Tovo Pushes Renovation of Historic Convention Center House

Wednesday, September 14, 2022 by Jo Clifton

For 22 years, the city has owned the historic Castleman-Bull House, which sits vacant and unused at 201 Red River St. across from the Austin Convention Center’s service yard entrance. Now, city council member Kathie Tovo hopes to pass a resolution this week that would start the process of renovating the interior and refurbishing the house.

The Austin Convention Center owns the property and paid for the exterior renovation in 2019. However, the city has yet to renovate the interior, a project that convention center manager Trisha Tatro and city manager Deputy Rodney Gonzales would like to address the renovation of the Palm District.

According to Tovo’s resolution, the Castleman-Bull House “is one of the oldest and most significant houses in 19th-century Austin, a fine example of the Italian style of the Victorian era”. Under the resolution, the convention center and the city’s historic preservation office would work together to get the ball rolling on renovating the home’s interior.

RM Castleman originally built the house in 1873 at 308 E. Seventh St. St. David’s Episcopal Church acquired the building in 1963 and it was the headquarters of the Caritas Foundation for over 30 years. After St. David’s donated the house to the city for preservation, it was moved to its current location on Red River Street.

The city has hired Jamail & Smith Construction to renovate the exterior of the house at a cost of $1.7 million. According to their research, four generations of Castlemans have occupied the house, which was “one of Austin’s grandest homes until the economic boom of the 1920s eclipsed its grandeur.”

Tovo says the convention center paid for the renovation of the exterior with capital budget funds. Currently, the capital fund has more than $181 million, which is clearly enough for the renovation, which was estimated to cost $2 million in 2017.

Tovo told the Council that at its current location, the house has no toilets, electricity or water. She said if it were renovated with funds from the convention center, the city could “give our customers the option of renting the space.”

Castleman fought as a Confederate soldier in the Civil War and was seriously injured, according to historical records. After recovering from his injuries, he becomes a wealthy merchant. Council member Natasha Harper-Madison questioned the wisdom of honoring a building with an awkward connection to the Confederacy. She wanted to have a process of community engagement before allocating money for the preservation of the structure.

Tovo was ready for it. In the last paragraph of her resolution, she wrote that, in accordance with the city’s process for reviewing names associated with Confederacy, the city manager would be responsible for initiating “a community input process to consider whether to change structure name,” and reviewing alternative names.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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