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Nineteenth century home looking for a purpose in Downtown Austin

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Castleman-Bull House, for all its prominence in the history of downtown and on the banks of Waller Creek, is still a home with no real purpose.


A decade ago, the Heritage Society of Austin rescued the Civil War-era house from the wrecking ball as one of the few substantial pre-1875 buildings in Austin. The structure is tied to early prominent families and recognized as an example of high Victorian Italianate style. It remained in the Castleman-Bull family until it was sold to St. David’s Episcopal Church in 1963, and it served as the initial headquarters of Caritas before the non-profit agency moved to the east.


For much of the 1990s, the preservation of the Castleman-Bull House was the top priority of the Heritage Society of Austin, up to and including the relocation of the structure. After Council voted down designating the home an historic landmark in 1999, the Heritage Society even rallied two years later to pay to move the 380-ton structure from Seventh Street to city-owned land next to the Austin Convention Center.


The lot, near the intersection of Second and Red River streets, is mostly vacant, on the outskirts of downtown and in an area primarily used for big rigs to unload the staging materials for conventions. Even as the Convention Center expanded, the context of the neighborhood and home appeared to be changing.


For a number of years, the Heritage Society fund-raised on the premise that the group would move its headquarters into the home, which was occupied by the family as late as 1963. In the end, however, Jacqui Schraad said the Historic Society of Austin ceded the home of a one-time prominent merchant family to the city, thinking the structure was better suited for incipient plans for Waller Creek.


“With all of the parking disappearing along Red River and so much of the area being used as a staging area, we realized it wasn’t going to work as an office space,” Schraad said. “Concurrently, we were coming to realize that the Waller Creek plan presented a more concrete plan for its best use.


The house was ceded back to the city and now sits on property that belongs to the Convention Center, although that department has made no particular plans for the house’s renovation or use, said spokeswoman Terri McBride. And while Historic Preservation Office Steve Sadowsky said the house belongs to the Convention Center Department, McBride had difficulty confirming that information, saying it was her understanding the house still belonged to the Heritage Society of Austin.


The Castleman-Bull House, in the Heritage Society’s view, would be well suited for a type of Austin Riverwalk experience, a building with a balcony onto Waller Creek that could be used for bar or restaurant. Schraad said the Heritage Society would be happy to offer input, or renderings, to make sure the house was incorporated into the overall Waller Creek planning process. To date, the Heritage Society has raised about $250,000 toward the effort to move and restore the Castleman-Bull home.


Last month, the Downtown Commission asked for an update on the house, curious what the status of the building was. While the home is boarded up, it was Sadowsky’s assessment it was still in fairly good shape.


Renovating the house for a new use would probably involve some type of stabilization for the structure, additional work for local and federal code compliance and the addition of a heating/air conditioning system. Sadowsky said the actual cost of such measures on the 137-year-old structure would probably involve a structural engineer and a historical architect.


“In your experience, are you talking six figures, a seven-figure number?” asked Robert Knight, who both sits on the Downtown Commission and owns property right across Cesar Chavez he intends to develop.


“It would depend on how far you want to go with it,” Sadowsky said. “If we just wanted to keep its walls, maybe enclose an office space and have no other use, then it’s probably six figures. If we’re talking total restoration – interior restoration, office space and maybe a public party space – then the cost goes way up. It depends on the richness of the finishes that we put inside.”


Separated from its lot, the Castleman-Bull House is probably far less attractive when it comes to historic landmark designation because it has lost its historic context, Sadowsky told the Downtown Commission.


The question among members of the Downtown Commission was when, and if, the Castleman-Bull House would be elevated to the status of, say, the O Henry House or Susanna Dickinson House. Even the nearby Julia Trask House has some amount of support for its ongoing upkeep and maintenance. That house is landmarked by the city, said Commissioner Daniel Leary, a long-time member of the Historic Landmark Commission.


The Castleman-Bull House does need to be on the radar for the Waller Creek Advisory Commission, said Commissioner Linda Guerrero of the Parks Board. Guerrero said it would be her assumption that the commission, as it moves through the plan, would partner with the Convention Center to determine just how the house would fit into Waller Creek’s future plans.


For more information on the house, go to

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