Preservation work can begin on South Austin landmark

The City of Austin and a nonprofit foundation have signed an agreement to preserve a historic house at Riverside Drive and Interstate 35 and operate it as an events center.

The Norwood Estate was built on a bluff near Travis Heights overlooking the Colorado River and downtown Austin. Click to enlarge. (Norwood Park Foundation photo)

The Norwood Estate was built on a bluff overlooking downtown Austin and what is now Lady Bird Lake. In the foreground is Riverside Drive. Click to enlarge. (Norwood Park Foundation photo)

Efforts to restore the house first began in the 1980s, but repeatedly stalled. (Norwood Park Foundation photo)

Efforts to restore the house first began in the 1980s, but repeatedly stalled in Austin’s shifting economic and political landscape. An agreement signed in late July will enable work to finally move forward. (Norwood Park Foundation photo)

The 1922 Norwood House and surrounding grounds will be restored under a Parkland Improvement, Management & Operations Agreement that was finalized in late July. Once renovations are complete, the estate will be a financially self-sufficient rental venue for private and neighborhood events, similar to the Zilker Clubhouse and the historic cottage at Mayfield Park. Revenue will go toward a park endowment fund for future maintenance and improvements, according to the South River City Citizens’ summer newsletter.

Few places are as emblematic of Austin’s booms and busts as the historic landmark. Built on about five acres and once surrounded with formal gardens, the one-story brick bungalow  belonged to Ollie Norwood, best known as the developer behind Austin’s first skyscraper, Norwood Tower — a fanciful Gothic Revival building built shortly before the 1929 stock market crash. The Norwoods’ hilltop estate also included small homes for their in-laws, a pecan orchard, a split-level greenhouse, tennis courts, a bath house and a swimming pool fed by a warm spring. When business slowed during the Great Depression, they opened the pool to the public for an admission fee. They managed to keep the estate, though eventually much of the land was lost to the right-of-way for what is now Interstate 35 and to the widening of Riverside Drive.

After the Norwoods sold the estate in 1961, the house was converted into a business and lost some of its decorative features to paneling and fluorescent lights. During a building boom in the 1980s, its sale to a condominium developer who planned to tear it down sparked neighborhood protests. Rather than being demolished, the house was moved off its original lot, its bricks were removed and sold, and many of its significant Arts & Crafts features  were lost. When the condo development fell through shortly before an economic bust, the City of Austin bought the estate for parkland, but never set aside funds to restore the house.

In the late 1990s, the Women’s Chamber of Commerce raised money to move the house back to its original site on an improved foundation, but the house remained boarded up and its grounds were used as a dog park. Amid another major recession that further strained city funds, in 2008 the South River City Citizens neighborhood group formed a historic preservation subcommittee known as the Norwood Posse, and in 2012 established the nonprofit Norwood Park Foundation to support historic preservation with donations and rental fees rather than taxpayer money. Through the public/private partnership that was sealed last month, the foundation will renovate the city-owned landmark and operate the events center.

You can read a detailed history of the house, see more vintage photos, learn more about the preservation project or make a donation at the Norwood Park Foundation website.

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About burlyheights

C. Forrest is a longtime resident of Burleson Heights.
This entry was posted in City projects, Development, Garden & landscape, History, Off-leash areas, Parks and recreation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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