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Downtown Austin castle shelters prestigious past

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Chateau Bellevue, Victorian mansion in downtown Austin that belongs to the Austin Woman's Club, boasts intricate details such as the banister's woodwork, but club representatives say the facility needs substantial rehabilitation.

It looms ominously over its neighbors. Try to enter the castle through a stone portico on San Antonio Street the logical entrance and a sign directs the visitor elsewhere. A side door on West Eighth Street is no more helpful. The determined supplicant following this path must skirt heavy walls along Nueces Street, cross a lonely parking lot and seek entry at the base of towering buttresses.

No wonder so few Austinites have cracked the mystery of the castle on the cliff.

This Victorian mansion, known as Chateau Bellevue, is home to the Austin Woman's Club, a low-profile group formed by top female leaders — including Gov. Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson — in the 1920s. The imposing structure now hosts meetings of the surviving club and other Austin civic and social groups, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Outsiders may rent it for weddings or other celebrations. Others can tour the handsome, incompletely decorated interiors as part of guided tours of the Bremond Block, an intact cluster of 19th-century houses located across San Antonio Street.

Despite those social prospects, your columnist had penetrated the castle's Romanesque Victorian walls only once before this spring.

The air of mystery might lift, however, during the next few years. The Austin Woman's Club is considering multiple strategies that could make Chateau Bellevue more accessible and remove it from the list of Texas' Most Endangered Places, where it landed in 2010.

"Things have evolved in the past 10 years," says Mary Padgett, head of the club's long-range planning team. "We are really trying to join the 21st century."

Other castlelike structures dot the Hyde Park, Old West Austin, Pemberton Heights and Bouldin Creek neighborhoods. Yet this building, also known as the North-Evans Chateau after the families who owned it, is the only one downtown, a mere stroll from frisky West Sixth Street and the Warehouse District.

It wasn't always a castle. In 1874, the North family built a two-story wooden house with a basement on the bluff above Little Shoal Creek. Nineteenth-century maps show that waterway wound from West Campus through residential districts to join Shoal Creek just above its mouth at the Colorado River. It now flows underground through a wide tunnel.

Twenty years later, English-born San Antonio architect Alfred Giles completely remodeled the house for Major Ira Hobart Evans, a Union Civil War veteran and Medal of Honor winner who co-founded Austin National Bank, directed the International Great Northern Railroad and helped establish what is now Huston-Tillotson University (a campus building is named after him). Although he arrived from the North during Reconstruction, Evans made a permanent and positive impact on Austin.

Giles — who designed mansions, courthouses and simple homes all over Texas and Mexico — covered the original wood with rusticated stone. Elaborate grillwork, fanciful tiles and glowing stained glass — recently restored by Renaissance Glass after detective work by the original artist's descendant — were added.

"The interiors of the chateau are the finest of their period in Austin," says architect John Volz, who recently reworked the Commodore Perry Mansion in the Hancock neighborhood. "Exceptional features include the elaborate decorative wood screens and stair railings, the stained glass windows and lay light (a colored glass panel underneath a skylight) over the stair, curly pine doors and distinctive mantels with marble and European tile."

In Evans' day, tiered gardens led to a pond and park where performances were given. Like so many large Victorian houses, Chateau Bellevue also comes with oddities. A working, walk-in safe attests to Evans' status as a banker. A hidden passageway leads to what once was the dining room, a clue to how Victorian families lived with servants during a transitional era of employer-employee relations.

Of course, rumors of ghosts persist. "Every good castle has to have a ghost," Padgett laughs.

Yet perhaps the most intriguing artifact is a book. It contains formal portraits of the club's founding members, who were seeking a place to meet outside of the all-male social clubs of the era. Besides Gov. Ferguson, one finds the stiff images decked with familiar Austin family names, recorded in the manner of the day. For instance, one can spot Mrs. Z.T. Scott, Miss Lila Casis, Mrs. Hugo Kuehne, Mrs. George Nalle, Mrs. Dan Moody, Mrs. Percy Pennybacker and Mrs. W.R. Long (president).

