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By Gus Rojo | Broker in Austin, TX

What is the oldest house in Austin, TX?

The Oldest House In Austin, Texas

With such colorful lineage, it’s no wonder Austin maintains such devout invocation to preserve the integrity of our city’s historical buildings.   Nor, is it any wonder there are those who slave so relentlessly to further educate our community towards the precipice of historical recount.  From museum tours, to benefit accolades, the opportunity to indulge one’s self in Austin’s rich history lies just around every clay brick road.

It wasn’t until I drove past 4712 Bull Creek Road that I had ever even considered the characters of the buildings that play such idle roles in my everyday life as a Realtor ®.  The simple fact that they’ve been playing those same roles in all Austinites’ lives for over 150 years is a testament to their unquestionable contributions.   They’ve housed our wounded soldiers.  They’ve played host to celebrations of victory.  They stood ground through bust and boom.  And they still remain as homage to our roots.  Regardless, everyday of our lives they sit idly by and await our return to a community long passed, but never forgotten . . . for they ask for nothing less than our humble respect.

When I first took notice of the McCary-Theil House (4712 Bull Creek Road), my mind started to wander through visions of endless fields in every direction, where women in all-white lace dresses fanned themselves in carriages on the way to market, and burly men with dusty, 5 o’clock shadows sat on horseback with rifles armed and ready.  Who am I kidding?  My vision wasn’t really that eloquent.  And no, John Wayne did not show up.

For some reason, though, the site of this home did spark an unknowing interest of mine in the history within the walls of Austin’s oldest residences.  I started to take notice of the properties I ventured past on a daily basis.  How many times had I stopped at the corner of 23rd Street and San Gabriel?   So is that how many times I had I missed the Neil-Cochran House?  Was the Paggi House really one of Austin’s oldest homes before it became one of my so dearly cherished restaurants?  All these questions and more led me on a short, but well-informed journey to definitively name the “3 Oldest Houses in Austin.”

The French Legation Austin, TX Red Home Realty

I would soon find myself up against an aging wall.  Figuratively speaking, of course.  With so many historical structures, and little recorded documents at my disposal, I learned that this task was not going to be for the timid.  The Austin-American Statesman had reported a similar story not so long ago.   Museums obviously maintain their historical accuracy.  Countless blog writers had even attempted their take on the subject, as well.  So who is right?  Well, seems no one can really answer that question.  And, unfortunately, neither can I.  However, considering I am Austin Aaron, I’m going to step out on a limb and say, “I am.”  And if you think I’m wrong, please do challenge me.  The topic is definitely up for discussion.  I encourage it!

The oldest home in Austin is unquestionably the French Legation (802 San Marcos Street).  Completed in 1841, the French Legation was commissioned to represent the French government in the new Republic of Texas.  France assigned Monsieur Jean Pierre Isidore Alphonse Dubois, a secretary in the French Legation in Washington, to oversee France’s affairs in Texas.  Supposedly, the French Legation would be his stomping ground, so to speak.  Now, I told you that I was just going to name the 3 oldest houses in Austin.  And that’s what I’m going to do.  A brief history, location, etc…  However, I highly suggest you further explore the story of France’s dear Monsieur Dubois.  What a character! We’re talking unpaid debts, fights over pigs, lying to his government, and lobbying to create a French corporation that would, in essence, bring in 5,000 French colonists to help explore and settle West Texas.  This dude was something else.  It’s still unknown whether or not he even lived in the house.  My guess is that he didn’t approve of the living conditions, as he mandated lavish and opulent surroundings.  He even went as far as to name himself “Count”.  Regardless, we do know when and why the French Legation was built.  It still stands as the oldest extant structure in Austin.  Check for yourself.

Now, before I approach the second oldest home in Austin, I think it’s imperative we discuss the James and Elizabeth Smith Farm House, better know as Boggy Creek Farm.  Also called “The Old Place of James Smith” in city records.  Why do I think this is important? Because, of what is known about the James and Elizabeth Smith House, many signs point to a build date of 1840-41.  James Smith came to this area in 1832 to procure land for a plantation.  He moved his family to his newly purchased, 50-acre homestead, and in 1839, created his plantation under the oak trees at Republic Square.  Historical documents indicate that Alfred Smith, son of James Smith, oversaw “the building of his father’s new home during the winter of 1840-41.”  This statement was made in court to prove that Alfred deserved more of his father’s inheritance after Mr. Smith died in 1845.  Oddly enough, Mr. Smith’s doctor at the time, Dr. Robertson, lived in the French Legation.  Another little interesting fact is that Abner Cook built James Smith’s coffin in 1845, and made repairs on their grain mill.  Ms. Carol Ann from Boggy Creek Farms actually has the copy of the hand-written bill.  Why is who built Mr. Smith’s coffin an interesting fact?  Because, the second and third oldest houses in Austin were also built by Mr. Abner Cook.  All are a testimony to his architectural ability.  So is it possible that Abner Cook helped build the James and Elizabeth Smith Farm House?  You bet your ass it is.  Just knowing that the James and Elizabeth Smith Farm House is still standing can not go unquestioned due to our knowing whom might have helped build the house.  My suggestion is to check out Boggy Creek Farms for a bit more in-depth history.  I think you’ll be surprised at the history involved with something now so organic.  Makes sense, yes?

