Austin's historic Rosewood Courts

By Fred McGhee

"Live Music Capital of the World," "City of the Violet Crown," "Silicon Hills," and "Bat City" are Austin nicknames known the world over.  Should "New Deal Utopia" be among them?  More specifically, is it appropriate to refer to Austin as a "Public Housing Haven" for its important legacy in this area?  I would argue that it is.

Photo (left): Historic Image Rosewood Courts
 
 
 
 
I have worked hard to protect individual historic public housing projects from the wrecking ball since the mid 1990's, but it wasn't until I started to research and write my national register nomination for Austin's historic Rosewood Courts housing project (www.preserverosewood.org) that I began to fully appreciate the importance of public housing in the development of modern architecture in the Unites States, particularly the role it has played in the development of planning as a profession and of "environmental design" as a discipline.
 
Several events converged in the early 1930's to produce the conditions that would lead to the development of the "International Style" in American architecture and the passage of the 1937 U.S. Housing Act.  One of the first was the staging of the landmark architectural show called "Modern Architecture: International Exhibition" (also billed as "The International Style: Architecture Since 1922") by New York's Museum of Modern Art in February of 1932. Philip Johnson curated the exhibit; Catherine Bauer assisted in the preparation of and oversaw the housing section.  The show was profoundly influential.
 
Whereas Johnson's exhibit focus and the book accompanying the show (authored by Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock) focused on the design aspects of what they coined the "International Style," such as the new style's emphasis on volume over mass, Bauer's contribution made sure to emphasize the social and political aspects that many European practitioners shared. Visitors to Bauer's section of the exhibit not only learned about the horrific housing conditions faced by American workers but also about the methods used by European governments to tackle  slum conditions after World War I.  Visitors learned about the boom in European housing construction with over 5 million units of housing constructed in Europe between 1919 and 1930, over 1.8 million dwellings constructed in England alone.  Moreover, this European working class housing was built to a very high architectural standard and involved innovations in large-scale community planning as well as design.  The exhibition introduced American audiences to the work of the Bauhaus and its leaders for the first time.  Bauer also ensured that visitors were introduced to German community and regional planning ideas such as the Siedlungen outside of Frankfurt and Stuttgart planned by Ernst May and Walter Gropius using what Bauer called the "planned community unit" which would become known as the "superblock" in the United States.
 
A secondary development leading to the adoption of the 1937 Housing Act was the publication of Bauer's 1934 book Modern Housing.  The book's impact was felt almost immediately and catapulted the young "Houser" (someone committed to raising the quality of urban life through improving availability of and access to shelter for low-income families) to national and international notoriety.  Given the depression-era collapse of the American real estate sector, the book's release was well-timed. Its prose, which was accessible to scholar, student, professional, or layperson was also highly praised. 
 
Image (right): Girls dressed for easter at Santa Rita Courts
 
Modern Housing was the first cross-disciplinary, comparative and comprehensive analysis of this type of  housing written by an American.  Utilizing statistics, architectural analysis, sociology, first-hand observation, and the basics of the then nascent discipline of planning (to which Bauer would make enduring contributions), the book furnishes an analysis of the history and evolution of housing theory, thick description and discussion of some of the European achievements in housing and community planning in the years after World War I, and a provocative discussion of the applications of the lessons the United States could and should learn from the European experience.  Lavishly illustrated, the book contained dozens of photographs of the developments described in the text, and contained a detailed appendix that referenced a broad range of multilingual source material.
 
The 1937 Housing Act created a United States Housing Authority (USHA) and fully decentralized the construction, ownership, and management of public housing.  Local public housing authorities (PHA's) established under state enabling legislation were given the job of managing the housing.  USHA's primary role consisted of making 60-year loans to local housing authorities for up to 90 percent of the development cost of slum clearance or low-rent housing projects, and providing program direction and consulting advice.
 
Austin, Texas is blessed as the location of the first USHA housing projects in America because of the dogged determination of its newly elected Congressman, Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Johnson had been elected in a 1937 special election that by-passed the existing Jim Crow primary system in Texas, which had allowed him to court the significant African-American and Mexican-American support crucial to his victory.  He tenaciously walked the halls of the newly created federal housing agency, and repeatedly invited deputy administrator Leon Keyserling for cocktails to discuss siting some of the new housing in the  state of Texas's capital city.
 
Image (below): Rosewood Coutrs Today
 
 
 
 
As the first USHA housing project to begin construction (alongside Santa Rita Courts), Rosewood Courts is a paradigmatic example of the International Style in twentieth century architecture.  It embodies more than the revolutionary design aspects of the International Style that would become a fixture of individual twentieth century buildings.  The housing development also personifies the social and political aspects that the European founders of the style shared:  a deep commitment to social justice through housing.  Rosewood Courts represents the first real effort on the part of the federal government of the United States to engage in large-scale neighborhood development that embraced all of the aspects of what would later become known as environmental design.
 
 
Walter Gropius, a founder of the International Style, designed a 250 unit public housing complex for defense workers in 1941 called Aluminum City Terrace that bears a noticeable resemblance to Rosewood Courts in many important regards.  In addition to similarities in the selection of construction materials, other similarities between the two projects include construction on a hilly terrain with ample pre-existing natural vegetation, built-ins such as closets and bookshelves, a terraced landscape designed to reinforce the advantages of natural sunlight and ventilation, a crucial focus on the the orientation of the buildings so as to maximize southern light, cantilevered porches and overhangs, well appointed kitchens, communal space, accommodations for recreation and gardening, and a rigid adherence to federal cost limitations.  Both Aluminum City Terrace and Rosewood Courts are still in use.
 
The housing project is also historic in another way:  it was built atop Emancipation Park, Austin's original and oldest black-owned Juneteenth parade ground.  The Juneteenth holiday has spread beyond Texas and is now officially celebrated in over 25 states and around the world.  The holiday commemorates the day when enslaved people in Texas were officially emancipated by the federal government, June 19, 1865.  Austin's Emancipation Park is one of the nation's original Juneteenth celebration locations and is one of the first parks in America purchased by African Americans specifically for the purpose.
 
Photo: Historic photo of Emancipation Park from the early 20th century
 
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