What began as rural territory in the 1850s is today a booming destination filled with funky boutiques, trendy hotels, rousing restaurants, art galleries, food trucks, and educational facilities.
Originally a dirt road built to connect Austin to San Antonio, South Congress Avenue is now one of the state's premier tourist attractions. From its humble roots to its modern reputation, the history of SoCo is, in many ways, a reflection of the city itself.
From dirt road to tony boulevard
After being elected the first mayor of Austin in 1840, Judge Edwin Waller was tasked with designing the downtown street grid for Austin. The grid was made up of 14 downtown blocks with streets running north to south named for Texas rivers while streets running from east to west were named for native trees. The main thoroughfare, however, was to be called Congress Avenue.
Congress Avenue was downtown's most prominent street beginning in the 1830s, however South Congress Avenue wasn't a reality until until two decades later. In 1852, land was donated by James Gibson Swisher for a road to serve as both a postal route and traveling connection to San Antonio.
The boulevard became even more prominent in the second half of the 19th century. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, the first bridge across the Colorado River (now Lady Bird Lake) was built. Prior to the bridge's construction, a pontoon toll bridge was erected for early settlers and their cattle. The Texas Capitol was then completed in 1888 at the north end of Congress.
The original dirt road was covered with bricks in 1910, and trolley cars ran along the avenue until 1940. Congress Avenue eventually became the first road to be paved in Austin, a number that increased as automobiles became more popular.
An avenue of education and innovation
In 1856, the Texas School for the Deaf (originally named Texas Deaf and Dumb Asylum) was established after Texas Governor Elisha Pease chose a committee to find a site for the school. The group found a 57-acre property at 1102 S. Congress Ave. with a two-room schoolhouse, three log cabins, and a smokehouse that would be converted into a schoolroom. The school was built before Congress Bridge was complete and enrollment was low, but city officials expected it to increase once the rail system in town was completed.
In 1981, the prekindergarten through 12th grade school became an independent school district and a state agency. As the campus has grown, student enrollment has increased and there is a public museum, free to the public, for those wanting to learn more about the institution. The school is the oldest continually-operating public school in the state of Texas.
St. Edward's University, a private Catholic higher learning institution at 3001 S. Congress Ave., just past Oltorf Street, was founded on farmland south of Austin city limits in 1877. The 398-acres was donated by Mary Doyle of Austin, with the express desire to create a Catholic school. (It's also worth noting that the university opened before the University of Texas was founded in 1883.)
The property to the south of St. Edward's at 3601 S. Congress Ave. became home to Penn Field, a World War I aviation site created in 1918 — one of 32 sites created nationwide. The field was named after Eugene Doak Penn, an Austin pilot who died in an aviation training accident in Italy in 1918.
Driving SoCo into the future
Geographically, the modern South Congress strip runs south from Lady Bird Lake to Oltorf Street, while the avenue itself extends all the way to Slaughter Lane in South Austin, and is a part of the 78704 neighborhood. (The hugely popular bumper stickers saying "78704 — It's not just a ZIP code, it's a way of life" were impossible to miss in the late '90s in Austin.)
Many shops opened on South Congress in the decades between 1930 and 1960, turning it into a retail destination. Then, between 1960 and 1990, the area became a known hot spot for sex workers and drug dealers.
Beginning in the 1990s through the early aughts, the area underwent a metamorphosis, transforming it into an Austin landmark. Today, SoCo is a "must do" destination for tourists planning their itinerary, complete with stops at restaurants; boutique hotels; Guero's (a famous Tex-Mex restaurant in a renovated feed store, as well as a favorite of Bill Clinton's when he is in town); Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds; Big Top Candy Shop; Allen's Boots (look for the red neon boot sign); and more.
And for locals wanting to check out the street offerings, First Thursdays, held on the first Thursday of every month, run from 5-10 pm. Merchants open until later hours, musicians stroll the street, drink specials, food specials are discounts are offered at many establishments on South Congress; it is quite the experience to behold.