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Landmark commission approves former Barton Springs florist shop for demolition

Wednesday, December 23, 2020 by Sean Saldaña

The building at 605 Barton Springs Road has been home to McPhail’s Florist, Austin’s most prominent florist, for decades. But the 92-year-old building may soon be demolished.

The flower shop, which ceased operations in 2018, has become – at least unofficially – a historic part of Barton Springs Road. Longtime residents will recognize the iconic teal building next to Sandy’s Hamburgers by its large windows, greenhouse and irregular design.

Virgil and Rosa McPhail moved to Austin from Beaumont and opened up their florist shop on Barton Springs Road in the late 1920s. The business was noteworthy for being one of the first and only 24-hour florist shops in the city.

By 1935, the shop’s motto was, “The Original McPhail Flowers for any Occasion, Corsages our Specialty, 1st Greenhouse on Barton Springs Road, corner S. 1st. We never close.”

In 1938, the couple divorced, and Rosa McPhail took over operations at Barton Springs Road, making her one of the city’s pioneering female entrepreneurs. Virgil McPhail went on to serve as the chief floral inspector for the state Department of Agriculture.

Over the past few years, and especially as the building has been vacant, it’s fallen into disrepair – which is why last month at its Nov. 16 meeting, the Historic Landmark Commission discussed a proposal to have the building demolished. In addition to visible decay, the building also has numerous code violations.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky called the building “the last vestige of the old character at Barton Springs Road.”

In November, city staff proposed two options for the building: initiate the historic zoning process or delay a decision to “see if there’s a way to rehabilitate the building,” according to Sadowsky.

In staffers’ analysis, the building, “represents a chapter of Austin history when flower farms and truck farms lined the south bank of the Colorado River along Barton Springs Road.” They added that, “nothing else remains from that time in Austin’s history to commemorate the former agricultural character of the Barton Springs Road area.”

Without much discussion, the commission voted unanimously to revisit the proposal. The city and commission agreed that the property was secure and unlikely to be vandalized, so there was no rush to make a decision.

A month later, little had changed – only this time, city staffers and the commission were more certain about the impracticality of restoring the building.

At the Dec. 14 meeting, Sadowsky said, “I think anybody who has spent their lives in Austin knows this flower shop and most people have sentimental attachments to it … but unfortunately it has fallen into such disrepair that there are many, many major code violations on this property.”

In short order, the commission moved to release a permit for demolition.

The permit comes with one condition: The applicant will be required to complete a documentation package – a file that consists of photographs, schematics and a narrative history of the building for archival documentation at the Austin History Center.

Commission Chair Terri Myers requested that “all facades of all the resources be photographed as part of the documentation package so that we have some concept of the complex.”

The building may not be long for Barton Springs Road, but its historic significance will be preserved for generations to come.

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