The Austin History Center's mission is to procure, preserve, present and provide the historical records that make up Austin's unique story.
The Austin History Center is the local history branch of the Austin Public Library. Located in what was the original main library built in 1933. it contains a huge collection of documents on the history of Austin and Travis County, which the public can access in their reading room. If you’ve been exploring Austin and wondering about the stories behind some of the places and names you’ve discovered, this is the place to learn more.
In the 1920s, Grace Delano Clark, a member of the Houston Chapter of the American Association of University Women, decided to make it happen. She convinced the group to go door-to-door collecting donations of money and books, and began a subscription-based library in a temporary building at this site, volunteering as its first librarian. In 1928, the people of Austin voted to fund a true public library building. The temporary structure was moved to another site where it served as a branch library.
Clark stayed involved as a member of the Library Commission and Book Selection Committee. A plaque at the W. 9th St. entrance credits the AAUW chapter as co-founder of the library. In 1929, Mayor Daniel Moody awarded Grace a 'Most Worthy Citizen' trophy for her work on the library.
The job of designing the library went to the firm of Hugo Kuehne, an influential architect and city planner who designed several of the Austin’s best-known buildings from the 1920s through the 1950s. Born in 1884, Kuehne was an Austin native, the son of German immigrants, who studied engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The primary designer of the building was Kuehne’s employee, J. Roy White, who designed the Austin Fire Drill Tower (also known as the Buford Tower) and later the Lyndon. B. Johnson ranch.
The Cordova cream limestone was selected to achieve the Italian Renaissance Revival look that was popular at the time but may have also reflected White’s love of the log-and-limestone structures built by early Texas settlers.
Though the building’s official address is on Guadalupe Street, be sure to check out the grand entrance on W. 9th Street overlooking Wooldridge Square. If you look up at the ceilings inside the loggia (entryway), you’ll see frescoes painted by Harold E. Jessen, a student at UT Austin who would go on to become a prominent Austin architect, in collaboration with artist Peter Allidi.
In 1955, the library began the Austin-Travis County Collection of materials related to local history. In 1979, the main library moved to a new building next door, named for local storyteller and radio host John Henry Faulk, and this library's former home became the Austin History Center. The Faulk library closed recently, replaced by the brand new central library at 710 W. César Chávez St.
Cover photo from Lee Leblanc via Flickr