Heritage, Volume 8, Number 2, Spring 1990 Page: 9
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James H. and Frances Hutchins around
1858-59. James Hutchins, who bought the
property from Abner Cook, one of Austin's
renowned early architects, was a prominent
Austin citizen and educator. In 1857
he opened the Male Seminary in the
basement of the First Methodist Church.
The old Hutchins home was razed
sometime between 1900 and 1935. The
half block on which the house once stood,
now a parking lot, has been bulldozed and
all remains of the house apparently
removed. Only the cistern remains, buried
beneath the crushed limestone fill and
asphalt of the parking lot.
Cisterns-subterranean tanks designed
to catch and hold rainwater-abound in
the Convention Center area. Halfa dozen,
all built in the nineteenth century, have
been found in the investigations to date.
While none of the ones found have been
excavated, several interesting facts have
been noted. They seem to be roughly, but
not infallibly, datable by brick color. The
earliest cisterns are of yellow brick. Red
brick ones began to be built sometime
during the 1870s.
Austin's first water system began as
early as the 1870s, prior to which most
houses would have had a cistern or well.
The system was slow in developing,
however, and even in areas where city
water was available, cisterns may have
continued to be utilized as back-up water
sources. Few were constructed after this
time and by the early twentieth century
most cisterns were abandoned. All of the
cisterns found to date in the Convention
Center area appear to be associated with
houses built before the late 1870s or early
Although cisterns are relatively
abundant in the Convention Center area,
no wells have been found. An early
twentieth century study of the City of
Austin health conditions notes several
wells, all reportedly polluted, along Waller
Creek below 19th Street. Soil cores excavated
in conjunction with the Convention
Center indicate the presence of the water
table at a depth of approximately twentyfive
feet, a relatively shallow depth for well
excavation. Was water availability less
reliable in this area, or was the water perhaps
not suitable for drinking? In either
case, it seems that cisterns were the preferred
means of water storage.
While nothing is left of the Hutchins
house itself, the remains of several other
structures dating to the late 1850s or early
1860s have been found. At one of these
sites a limestone rock foundation has been
unearthed. This foundation, which is
typical of the construction styles of its era,
appears to be the earliest so far located in
the project area. Later, perhaps by the late
1860s, brick piers replaced limestone in
foundations. The brick piers were strongly
associated with the emerging Victorian
architectural style and continued in use for
most dwellings, apparently changing little
throughout the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. Quite a few such piers
have been recorded in the project area,
including ones underlying structures still
standing at the beginning of demolition for
the Convention Center.
Towards the end of the nineteenth
century, wooden piers, dug into the
ground, appear to have replaced the more
substantial brick piers, at least in more
modest houses. Wooden piers probably
became even more common in the early
twentieth century, being used on a wider
range of structures. At least two standing
structures, one probably built in the late
1880s and the other built in the 1890s but
apparently moved in the early twentieth
century, stood on wooden piers. Holes dug
for the wooden piers were found to have
bricks laid at the base. This characteristic
signature of pier construction, shallowly
buried, paired, flat-lying bricks, has been
recognized archaeologically at several sites
in the Convention Center area on which
houses were built in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth century.
Shortly after World War I, concrete
skirt type foundations began to come into
general use and lasted through World War
II. At least one such foundation, from a
structure built between 1900 and 1935, has
been recorded in the project area. Into the
1950s, concrete slab foundations, such as
found under all of the modern warehouses
in the project area, became dominant.
While the history of construction
technology can be interesting in itself,
there is a considerable amount of social
information recorded in foundation style.
In the case of the early brick and wooden
pier styles, their early acceptance may have
followed a slightly different path. Bricks, as
soon as they became available in early
Austin, were at once a cheaper and easier
foundation construction form and
probably gained rapid wide acceptance
with the rise of Victorian construction in
Austin. For many years the sign of an
elegant house, they continued to be used
on more modest housing after the advent of
the concrete foundation. At the other
extreme, wooden piers, probably first
Below Left: Detail, Augustus Koch's bird's-eye view of Austin, 1873. Note large widely spaced structures with orchards.
Right: Same area in 1887. Railroad and streetcar lines can be seen. The number of small structures has increased. Photos courtesy of Austin History Center.
HERITAGE * SPRING 1990 9
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 8, Number 2, Spring 1990, periodical, Spring 1990; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45428/m1/9/: accessed August 18, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.