This old Austin house
Mary Cochran Bohls grew up in what is now the Neill-Cochran House Museum
When she was a child, did Mary Cochran Bohls, 92, slide down the polished banister of the Neill-Cochran House, now an Austin museum, while growing up in the handsome 1856 home?
Bohls: “Oh, yes.”
Reporter (joking): “Could you show us how?”
Before anyone can stop her, this no-nonsense nonagenarian marches up the formal stairs, throws one leg over the banister and proceeds to slide backward all the way down toward this slightly panicked reporter, along with an equally startled videographer and museum director.
Museum director Rowena Dasch shouts, too late, “The Colonial Dames asked you not to do that!”
A girl called Mary
Anyone who has spent time with Mary Cochran Bohls should know better than to dare her to defy conventions. She’s a firecracker.
While giving a tour of the West Campus-area house constructed by Austin master builder Abner Cook — since 1958, it has been preserved and operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Texas — she indulged in bountiful memories, some happily sacred, others only slightly profane.
For instance, despite the disapproval of the trained historians on staff, Bohls states with more than a twinkle in her eye that her branch of the Colonial Dames, made up of descendants of pre-Revolutionary Americans, broke away from another club with a similar name “because they recognized some of Ben Franklin’s illegitimate children, and we didn’t.”
After all, it does make a good story.
Mary Cochran Bohls was born Nov. 11, 1926, at St. David’s Hospital, then located at West 17th and Rio Grande streets. Her father, James Henry Cochran, was born in the southeast bedroom of the 1855 home that is now known as the Neill-Cochran House at 2310 San Gabriel St. Her mother, Mary Mathilde Akin Cochran, was born in Graham. Mary’s parents had four children, in order from eldest to youngest: Margaret, Mary, Jane and James Jr.
Mary attended Wooldridge Elementary, which formerly rose on Nueces Street just north of West 24th Street, just blocks from her home, then University Junior High. That building still stands near Royal-Memorial Stadium as home to the University of Texas Hicks School of Social Work.
After various adventures as a young adult, including some time in New York, Mary graduated from the business school at the University of Texas in 1971. She spent a fruitful career as a certified public accountant. Given her business background, she also served as national treasurer for the Colonial Dames.
During the early 1950s, she dated Everett Bohls, whose Austin family traces its local origins back to the Bohls clan in Bee Cave (American-Statesman sports writer Kirk Bohls descends from the Pflugerville branch of the Bohls family).
“We dated for four years,” Mary says of Everett. “It started out with a blind date. He was studying for his CPA. We’d go to Dessau Hall, which had the best dance floor in the country. In 1952, I went up to New York. In October 1954, Everett came up and got me. There wasn’t a Yankee who could compare with him.”
Everett went on to pursue an extremely successful career as a businessman and developer who once owned the much-loved Tavern restaurant and bar on North Lamar Boulevard. The couple raised three children — Rex, Jane and James — on Edgemont Drive in the Balcones area when it was the edge of town. After Everett died in 2009, his family donated money in his name for wildflower seeds to be planted along MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) as part of this newspaper’s Lady Bird’s Legacy program.
This old house
Depending on how you count them, the Greek Revival house built on 17 acres northwest of town above Shoal Creek canyon by the Hill family, who never occupied it, is the ninth or 10th oldest residence still standing in Austin. Its closest rival is what historians call the Dependency, a stone building behind the main house that likely housed the slaves who built it.
“We believe the Dependency to be the older of the two,” Dasch says. “That is speculative, but it makes sense because the site was so far out of town. It would have been easier to leave the crew on-site to work on the property, rather than commute back and forth from town or elsewhere. We hope to know more in the coming months — we are about to work with UT faculty and students on a major research project related to the Dependency, but at this stage we are working off of logic.”
In 1856, the big, empty house was leased to the Texas Institute for the Blind, and later to Lt. Gov. Fletcher Stockdale and possibly Provisional Gov. Andrew J. Hamilton. After the Civil War, it was converted into a hospital. In 1876, the house was sold to Col. Andrew Neill, a Confederate veteran. His widow leased it to Judge Thomas Beauford Cochran, Mary’s grandfather, who later purchased it outright and raised a family there with his formidable wife, Elizabeth “Bessie” Henley Rose Cochran.
“The judge was born in Liberty Hill,” Mary says. “He studied law in Georgetown, then was briefly a judge in Georgetown and Austin. He served on the commission that electrified the city of Austin and on the founding board of the Austin Country Club. He rose to Grandmaster Mason for Texas."
