Unhappy twist: O. Henry’s Austin honeymoon cottage went up in flames

Reader Susan Wukasch writes: “I found an old paper from October 2016 and I read your Austin Found column about houses being moved, so I decided I’d ask you about the O. Henry House.”
As a child, Wukasch remembered being told that the famous author’s house had been moved from its original site to a place on Shoal Creek Boulevard, down the hill from Pemberton Heights and facing Lamar Boulevard where Gaston Avenue dead-ends.
This image was taken on April 28, 1949 by Neal Douglass of the O. Henry Honeymoon Cottage when it stood on East 11th Street, before it was moved to Gaston Avenue. Contributed by Austin History Center ND
“And I remember vividly driving with my family down Lamar one night — probably in the mid-to-late 1950’s — when we came upon this house in flames, with firetrucks around fighting the fire,” she writes. “We stopped and watched for awhile, I remember.”
Subsequently Wukasch, whose father was an architect with a fondness for preservation, heard that the remains of the house had been moved downtown and the home rebuilt.
“Your Austin Found column reported the house (in Brush Square) originally was downtown, not far from where it now stands, so I’m confused about why I thought it was placed for several years a significant distance north and west of that area before moving it back,” she writes. “You say the original move was carefully documented, leading me to wonder what I saw burning on the side of Lamar Boulevard all those years ago. Might my small-child self gotten the name of the house wrong?”
There’s no question that the O. Henry House, now a small museum, was moved to its present location in 1934, and that when O. Henry’s family lived in it, the house stood at 308 E. Fourth St., about a block away.
However Wukasch’s memory serves her well.
There was a second preserved O. Henry House, his Honeymoon Cottage, that stood in what was Wooten Park (Pease Park now) on Gaston Avenue. It was moved there from the 500 block of E. 11th Street.
The new neighbors didn’t like the idea of it being there, or the Heritage Society‘s plans to move the other O. Henry House there as well.
On Dec. 23, 1956, it went up in flames. It was actually the third fire reported at the house, each likely deliberately set. All that was left was two recently reinforced chimneys.
Historian Bonnie Tipton Wilson wrote a fine article on the conflagration entitled: “Somebody Around Here Wants to Start a Fire.”

AUSTIN ANSWERED: Hobgoblin consistency helped name Austin’s ‘half’ streets

Recently for our Austin Answered project, we responded to reader Sue Fawcett‘s question: “Whose idea was it to create ‘½’ streets, such as 38th ½ Street, instead of creating a different street name?”

City archivist Mike Miller at the Austin History Center told us: “Nothing in old city codes. In looking at old maps and comparing to today, it looks like ½ numbers were used when a block or blocks bounded by numbered streets was resubdivided and a new street was made.” 

That made sense.

After the story about fractional streets ran in print, reader Frank De Groot contacted us to suggest that city planners, at least in the postwar period, had something else in mind — a sort of hobgoblin consistency. After all, if street names follow a rigid pattern, it’s easier to approximate distances, find addresses and estimate travel time. But it might have gone too far.

“I can tell you with certainty that West 49 ½ St. was designated in the original platting,” De Groot writes. “I started working for Grey & Becker, the builder/developer of the neighborhood (west of Shoal Creek, sometimes called Allandale South) in early ’50s, while a fifth-year student in the University of Texas studying architecture. My pay: $1.25 an hour. I think that the city encouraged, maybe required, that street nomenclature show continuity when there was separation created by the river, creeks, railroads, ravines, etc.”

This street map from 1974 shows that when the new subdivision west of Shoal Creek in Allandale South was built in the 1950s, developers tried to echo the name of West 49th Street, even though interrupted by the creek. Then they created West 49th 1/2 just to the north for more consistency’s sake.

That would also explain why a name such as “Gibson Street” is applied to five stretches of road in South Austin, separated by two dog legs as well as by a creek, a railroad and the Texas School for the Deaf. (We’ll leave widely separated “Barton Skyway” for another column.

In the case of Allandale South, the developers picked up West 49th from the older neighborhood to the east, then created West 50th and West 49 ½ to augment the pattern.