One assumes that such a startling group — then at the forefront of the women's movement — would have dominated polite society in the 1920s.

Without interruption, the club has met within these walls for more than 80 years. Along the way, the chateau also served as a dormitory for female University of Texas students. Now most activity takes places in an addition constructed at the base of the cliff in 1960. A few of the rooms were redecorated for Richard Linklater's movie "The Newton Boys," but the results might not please historical purists.

Meanwhile, a battery of docents touts the place's glories, which have recently undergone deep cleaning.

"I've always loved this building," Padgett says. "It gives me great pleasure. We are all still learning from the house. We can't put everything back completely. But we'd like to collect enough to get it more or less in working condition."

The castle is not on the verge of slipping down its steep cliff, but its condition is insecure.

"(It) suffers from deterioration and antiquated infrastructure," a 2010 report from the Preservation Texas advocacy group states. "The mortar in the limestone has deteriorated, allowing water to seep into the walls of the building, which has compromised the structural integrity in certain areas. The building's electrical system needs to be replaced and central air conditioning needs to be installed."

Despite its long history, the Austin Woman's Club doesn't have the money or clout to make the improvements right away.

"People have been generous to us," Padgett says. "But it would take millions to do this place right. It's do-able."

Among the first steps, the club formed a community advisory board. Members are trying to assemble all the club records in one place. Others are collecting fine-arts furnishings. And now that the club is classified as a nonprofit, it can apply for grants.

One funding solution, raised periodically, lies directly by the castle's western buttresses. Some in the club are unwilling to consider sensitive redevelopment of the extremely valuable half block that now is reserved for surface parking. Members worry about the loss of parking and light, or perhaps ending with an inappropriate project. Yet all these concerns could be addressed. The club could control the changes by holding the property through a ground lease.

"The grounds to the west of the chateau are certainly one of the top assets," says preservation architect Emily Little. "Its location in downtown Austin and within a historic neighborhood provides unique opportunities of all sorts for the future of the organization and the use of its building."

Along the way, the club could continue to broaden the building's appeal by returning to its original function as a central place where women and others can convene to discuss crucial cultural and social issues.

"Their literature states it was purchased to ‘secure a place for women to gather, learn and network,'" Little says. "What a great purpose that could be in Austin today."

After years of mystery, the castle could someday become an essential community hub.

"We want to do the right thing and feel that we have only one chance to get it right," Padgett says. "Our founding members were very forward-thinking women, making the decision to purchase this property in 1928 — a very difficult economic time. I wonder what their advice would be for us today."

Reach Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com and 445-3970.

SOME OTHER AUSTIN CASTLES

Formosa. Also known as the Elisabet Ney Museum and completed in 1893, this little castle sits on Waller Creek near Shipe Park smack in the middle of the Hyde Park neighborhood. Once the German sculptor's studio, it may be Austin's most effective "house museum."

Texas Military Institute. Clearly visible from parts of downtown on West 11th Street in Old West Austin, the former institute's crenelated Victorian tower was built 1870. Recently, it was renovated by architect Dick Clark. The area around it is sometimes known as Castle Hill.

Bouldin Castle. The core of this private residence on West Mary and South Third streets, informally known as the "Bouldin Castle," is a former church. A keep-like tower — and other recent additions from design/build firm Urban Nature Inc. — make this a distinctive retreat for its owner, a Canadian radio businessman.

Britannia Manor. Game-maker and cosmonaut Richard Garriott, who goes by the gaming moniker "Lord British," built this fantastical home with secret passages on rugged land above Lake Austin. Nearby is his Elizabethan-style Curtain Theater.

Pemberton Castle. Known as the Fisher-Gideon House, this 1926 castle is located at 1415 Wooldridge Drive. It evolved out of a water tower and pump house and once served as the sales office for the Pemberton Heights. It housed famous Texans as well as, reputedly, famous ghosts. It was renovated by investor Mort Topfer and his late wife, Angela, and is undergoing more redoing.

CHATEAU BELLEVUE