The second oldest house in Austin is Woodlawn (6 Niles Road), also known as the Pease Mansion (Pease Park, anyone?).  Completed in 1853, then Texas State Comptroller, James Shaw, commissioned none other than Abner Cook to build a house for him and his fiancé on 365 acres in West Austin.  As fate would have it, Shaw’s fiancé called off the engagement.  But it was obviously not too difficult to find a new suitor.  He and his new wife soon moved into the newly completed home in 1853.  Unfortunately, Shaw’s child died at the age of two, and his wife followed just a few short months later.  So, Shaw sold the estate to Texas’ fifth Governor, Elisha M. Pease, and his wife, Lucadia Christiane Niles Pease in 1857.  The Pease family named the estate Woodlawn.  Governor Pease developed the present-day neighborhood of Enfield from much of the land surrounding Woodlawn.  Skip forward 100 years when Niles Graham, sold the house to Texas Governor Allan Shivers (the only Lieutenant Governor to gain the Governor’s office through the death of his predecessor), and his wife, Marialice Shary Shivers.  They moved into the home in 1957.  In 1975, the Shivers donated the house to the University of Texas, asking only that they could live there until their deaths.  What followed was a disaster.  UT sold it to the State.  The State put it up for sale.  Sandra Bullock was said to be interested.  Jeff Sandefer nearly purchased it.    Then in 2002, the Woodlawn-Pease, LLC, purchased the home for nearly $2.9 million.  All is back to normal.

The third oldest home in Austin is the Neil-Cochran House (2310 San Gabriel Street).  Completed in 1855, this Greek Revival style home was commissioned to be built for Mr. Washington Hill, and his wife.  They asked Mr. Abner Cook, one of the most important master builders in antebellum Texas, to build a comfortable suburban home on 17.5 acres of land a little over two miles from town.  Unfortunately, the Hills had overextended themselves financially, and had to sell slaves and borrow money.  Needless to say, they never occupied the house and eventually had to sell the land to investors who then leased the property to the Texas Asylum for the Blind, and then to Lt. Governor Fletcher Stockdale.  Soon after the Civil War, the house was then leased to the U.S. Government to be used as a hospital for Federal troops.  Not being any different than current times, the U.S. Government did not pay for their use of the house, nor damages incurred.  After a few more changes in ownership, Colonel Andrew Neil and his wife purchased the home.  Sadly, Colonel Neil died just two years later and his wife, Jennie Chapman Neil leased the house to Judge Thomas Beauford Cochran and his wife Bessie Rose Cochran, whom purchased the home in 1895.  All of this information can be found at the Neil-Cochran Museum.  Tours of the property are offered on a weekly basis!  Indulge.

Neil Cochran House Austin, TX Red Home Realty

An honorable mention is undoubtedly the Governor’s Mansion (1010 Colorado Street).  Why an honorable mention?  Well, building of the home actually started before the completion of the Neil-Cochran House.  However, it took Abner 6-months longer to complete the Governor’s Mansion.  He even paid for the Governor’s housing during the extended period of build-out.  Completed in 1856, it is the oldest continuously occupied executive residence west of the Mississippi, and the fourth oldest in the U.S..  Due to the frequent change in Texas’ capital location after the 1836 independence from Mexico, permanent housing for its chief executive proved to be somewhat difficult.  It was not until 1854 that the Texas Legislature appropriated $14,500 for a “suitable residence” for the Governor of Texas.  Obviously, Abner Cook was given the task to build a Greek Revival style home for which he was celebrated.  He even manufactured his own bricks from the clay pit he owned on the Colorado River, giving the Mansion it’s yellowish-brown tone.  I only mention the bricks due to a little fact that I believe debunks current beliefs concerning the Paggi House.  I’ll get to that momentarily.  Governor Pease, and his family, were the first residents of the Mansion.  All of this information was easily found at the Texas Governor’s Mansion website.  I’m such a sleuth.