Dasch adds, "The second one to live in this house.”
Mary’s father, James Sr., was the youngest of five surviving Cochrans born at the house.
“Sister Annie and Sister Jennie died in the 1880s of the terrible summer flu when they were about 2 and 4 years old,” Mary says. “In the big family Bible upstairs, Grandmother Cochran wrote of the sadness. After that, two more girls appeared. So when the fifth one came along, her name got to be Frankie, poor thing, named after Judge Cochran’s brother Frank.”
Multiple generations of the extended family bedded in six of the rooms. Frankie Cochran Hill sold the house to the Colonial Dames in 1958.
“If you look down 23rd Street, you will see what is left of Grandfather Cochran’s planting of trees down on either side of the street,” she says. “They were quite lovely — and still are, what’s left of them."
Mary’s memories of her childhood in the big house sound dreamlike — a swing hung on the big tree out front, the children invented a game to name the front columns, and they played jacks on the sidewalk, badminton and croquet in the side yard, baseball out back. The kids regularly climbed in and out of the tall windows that Cook had installed in the house, and they toyed with the remains of an old coal-fired furnace in the basement.
“Some of the baseball players were the Adams children who lived just south of the house across the street on the corner,” Mary says. “This is where Adams Extract was first made.”
The Austin-born company later moved to a modernist building with a memorable sign south of town, then relocated to Gonzales, 65 miles southeast of Austin.
In the summer, it was swimming time.
“My sister Margaret, cousin Martha and I would sit in our bathing suits on the front steps and wait until the shadow of the tree by the sidewalk reached a certain point,” Mary recalls. “Then we would jump up and Aunt Frankie would take us swimming at Deep Eddy. That tree, incidentally, is the same tree today, only it’s had time to grow for 85 years.”
Also in the summer, all the front-room furniture was fitted with white linen covers.
“The rugs were removed, and a bamboo-type rug replaced the wool,” Mary says. “It made things much cooler. The only air conditioning we had was provided by an Emerson floor fan.”
At Christmas, a tree always stood in the northeast corner of the living room.
“My father, dressed as Santa, would stick his head around the window where the melodeon (a 19th-century key instrument) is now, much to the delight of everybody,” Mary remembers. “An upright piano was in the upstairs hall, and we sang and sang. There is a songbook around here that is so used it can hardly stay together. The melodeon now in the living room — or front parlor, if you so desire — was a gift to the Dames.”
Mary’s Aunt Bessie — "Young Bessie" — lived in the upstairs northeast bedroom.
“She put a towel underneath her door so papa couldn’t see that she was still awake studying,” Mary says. “Now, he was fairly modern in that all the girls graduated UT. But apparently he was not into this graduate stuff. Anyway, it is said that she was the first female with a master's degree from UT. Her grandson — I think that makes us second cousins — told me that.” (We were unable to confirm Bessie’s pioneering status with UT officials.)
Around 1900, Mary's grandfather added the two-story addition to the back of the house.
“This included a bathroom downstairs and one upstairs, reputedly the first upstairs bathroom in the city of Austin,” Mary says. “I remember the claw feet on the bathtub and the pull chain on ‘the necessary.’ This came after the posh four-seater (outhouse) in the back yard.”
Marriages and funerals took place at home.
“Aunt Bessie, Aunt Frankie, my sister Margaret, my sister Jane, my daughter Jane all came down on white satin-covered steps to be married in the front room,” Mary says. “Most recently, Margaret’s son George and his beautiful bride were married on a glorious afternoon where the ceremony took place on the front porch with attendees on chairs in the front yard. Happy memories.”
For historical purists, the evolution of the historical décor since 1958 is instructive. The Cochran furniture at first went away, but Mary saved a lot of it, and it returned to fill two of the upper bedrooms. Originally, the Dames insisted on museum-white walls, but bits of the wallpaper that Mary remembered were rediscovered. Various elements at the museum have been considered “historic” or not, depending on trends in the field.
“The Colonial Dames and other gracious donors have done a splendid job of preserving the house — and keep doing a splendid job — for which I am grateful,” Mary says. “It is an honor to have lived here. I have been asked if I realized the historicity of the house while growing up. No, it was just home.”
IF YOU GO
Neill-Cochran House Museum
When: 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Where: 2310 San Gabriel St.
Cost: Up to $5