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Texas’ oldest psychiatric facility faces demolition but is eligible to be a historic landmark

Tuesday, October 8, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

This past legislative session, lawmakers identified the Austin State Hospital as a top health care funding priority and set aside $165 million for its refurbishment. Texas Health and Human Services and the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School are overseeing the modernization of the state hospital campus and moving forward with plans to demolish five historic buildings on the property to make way for a 400,000-square-foot modern facility that will comprise the Brain Health Campus.

“We’re looking at the planned loss of half the buildings in the potential district,” said Evan Thompson, the executive director of Preservation Texas. Thompson told the Austin Monitor that the five buildings slated to be razed are salvageable structures that are irreplaceable pieces of history. They are also among the few original structures left on the 95-acre property. “You wouldn’t believe how many buildings have been demolished on this campus in the last 40 years,” he said.

Nevertheless, even with only a fraction of the structures standing, the campus is eligible to become a National Register Historic District. According to Thompson, the Texas Historical Commission has already recommended the site for historic designation, and he said that the last step is simply to gather all the appropriate documentation paperwork and “just make it official.” This designation would not only protect the five buildings on track for demolition but also the rest of the property.

Christine Mann, a spokesperson for Texas Health and Human Services, told the Monitor in an email, “The current site was selected because it created the least disruption to hospital and state employee functions.  The site for the new hospital currently has several buildings that are unoccupied because of structural or mechanical deficiencies.”

Thompson said those unoccupied buildings could be creatively transformed into nonprofit office space or dormitories for visiting families. “Every single one of those buildings is absolutely salvageable,” he said, explaining that getting them up and running again would involve “non-complicated restoration projects.” Additionally, maintaining the buildings on-site would retain the character of the campus and give a sense of place and history to patients and visitors strolling the grounds.

Mann, however, said feasibility studies determined otherwise. “Because of concerns about the structural integrity and physical constraints of the historic buildings, it was determined that it would not be feasible to reuse these buildings for support service or office space and meet accessibility and code requirements,” she said.

Still, Preservation Texas is urging the joint venture collaboration to reconsider. In a statement, the preservation group emphasized that when it conducted outreach, the surrounding stakeholders were in favor of preserving the historic buildings. Furthermore, the statement said that the Texas Historical Commission has urged that the historic resources of Austin State Hospital be saved.

“It’s not news (today) that these are historic buildings,” Thompson said. “It just comes as a real surprise that of all the places to build, they’ve chosen to put it on top of the one area that everyone has said please avoid.”

Despite the desire to save the structures, there is little the state’s preservation department or the city can do.

Thompson said Preservation Texas will continue to pursue the path to having the site be named a National Register Historic District. Whether or not the application makes it to the finish line before demolition begins will depend on the speed at which the Texas Historical Commission processes the request.

At the same time, Thompson explained that no one disputes the need for updated health care facilities on the Austin State Hospital campus. For the preservation community, the concern centers around the demolition of century-old buildings.

“It doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition,” said Thompson, noting that he would welcome a discussion on how to find a solution that serves everyone: patients, doctors, the health center and Austin’s past.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. The building pictured is not slated for demolition.

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