I have traveled far to visit historic sites recommended by one of the two Fs (Fodor’s or Frommer’s) or listed in 1,000 Places to See Before I Die, marveling at walls, both great (China) and imprisoning (Alcatraz), canals, towers, gardens, and thrones of emperors, kings, queens, and popes. Last year, I took my penchant for history to the final resting places at Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn.
For many year, anyone who was anybody in New York City could be found after death in Green-Wood. A list of notables is too long to include here, but I’ll mention Louis Tiffany (maker of lamps), Alice Roosevelt (the president’s wife), and Leonard Bernstein (maestro/composer). Also tucked among the cemetery’s 478 rolling acres is George Catlin, who I’ve long admired for his endeavors in the 1830s to paint as many Native American tribes as possible before they disappeared. With our cemetery map (more impressionistic than precise) in hand, my patient son helped me find his unremarkable marker under a large tree on a hill of exposed roots and peat moss.
Last week I read about Austin Heritage Society’s historic home tours, and decided it was time to be a tourist in my own town. Admittedly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed since history has always seemed more interesting the farther I fly from Austin. But the experience surprised and interested me. For example, one of the homes included the “Tot” Hart house on Scenic Drive overlooking Lake Austin. Tot owned a car paint and body shop on 5th street in the late 1920s and bought a cottage on a plot of land accessed by a dirt path, eventually building a larger dwelling that he continued to add to over the years.
When he and his wife divorced, she moved to California with their only child, Martha, who in time became the mother of Robert Redford. Deciding that Young Robert needed a male role model, he was sent to spend summers with his grandfather and helped him build on to the house in stages, partly with old car parts! When Tot passed away in 1959, Robert was his sole heir, but as a young, struggling actor in NYC, he could not keep up with the taxes and maintenance, even with the rental income from the house. In 1965, he sold the property. Robert, however, has kept his connection with the house as we saw in displayed pictures of him at the house with the current owners. Reportedly, the dwelling’s style was once described as “Medieval Romanesque Italianate Spanish Baroque Revival,” by a former architecture student. However categorized, one can only wonder how participating in his grandfather’s crafting of this unique dwelling shaped the man whose skill and love for crafting films has shaped a whole generation of filmmakers.
Another of the houses we toured was the Gatewood House on Tarry Trail, built by William Gatewood who established the first hamburger stand at 21st and Guadalupe in 1919. As a student, he conceived of a used textbook exchange for fellow students, that grew into five stores in various states. After a time, Gatewood sold all but the “Texas Book Store” so he and his family could live in Austin. Their house was originally built in 1938 on a 19-acre plot of land, which was subdivided several times afterwards. The Gatewoods donated the land for Westminister Presbyterian Church and later gave land for the Austin State school in exchange for providing free water to their estate. What is probably most remarkable was that Gatewood is remembered for frequently giving money to “Bicycle Annie,” a garishly-garbed and -groomed woman who rode through the Drag area on a bicycle, sadly lost in a world of her own that tolerated no interlopers. During the 60s and 70s, she was a fixture — a character we all recognized, much like Leslie today. When she died, Gatewood was the person who paid for her funeral. Where else, but Austin, would this be a part of man’s legacy?
The four other houses on the tours were equally interesting, connecting to other bits and pieces of Austin history I have experienced or heard about over the years. Although I had started the tour to experience Austin as a tour, by the end of it, I realized that Austin can’t be another city in a guidebook for me. Austin is the mold that nurtured my youthful contents until I emerged as the person I am today. I remembered the “city wars” of the 60s – Dallas and Houston were always vying for tops honors as Texas’ most important city. All the while, Austin sat quietly radiating its charm and natural beauty – the true jewel of Texas – while we basked and thrived in her embrace. For all of the grown-up children of this town, I thank the Austin Heritage Society for preserving the old Austin – like Catlin’s Native American tribes – before it disappears.