There was a time when if you stepped off of Congress Avenue or Sixth Street in Austin, you stepped into a residential neighborhood.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Austin’s streets were lined with beautiful Victorian homes and sprawling live oak trees, Elizabeth Garzone, the tour coordinator of the Texas Capitol Complex, explained to a group visiting the historic Bremond Block area downtown.
But the city and its style were not immune from a common trend after World War II, when people began to vacate America’s downtowns in favor of larger homes, big yards and a more relaxed lifestyle in the suburbs.
Meanwhile, local and state government expanded as the state’s population grew, requiring more office space downtown.
And automobiles became a must-have, requiring more nearby parking spaces.
The once-stylish Victorian homes had to be retrofitted with plumbing and electricity. The homeowners aged, taxes grew on the highly-sought after downtown property and architecture trends drastically changed, Garzone said.
“In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, anything Victorian, it was out of fashion. It was considered hideous and gaudy,” she said. “Slowly, but surely, these homes were sold and demolished. Nothing was salvaged, whether it be the wood, the stained glass. It was just smashed to smithereens and hauled away to the dump. They did not even have Austin landmarks until 1979.”
But more than a block’s worth of the historic homes remain, claiming a unique place in Austin’s downtown near Guadalupe Street at West 8th Street.
Bremond Block is named for Eugene and John Bremond. The brothers were among Austin’s earliest elite in business and social life.
The eleven structures, all of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, left at Bremond Block date back to 1858, a couple decades into the city’s history.
The buildings, several of which now have offices or apartments in them, are one of the last remaining vestiges of Austin’s early architectural days. The B.J. Smith house at 610 Guadalupe and nearby Hale Houston house feature Greek Revival style homes with porches that stretch out along the fronts. Meanwhile the Catherine Robinson house at 705 San Antonio Street features a Classical Revival two-story front gallery.
Although tours of Bremond Block don’t have access to inside many of the buildings, Garzone has arranged with the Austin Woman’s Club to bring some tours inside the North-Evans Chateau at 708 San Antonio Street.
The home, finished by architect Alfred Giles, features gorgeous painted windows that cast tinted light onto the worn Persian rugs that have protected the floors for decades. Hand-carved wood engravings on doors, colorful clay tile and some of the original fuel-powered chandeliers adorn the well-kept building.
Some of the woodwork was painted over by college students who were staying there for $10 a week decades ago. But most of the home is immaculately-maintained, giving visitors a true taste of the home life of some of Austin’s earliest upper-class residents.
Perhaps the most photographed and famous of the Bremond Block houses is the John Bremond house, a masterpiece of the Second Empire style at the corner of West Seventh Street and Guadalupe Street.
The Texas State Historical Association says it has been pictured in textbooks “as a graceful and exuberant example of Texas Victorian architecture.”
As Garzone, the historic tour guide, explains, it also has another distinction: It is the first home in Austin to have an indoor toilet.