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Renovation of historic Fontaine building postponed amid calls for more research

Friday, March 4, 2022 by Kali Bramble

A proposal from new tenants of the Reverend Jacob Fontaine Gold Dollar building – the last stronghold of Austin’s oldest Freedom Colony – met resistance from the Historic Landmark Commission Monday.

The building has long been on the commission’s radar, acquiring landmark status as the Franzetti building in 1977 and reappearing decades later in a campaign to rename the site to honor former occupant and freed slave Jacob Fontaine. In recent years, preservationists have grown increasingly alarmed as the surrounding HillTop student housing development has all but enveloped the structure on all sides.

Now, applicant Cauldron Room LLC hopes to repurpose the historic building into a coffee bar and cocktail lounge catering to the surrounding West Campus. But some members of the community fear that the proposed renovations may impact the structure’s integrity as a landmark and last remaining symbol of the historically Black Wheatville community.

Of greatest concern is a proposal to reconstruct the building’s upper balcony. “The prior business (Freedmen’s Bar & Barbecue) couldn’t have followed code requirements and used the second floor for anything other than storage,” Cauldron Room owner Isaac Quintanilla said. “My hope is that we can make it into something that is more inviting for the surrounding community, and for the business.”

Preservationists argued that such renovations, if not rigorously monitored, could end up further diminishing the building’s character.

“Our concern is that further changes to the east facade of the building will make it more difficult for Austinites to recognize the structure for what it is,” Neill-Cochran House Museum Director Rowena Houghton Dasch said. “For instance, what happens if the columns there are found to be structurally unsound? How far will the commission bend once the process is already underway?”

The building’s namesake, Rev. Jacob Fontaine, moved into neighboring 2400 San Gabriel Street in 1870 during Black settlement of the area following Emancipation. Intermittent records suggest the building was the original site of the New Hope Baptist Church, one of several founded by Fontaine in the late 19th century. Around the same time, Fontaine began publishing the Gold Dollar, one of the first Black newspapers west of the Mississippi.

Despite the building’s rich history, records documenting its architectural development over the years are less clear, challenging preservationists’ efforts to maintain its historical integrity. In particular, researchers have found it difficult to pinpoint the construction of the upstairs balcony enclosure, which has proved critical to arguing the applicant’s case for an open-air restoration.

Hoping for clarity, the landmark commission unanimously voted to postpone the application to allow for further research. “We have made mistakes with this building before,” Commission Chair Terri Myers said. “So we really need to ensure we are being good stewards of the building.”

With Fontaine’s legacy at stake, scholars at the University of Texas voiced their commitment to making sense of the historical puzzle.

“Granting the request to remove the building’s porch without a careful consideration of historical context would undermine a unique feature of the structure that is the sole remaining visual evidence of Wheatville, and would diminish the building’s standing in Black Austin’s collective history,” Tara Dudley, a UT assistant professor of architecture, said. “The Gold Dollar building must be appropriately preserved as a central symbol of the social memory of blackness in Austin.”

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