uptown’s espresso machine and grill, and will even work on the amps for the sound system that will play an integral role in setting the vibe for the restaurant and bar.
Another key factor in creating some New Orleans vibes will be a "warm and cozy beverage program, familiar but with a few delightful surprises around every corner," according to Uptown beverage director and co-owner of craft cocktail bar Half Step, Chris Bostick. But the owners have grander ambitions than just being another addition to the Austin dining or bar scene.
"It has to be better than just a deal or a business or a product. I hope it’s a legacy play," Moody said. "We’re identifying more with Cisco’s than we are with any new modern thing that’s being introduced into the restaurant or bar scene."
The team turned to the renowned Hsu, along with his associate Johnson and Bunkhouse’s Hills, who has helped design some of Austin’s coolest boutique hotels, to help them rehabilitate the iconic building, restore it to its former glory and, in the words of Johnson, "not mess up something somebody got right a long time ago."
"We love when we can take something Austinites are familiar with and reintroduce it to the city," said Hsu, whose office transformed the old Mansion at Judge’s Hill into the Hotel Ella. "Our motto is that we believe that design is for everybody. So few opportunities like this rarely exist in Austin. This is what I call a true Old Austin project. When the team that bought the property came to us, we knew we had to be a part of it. We would have done anything to make sure we joined in on this effort."
Hills, Hsu and Johnson say they will do everything they can to keep the original architectural details, including doors, windows and brick walls, while preserving the building’s old murals, recreating some elements and adding design touches like furniture and tile that complement the space and its history.
Walk into the Uptown today and you’ll just find brick walls and a dirt floor, but the history truly speaks to you. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get, but Hills acknowledges that the team’s goal is to leave it alone as much as they can.
"The feeling that you get when you walk into the building? How do you maintain that?" Hills said. "Because once you program in a restaurant and a bar and all the seating, it can feel completely like that brick box never existed, so we’re trying to keep that as much as we can. Honestly, I’m not gonna lie, it’s kinda scary. I want to do what’s right for the building and do a good job. And I think we are gonna do a good job because we have a great team."
The partners, who are eyeing a spring 2021 opening, expect to receive substantial federal and state tax incentives to assist them in preserving the historically significant building. The city of Austin also awarded them a Heritage Grant for about $200,000.
"It’s a validation of when we looked at the building and thought there was something special here," Uptown Sports Club chief financial officer Eric de Valpine said.
"It’s ‘Save the Clock Tower,’" Franklin said, referencing the preservation project from the plot of "Back to the Future." "It’s everybody’s passion project. Everybody’s really pouring their heart and soul into this thing because it’s really cool."