History of Austin

Here's the unsung history of downtown Austin's famous Symphony Square

Here's the unsung history of downtown Austin's famous Symphony Square

Symphony Square downtown Red River
Modern day Symphony Square has a rich history. Photo courtesy of Waller Creek Conservancy

Today's Symphony Square is home to both the Austin Symphony Orchestra and Waller Creek Conservancy, but the area's fascinating legacy is often overlooked.

Located on Red River Street between 11th and 12th streets, Symphony Square is comprised of four limestone buildings and an outdoor amphitheater overlooking Waller Creek. Originally a private homestead, the downtown space has transformed into a community gathering spot, hosting concerts, family events, and the anticipated Creek Show, but with history is a lyrical as its name.

A free man's home
Symphony Square was originally home to Jeremiah Hamilton, who was enslaved for almost 20 years before becoming a free man, and who built the homestead (the building that now houses the Austin Symphony) in 1871 after teaching himself to read and write. 

Hamilton became among the first African-American citizens to serve in the Texas Legislature, and eventually served as secretary to the Central Committee of Colored Men. As a politician, Hamilton was an inspirational role model for all seeking political office — particularly those in the African-American community.

During his time in office, Hamilton's chief interests were in the fields of education and municipal reform. (In fact, Hamilton was often compared to noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass.) Upon retirement, Hamilton spent time with his family and benefited the community through his role in the newspaper industry.

Not much is known about Hamilton's later years or when he died. In 1905, Hamilton's name and records disappeared from Austin directories, but his former home remains a visual reminder of this unsung hero.

From neglected neighborhood to downtown attraction
In the early 1970s, Austin Symphony board member Peggy Brown and community philanthropist Jane Sibley began trying to find a prime spot for the symphony's headquarters. Working closely with the Urban Renewal team (an agency with funding provided by both the city and federal government) and the local Heritage Society.

Sibley writes in her biography that since the square's buildings were built by early Austin settlers, extensive modifications were in order. They chose the site at 11th and Red River streets, which housed the Jeremiah Hamilton building, the New Orleans Mercantile building (a former nightclub), the Doyle House (now home to the Woman's Symphony League), and the Hardeman House (which was originally relocated from East Austin and housed Serrano's Cafe until 2015 before becoming the headquarters of Waller Creek Conservancy in 2018).

Among the improvements was adding a basement to Hardeman House for a bar. Sibley writes in her book, Jane's Window: My Spirited Life in West Texas and Austin, that walls were waterproofed and concrete pillars were also installed for the space.

In addition to modifying historic buildings on the property, a Greek-style 350-seat amphitheater was built. "We all felt [the amphitheater] would provide increased public awareness of our symphony orchestra since its buildings were located at one of the busiest intersections in Austin," Sibley writes.

The Symphony Square restoration project officially began in 1971 and was completed for the grand opening festivities in April 1978. While the downtown areas in many cities across the nation suffered from neglect in the 1970s, Austin's Symphony Square project helped bring a renaissance to this treasured area just north of downtown. Even today, the Jane Dunn Sibley Symphony Square (its official name) is believed to be the only restoration project in the U.S. to house a symphony orchestra.

Winding through the future
As Austin continues to transform downtown into a destination for all, the revitalization of Waller Creek, which runs through Symphony Square, has a become a standout project. Named for Edwin Waller, the first mayor of Austin, who planned the downtown street grid plan, the massive public works project is currently overseen by the Waller Creek Conservancy. 

Led by CEO Peter Mullan, the conservancy moved into their new Symphony Square headquarters in November 2018. "Putting down roots at Symphony Square has been a wonderful milestone for the organization," Mullan says. "The site has such a rich history, as does the entire creek, and being located here has expanded ways to engage the community."

The conservancy's programs will focus from arts to culture, including film and music, nature and the environment, health and wellness, and civic dialogue. The conservancy invites readers to continue sharing stories by emailing info@wallercreek.org.