“What about the Paggi House,” you ask?  “What about the Swedish Log Cabin?  What about Millbrook?”

What about them?  You tell me what you know about Millbrook and I’ll listen.  Hell, even the Texas Historical Commission couldn’t agree on the definitive date of Millbrook.  And the Swedish Log Cabin has been moved more times than Noodle (my dog) moves her stuffed pig.  Which brings me to Paggi House.  So many historians rant and rave about the completion date of the Paggi House.  If indeed the Paggi House were built in the 1840’s, then who built it?   If you can answer that, then please do let me know.  First beer is on me!  My issue is that I know that Michael Butler constructed bricks from red clay deposits to build the Paggi House.  Michael Butler founded the Butler Brick Company is 1873, just 5 miles east of Elgin.  He didn’t even discover the clay deposits until 1871 after the arrival of the Texas and New Orleans Railroads.  So how is it that the Paggi House is older than Woodlawn if the bricks used weren’t even manufactured until the early 1870’s?  Another little unknown fact about the Butler Brick Company is that they are still in business.  After several acquisitions over the years, they are now the Elgin Butler Company.  I think it’s interesting, at least.

All of this brings me back to the McCary-Thiel House.  Completed in 1859, the Greek Revival style ranch house was built by James D. McCary, and later occupied by A. H. Longley, a Union Army officer and publisher of the Austin Republican.  I hit a dead-end on locating any further information regarding the McCary family.  Though, a search of A. H. Longley has led me to discussions with the City of Lebanon, Indiana.  It seems one of their first settlers in 1832 was a gentleman by the name of A. H. Longley.  Coincidence?  Well, history is funny like that.  We shall see.  I now sit here wondering if either James D. McCary, or A. H. Longley, had ever envisioned a long-haired guy sitting in front of a laptop writing about their lives, much the same way I envision what their lives must have been like.  And all this because the home they once lived in still stands on a street I drive past when showing homes built 100 years later.

So there you have it, the “3 Oldest Houses in Austin.”  It’s something to think about next time you’re traveling north on San Gabriel, past 23rd Street, over to 24th Street just so you can cross Lamar and take a left behind Pease Park to cut over to Woodlawn to get to Clarksville.

What excites you about the history of Austin’s buildings?  What properties have peaked your interest?  Whether they be old/new, big/small, ordinary or outrageous, I encourage you to get out there and learn about the properties around you.   You never know what front door your interest may lead you through.  My suggestion?  Make sure to knock first!

*Note: Yes, this is an online blog.  And yes, people will read this and challenge the factual information found within this post.  Please do.  That’s the point . . . to create a dialogue about the oldest houses in Austin.  Have something to contribute?  Send me an email at aaron@redhomerealty.com.  Have a comment?  Please feel free to leave one below.  I can account for all referenced material in this article.  However, rather than bore myself with tedious details, I am instead, opting to listen to those that will challenge my references.  Besides, referencing is boring.  I only do this because it’s fun.

**Note: Many thanks to the all the websites, books, and people I talked with regarding this topic.  Special thanks to Ms. Carol Ann.

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Comments

By Betina Foreman,  Tue Jul 13 2010, 07:35
I too love these old homes. One thing to remember is the county records may not be the most accurate. Often times a homes reported age is only when the city/county has obtained records of the home, which is not always when it was built. Case in point, 1900 David Street was actually built in 1870 (It was a personal home and functioning dairy) but the city's first record is 1900. So one must be very careful when researching older homes. Thanks for the interesting post.
Cheers,
Betina Foreman- Realtor
Prospect Real Estate Solutions, LLC.
(512)771-6318
By Cawyer,  Wed Jul 14 2010, 17:42
An extremely interesting article with great photographs, too! Unfortunately I was unable to print out the whole article. I was especially interested in the Pease Mansion, but the printer only would copy the McCrary house (I guess, as it was not labeled) the one with double columns on front porch. I wonder if you might have any information on a home owned by Ezekiel Butler Turner, Circuit Court Judge, and friend of both Mr. Pease and a partner of A.J. Hamilton (also my great, great grandfather).
By Richard,  Fri Jun 15 2012, 18:35
I am in the process of doing some structural repairs on the Neil Cochran house. I have been in construction for 38+ years and I am amazed by the craftsmanship done back in mid-1800s. This is one amazing building. Richard, Braun and Butler construction.
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