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Preservation Austin spring tour is not about homes this time

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
The current Travis County Probate Courthouse downtown was once the Austin United States Courthouse, finished in 1936 in an art moderne style with art deco finishes. One can see the interiors during Preservation Austin's "Out of the House" Spring Tour on April 30.

Not only will the popular Preservation Austin spring tour take place in person on April 30, it will swerve from the custom of leading guests around domestic settings. 

Sure, everybody wants to see how their neighbors live — or lived — while picking up home design and décor tips along the way. 

This year, however, the venerable Austin nonprofit, which strives to preserve the best of the city's built environment, presents "Out of the House," a tour of non-domestic settings. 

Some, like the John and Drucie Chase Building in East Austin, designed by the University of Texas' first Black architect, have been renovated only recently. Others, such as the old art-deco federal courthouse, are not open to the public without business inside because of security concerns.

You might have been to a magical compound that formerly housed Big Red Sun, a landscaping firm, but like me, you probably didn't know it was the childhood home of Richard Moya, the first Mexican American elected as county commissioner. This wonderland now serves as a residence, office and intimate events space.

Many older Austinites attended the Baker School in Hyde Park, but most haven't returned since it has been renovated by its current owner, Tim and Karrie League of  Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. It includes offices and public spaces, including the Rosette, a recently opened arts venue.

If you are very lucky, you've been inside the crenelated 1870s Texas Military Institute main building on Castle Hill. Yet you might have missed the nearby, renovated Castle Court Offices, once the kitchen and mess hall for the school. 

A lot of history resides within the sacred walls of beautifully crafted Wesley United Methodist Church in East Austin. Many of the city's most prominent African American families have been counted among its members. 

The murals around the decommissioned Holly Street Power Plant — which should never have been built in a residential district in the first place — are familiar to neighbors and to those who follow the Butler Hike and Bike Trail around Lady Bird Lake, which detours around its walls.

Take time to savor the recently brightened creations made for the neighborhood's Mexican American community.

For tickets to the tour ($30-$40), go to preservationaustin.org/homes-tour. Proof of vaccination is required for the event, which is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 30 and starts at the "home base" of Baker School in Hyde Park.

The following images and descriptions of the eight stops were provided by Preservation Austin. They have been lightly edited.

Travis County Probate Courthouse (1936)

Downtown Austin’s old federal courthouse is one of the city’s finest examples of the WPA Moderne Style. Newly rehabilitated as the Travis County Probate Courthouse, the building features a rich palette of marble, bronze and wood paneling that shine throughout its interior spaces. A grand spiral staircase leads visitors to the courthouse’s crown jewel, the historic Main Courtroom, which boasts breathtakingly high ceilings and meticulously restored Art Deco finishes befitting of this beacon of civic pride.

The John And Drucie Chase Building was designed in 1952 by John Chase, the first Black architect to graduate from the University of Texas.

John & Drucie Chase Building (1952)

This mid-century modern building has served as a pillar in East Austin’s Black community since it was designed in 1952 by architect John S. Chase. Formerly the home of the statewide association of African American teachers, and later the House of Elegance Beauty Salon, the building was restored by the University of Texas in 2021 as the new home for the Center for Community Engagement.

John Chase's groundbreaking career began at UT; it  was renamed in honor of Chase and his wife. Tour attendees will be among the first to experience the newly reopened space, featuring interactive displays on the history of the building and oral histories from longtime residents of the Robertson Hill neighborhood. 

Weiss Architecture combines adaptive reuse and historic preservation in the 1911 Baker School.

Baker School (1911)

This 1911 school building, located in the heart of the Hyde Park Historic District, was purchased in 2017 by Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas and rehabilitated as the headquarters for this iconic Austin brand. Entering the building, visitors are transported by the space’s elementary school features, complete with lockers, chalkboards and a cafetorium. Former classrooms now house the offices of creative firms, showcasing the incredible adaptability of historic spaces for contemporary use. 

The home of political trailblazer Richard Moya also once served as the offices of Big Red Sun, a landscaping firm. The house and its gorgeous gardens designed in "structured informality" are available for events.

Moya House (circa 1930s)

Located on East Cesar Chavez, this 1930s Craftsman-style bungalow was the longtime home of trailblazing Chicano activist, Richard Moya. Moya was the first Mexican American to be elected to public office in Austin and Travis County in 1970. From the 1970s into the 1990s, he transformed his home into a hub of political action and organizing. The residence was later home to the landscape design firm, Big Red Sun, and today serves as an event space with lushly designed grounds and gardens.

The Wesley United Methodist Church has counted many of Austin most prominent families among its members. It moved from a building downtown to this well-crafted structure in 1929.

Wesley United Methodist Church (1929)

One of the oldest congregations in Austin, Wesley United Methodist Church was founded in 1865 for a growing community of freedmen in Austin. The 1929 Gothic Revival-style church of today is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, featuring high ceilings articulated by exposed beams and intricate buttressing, with soft light pouring in from the stained glass windows throughout.

The Castle Court Offices are part of the old Texas Military Institute complex on Castle Hill in Old West Austin.

Castle Court Offices (1873)

Formerly a part of the Texas Military Institute campus, this circa 1873 rubble limestone building was constructed as the site’s kitchen and mess hall. Following a meticulous restoration by its current owner, the building now serves as private office space, featuring richly designed interiors and original wood floors, windows and doors. Nestled in the Castle Hill Historic District, this rare gem of Austin history offers sweeping views of the downtown skyline that are not to be missed. 

The Holly Street Murals for La Raza by Robert Herrera and Oscar Cortez are part of what enlivens the walls around the decommissioned Holly Power Plant.

Holly Street Murals

This collection of public art has deep ties to Austin’s Mexican American community. On the sound wall around the decommissioned Holly Street Power Plant local artists painted the murals to reclaim the site’s identity for the neighbors, which fought for decades to close the noxious plant.

Artist Felipe Garza gathered several artists in the community, including Robert Herrera, Oscar Cortez and Fidencio Duran, to create murals on the walls to celebrate local heritage and make the industrial site more bearable.

Today, many of the original murals remain and efforts are underway to preserve them. The ongoing restoration of these culturally significant murals represents the resiliency of the community and the preservation of el barrio.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.