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Symphony Square sprang from urban renewal

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

Think back, if you are old enough, to the 1970s. Inner cities were crumbling or abandoned altogether. Associated with crime, blight and racial tensions, they were not the ideal place for the city's oldest performing arts group.

Try telling that to Jane Dunn Sibley. The indomitable leader of the symphony's board for decades, Sibley spearheaded the drive to turn four old stone structures into a city park and a home for the Austin Symphony Orchestra.

She and her cultural cavalry teamed with the City of Austin and the Austin Urban Renewal Agency to create a picturesque hamlet along Waller Creek decorated with a stone bridge and tiny waterside stage.

Symphony Square, begun in 1971 and bearing Sibley's name in some references, is a bit hidden from view, unless you are a pedestrian or you're exploring the lonely trails along the creek. The triangular Jeremiah Hamilton Building — named for the black Reconstruction-era Texas legislator who built it — houses the symphony's offices.

The Michael Doyle House serves as headquarters for the Women's Symphony League. The Hardeman House, moved from its original location, now hosts the busy Serranos eatery. The New Orleans Club Mercantile building, a former nightclub, currently doubles as Serranos' party room. The amphitheater, officially inaugurated in 1978, comes alive for the symphony's Children's Day Art Park.

It's likely that these simple but gorgeous limestone buildings would have gone the way of their brethren — bulldozed to make way for a modern downtown — were it not for Sibley and the symphony.

Symphony Square