Mapping O. Henry’s Local Legacy Through Downtown Austin Architecture – TOWERS

On the left the O. Henry Museum in Brush Square. On the right is a photo of William Sidney Porter, taken while he was in Austin. Images: Austin History Center / Wikimedia Commons

Pandemic season is a great time to brush up on your local history in armchair style and the pandemic season never seems to end. Fortunately, many of Austin’s finest cultural and historical institutions have stepped up to provide us with virtual tours and other online media to fill the void normally filled by things in the real world. But the best we’ve seen so far as enthusiasts of both local architecture and the legacy of the famous Austin writer Father Henry, is a virtual city tour that manages to combine these things.

O. Henry, if you don’t know, was the pen name of William Sidney Porter, who lived here during the 1880s and 1890s before being sentenced to prison in 1898 for alleged embezzlement while serving as a cashier at First National Bank in Austin. After its publication in 1901, Porter moved to New York City and wrote many of the stories that made him famous to this day – The Gift of the Kings is a long-running hit – but despite its own story, only partially set in Austin, the city has happily accepted the writer’s legacy by converting his former residence into the O. Henry Museum in Brush Square.

Although the museum is currently closed for renovations – not a bad time for it – two of its staff are educators Elyssa McCuistion and Wendi Laws, have put together a virtual tour of nine locations in downtown Austin with a connection to Porter’s life here – and almost every stop includes a historic building. In other words, right in our alley. Let’s take a look at:

Make sure to click through to the second picture each time you stop on the map to see the short video by museum educator Elyssa McCuiston on how each site connects to O. Henry’s life. Putting video content together is a huge pain and we don’t want this hard work to be wasted.

Some notes on some of these sites – the third stop on the tour is the Morley Brothers drugstore in 209 East Sixth Street where Porter worked briefly and the Roach & Hofer Dry goods store owned by his in-laws next door in 211 East Sixth Street. We got a pretty good look at these two buildings in our 1974 Sixth Street retrospective last week – the Morley Brothers building was later Grove Drug, and received this beautiful old mark that remains to this day:

Retail stores on 200 block on East Sixth Street in a 1956 photo. Pictured: Austin History Center

Another key point on the tour is the former federal court in 601 Colorado Street where Porter’s embezzlement trial took place in 1897 – ironically, it is now known as O. Henry Hall. This historic building now serves as the headquarters of the Texas State University System, and we looked at its restoration back in 2017.

The building now known as O. Henry Hall was photographed after it was built in the late 19th century. Image: Austin History Center

The last building on the map is the castle-like structure on the site of the Texas Capitol in 112 East Eleventh Street, Designed by the German architect Christoph Conrad Stremme as General Land Office of the state government in 1856 – it is the oldest state office building still in existence and, given its impressive appearance, it is not too difficult to believe. Porter worked here as a draftsman from 1887 to 1891, and the building now serves as the Capitol’s visitor center.

Special thanks to the staff at the O. Henry Museum for putting together this gem of a tour.

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