Public Housing Community Rich in African-American History Faces Change in Austin
Rosewood Courts’ original site plan, along a terraced hillside in East Austin, included many outdoor spaces for socializing.
Like many American cities at the time, Austin, Texas, in the 1930s was a racially segregated place -- including with its public housing. During the years leading up to World War II, the city’s housing authority (one of the oldest in the nation) built three low-income housing communities in the East Austin neighborhood, each reserved for a single race until desegregation in the 1960s.
Santa Rita Courts, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was dedicated to Hispanic and Latino residents, while Chalmers Courts was for whites only. And Rosewood Courts, a community that may eventually join Santa Rita Courts on the National Register, was built specifically for African-Americans. Rosewood’s complex and layered history, along with its location in rapidly gentrifying East Austin, make its future a subject of intense interest to Austin preservationists.
The respected architecture firm Page & Southerland (now Page Southerland Page) designed the project under the supervision of architect H.F. Kuehne. Its modestly scaled, masonry buildings follow the principles of the International Style, a Modernist architectural style that originated in Europe. 130 units were built in two phases; 124 units are still used as housing, while the remaining six have been adapted for other uses.
In addition to its architectural pedigree, Rosewood Courts was one of the first public housing projects in the country after the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1937. Lyndon B. Johnson, a U.S. Congressman at the time, helped drive the creation of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) and ultimately played a major role in the development of all three communities.
"This is LBJ country," says Lisa Byrd, director of the African American Cultural Heritage District, an Austin nonprofit. "Rosewood Courts has significance because he really spearheaded [public housing] and his policies went on to have an effect on the country."
But perhaps the most essential element of Rosewood Courts’ history is its location on the site of Austin’s Emancipation Park. In the years before Rosewood’s construction, local African-Americans used the park as their central gathering place for Juneteenth celebrations marking the day in 1865 when Texans first received word of the Emancipation Proclamation.
"Emancipation Park is highly important for this community," says Byrd, who is also on the board of Preservation Austin. Even today, the Austin Juneteenth parade route goes right past Rosewood Courts.
The next steps for Rosewood Courts will be closely watched in the Austin development and preservation communities. Owned by HACA, the 75-year-old property needs work. HACA received a $300,000 Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2012, and is using it to consider options for redeveloping Rosewood.
"We’re looking at the Rosewood Courts site and how we can make it viable over the long term," says Michael Gerber, HACA’s president and CEO. "The goal is to make the property more of a community, with education, job training, and other community activities."
HACA has retained the services of a development consultant, McCormick Baron Salazar, and a planning consultant, Camiros, to help it figure out what to do with the property. Regardless of what happens, Gerber says the number of public housing units will remain the same and all current residents will have the right of first return. He also promises that historic preservation will be a part of the site’s future.
"We’re very proud of Rosewood," he says. "There’s an extraordinary heritage we want to protect."
This October, HACA will present its plans for Rosewood Courts to the public. A group called Preserve Rosewood opposes redevelopment of the site, suggesting instead that Rosewood Courts be upgraded to meet the stringent Passive House energy-efficiency standard.
"That’s the type of ambition the 1937 Housing Act represented," says Fred McGhee, an archaeologist and Preserve Rosewood leader who wrote the community’s National Register nomination. "There's nothing structurally wrong with [the property] -- it needs maintenance."
McGhee recently submitted the nomination to the Texas Historical Commission's State Board of Review. On January 18, the board voted to postpone consideration of the nomination until the Board's next meeting in May.
Preservation Austin hasn’t taken an official position at this point on what should happen with Rosewood Courts. But the group is working hard to stay engaged with the evolution of the site and the rest of the neighborhood.
"East Austin is under tremendous development pressure right now," says Tere O’Connell, Preservation Austin’s immediate past president and a preservation architect. "We want to make sure the history and culture are preserved as development occurs."