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Preservation tour offers story of segregation, prosperity and Austin's Black community

The Calhoun house was finished in 1960 and is part of the Rogers Washington Holy Cross Historic District in East Austin. It is included in the Preservation Austin Homes Tour on June 17.

When Pat Calhoun's parents moved into their house on Givens Avenue in East Austin in 1960, it was with the intention of expanding their footprint to be able to host more people comfortably.

The family had been living in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house south of East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Her father, T.C. Calhoun, was the principal at what was then Kealing Junior High School. Her mother, Thelma, was the supervisor of Travis County's schools for African American students. When desegregation came, she worked as a reading specialist for the Austin Independent School District. He retired. 

The Calhouns often hosted educators from around the country who were traveling to Austin for conferences. With most hotels not open to African American families, it was common practice to stay with friends or friends of friends in their homes.

T.C. Calhoun was the principal at Kealing Junior High until 1971, when it closed because of desegregation.
Thelma Calhoun was the supervisor of Travis County's schools for African Americans and then was a reading specialist for the Austin Independent School District.

"People were always coming through," Pat Calhoun says. Her father always would find a place for them, she says. 

The new brick house on Givens Avenue offered three bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a family room and a formal living room. 

Fellow Black educators and professionals were drawn to the Rogers Washington Holy Cross neighborhood from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. Residents included a chancellor of what is now Huston-Tillotson University, John Q. Taylor King; the first Black U.S. postal worker in Austin, Lee Kirk; a future Austin City Council member, Jimmy Snell; a mayor of Dallas and Barack Obama Cabinet member, Ron Kirk; and the first Black mayor pro tem, Norman Scales, who was also a Tuskegee Airman.

In the breakfast area of the Calhoun house, an original table and chairs sit beneath the original lighting fixture.

That rich history of this neighborhood — bounded by East 21st Street to the north, East Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard to the south, Chestnut Avenue to the west and Cedar Avenue to the east —  is being preserved. The Rogers Washington Holy Cross neighborhood was named a historic district in September. 

On June 17, Preservation Austin will offer a virtual tour of some of the neighborhood's original homes. The neighborhood's homes are 85% original, and many of them are still owned by the original families.

Pat Calhoun can point to houses and name the original families and tell you something about those families. 

"It was just a cohesive group of people," she says. They all knew one another, knew their extended families, many of them from before the neighborhood was built. Calhoun is a fourth-generation Austinite on her mother's side. 

When the neighborhood recently started seeing changes, including homes being torn down and replaced by ones that didn't fit with the character of the neighborhood, the neighbors, many of them the descendants of the original owners, began working on creating a historic district. 

The living room of the Calhoun house features the original brick wall and fireplace and wood ceiling.
The family room features original lighting fixtures and some original furniture as well as bookshelves built into the wall.

For Calhoun, this home always has been the site of family gatherings, even after she moved to Dallas for work. Her father lived there until he died in 1990 at age 84, and her mother continued to live in the house until she reached her 90s. Then Thelma joined her daughter in Dallas until her death in 2015 at age 103. Even while in Dallas, the Calhouns kept the home on Givens Avenue rather than sell it. Pat Calhoun returned to the house in 2016. 

In the foyer of the Calhoun house, the original lighting fixture still hangs from the ceiling.

The Calhoun home is marked by red brickwork that shows up on the exterior, as well as a planter in the foyer and the living room's accent wall. The home features wood throughout, from the vaulted ceiling in the living room to the extensive cabinetry in the kitchen. 

Everywhere, you see original touches. Many of the lighting fixtures are original, as are many of the furnishings inside the home. 

The home's L-shaped plan was originally designed around a pool that never was built. All of the rooms on two sides have doors leading out to where the pool was planned, and a grand elm tree continues to grow there. 

In the kitchen, the original tile counters and wood cabinets hide many unusual features, such as a cabinet made for large pans and an appliance garage that pulls up to bring the mixer to counter level.

Calhoun hopes this home will remain a family home, a place where people can gather. 

What her parents loved most about the house was the space. "They were not big party people," Calhoun says, "but they did always have people coming in." 

Preservation Austin's Homes Tour

When: This year's tour is virtual and features homes in the Rogers Washington Holy Cross neighborhood, which was named a historic district in September. It begins at 7 p.m. June 17 with a live Q&A, plus a GPS bike route for a self-guided tour of the exteriors of the homes.

Cost: $25 per person

Information: preservationaustin.org