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Tovo pushes renovation of historic convention center house

Wednesday, September 14, 2022 by Jo Clifton

For 22 years the city has owned the historic Castleman-Bull House, which sits vacant and unused at 201 Red River St. across from the Austin Convention Center’s service yard entrance. Now City Council Member Kathie Tovo hopes to push through a resolution this week that would start the process of renovating the interior and returning the house to useful service.

The Austin Convention Center owns the property and paid for the renovation of the exterior in 2019. However, the city still needs to renovate the interior, a project that Convention Center Director Trisha Tatro and Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales would like to be addressed with the renovation of the Palm District.

According to Tovo’s resolution, the Castleman-Bull home “is one of the oldest and most substantial 19th-century houses in Austin, a fine example of the High Victorian Italianate style.” Under the resolution, the convention center and the city’s Historic Preservation Office would work together to get the ball rolling on renovating the home’s interior.

R. M. Castleman originally constructed the house in 1873 at 308 E. Seventh St. St. David’s Episcopal Church acquired the building in 1963 and it was the home of the Caritas Foundation for more than 30 years. After St. David’s donated the house to the city for preservation, it was moved to its current location on Red River Street.

The city hired Jamail & Smith Construction to renovate the exterior of the house at a cost of $1.7 million. According to their research, four generations of Castlemans occupied the house, which was “one of the grandest homes in Austin until the 1920s economic boom eclipsed its grandeur.”

Tovo argues that the convention center paid for the renovation of the exterior with funds from the capital budget. Currently, the capital fund has more than $181 million, clearly enough for the renovation, which was estimated to cost $2 million in 2017.

Tovo told Council that at its current location the house does not have restrooms, electrical service or water. She said if it were renovated with convention center funds the city could “give our customers the ability to lease the space.”

Castleman fought as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War and was badly injured, according to historic documents. After recovering from his injuries, he became a wealthy merchant. Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison questioned the wisdom of honoring a building with a troublesome connection to the Confederacy. She wanted to have a community engagement process before allocating any money to preserving the structure.

Tovo was ready for that. In the final paragraph of her resolution she wrote that, in keeping with the city’s process of reviewing names associated with the Confederacy, the city manager would be directed to initiate “a community input process to consider the appropriateness of changing the name of the structure,” and reviewing alternative names.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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