Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cambridge Tower: Austin's Landmark of Luxury

The American Statesman proclaimed Cambridge Tower “Austin’s tallest high-rise apartment building.”(1) Advertisements described it as “…the tallest privately owned building between Dallas and Houston.”(2) The fifteen-story residential tower at 1801 Lavaca is one of Austin’s significant high rise buildings of the mid-twentieth century. The building has been described as a “landmark of luxury” from its inception, officially opening with much fanfare on Saturday, May 1, 1965.

Located between downtown and the University of Texas at Austin, Cambridge Tower represented a vision of living the good life in central Aus
tin. Information for prospective tenants emphasized the array of services and amenities available, such as on-site fine dining, help for hire, valet service, and high quality outdoor recreational facilities. This vision of modernity contrasted with another popular notion of modern life at mid-century, suburban living in single family homes. As a landmark of the modern period, Cambridge Tower helped to define Austin as a modern urban city. It was marketed to appeal to urbane residents who demanded quality accommodations.

Cambridge Tower is notable for its dramatic architectural design, which embraces a playful Mediterranean theme, an abstracted exoticism that capitalizes on Austin’s pleasant sunny weather. Newspaper articles and marketing referred to the “high Grecian arches” as notable features. This motif was carried through outdoor landscaping, which included cabanas and a water fountain at poolside.




The design of Cambridge Tower was consistent with the architectural trends of new formalism and neo-classicism of the 1960s. New Formalism integrated references to classical architecture, while retaining the bare geometric forms and modern materials of the modern movement. Stripped down columns and arches were typical of buildings designed in this architectural mode. The result is modernism that both references the international style and popularizes it. It retains the formality and monumentality of columns and arches, while alluding to Austin’s regional charm through references to the Mediterranean and decorative concrete block terraces.

Note: Decorative concrete blocks had a short-lived, but dramatic appearance in architecture in the 1950s and 1960s. Their popularity is attributed to their use in designs by Edward Durell Stone and Frank Lloyd Wright. For more information about the history and preservation of concrete blocks, see: Rubano, Anthony. "The Grille Is Gone: The Rise and Fall of the Concrete Block." In Preserving the Recent Past 2, 3-89 - 3-99. Washington, DC: Historic Preservation Education Foundation, 2000.

A 1963 newspaper article shows an architect’s rendering for a proposed high rise and office building at the site quite different from Cambridge Tower as it was actually built. The rendering depicts a mixed use building designed in what could be described as a hybrid international and Brutalist mode. The massive building is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s designs. The bottom floor appears to be a combination of commercial space and parking. In this article, the owner and developer for the property is L.L. McCandless. The rendering was drawn by the Austin firm Winfred O. Gustafson, AIA. The site was subsequently sold to Mayflower Investment Co. of Dallas, a subsidiary of Fidelity Union Life Insurance Co, and the architectural design was radically altered. Newspaper articles did not provide an explanation for the sale of the property or the shift in architectural design.

Dallas architect Thomas Edward Stanley II designed the building. (3) (Stanley also designed the First National Bank, which was the tallest building in Dallas in the 1960s, and the Gulf and Western Building near Columbus Circle in New York City.) The cost of construction was “in excess of $4,500,000” according to marketing materials. The contractor was Thomas J. Hayman of Dallas. Cambridge Tower was constructed in 1964 and opened in May 1, 1965 with a ribbon cutting ceremony.

The building was constructed of steel and poured in place concrete. Decorative concrete block was used in the design of terraces and in a wall on the east side of the property near the pool. Access to terraces is through aluminum sliding glass doors. The main entrance was once through two large wooden doors. These doors were later replaced by automatic sliding aluminum and glass doors. Original mosaic elevator doors have been retained even as floors have been remodeled.

Cambridge Tower’s landscaped outdoor areas are featured prominently in marketing materials. Landscape architect George Hunt, also of Dallas, designed the “…swimming pool and cabana area with waterfalls, fountains and statuary.” Elements of the original landscape appear to be intact. According to information provided to prospective tenants, the swimming pool area is “beautifully landscaped in Mediterranean style,” and is “formal in appearance.” The swimming pool, pavilion, and limestone landscaping appear to be original.

The roof of the Cambridge Tower provides another outdoor common area. It has been remodeled since the 1960s, it provides sweeping views of the capital building. With the obvious exception of the Capital dome, it seems that much of the downtown skyline has changed dramatically since Cambridge Tower made its debut in Austin.

Cambridge Tower included restaurant and services over the years, although none of these businesses remain. The Cup and Saucer restaurant was located at the south end of the ground floor. It is described as quaint and informal and serving breakfast, lunch, and room service. The restaurants Vic’s and Table Royal were also once located in the building. A barbershop was located at the north end of the building on the ground floor.

Article by Jenni Minner. Thanks to Barry Smith, Cambridge Tower's Building Manager and Stephen Fox of Rice University.

Footnotes
(1)
American Statesman (Austin, TX), April 30, 1965.
(2) Advertisement in the Austin History Center House Building File:
HB-Lavaca 1801. Austin History Center, Austin, TX.
(3)
The Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX), "Mayflower Builds Austin Apartment," July 14, 1964.

Sources

American Statesman (Austin, TX), April 30, 1965.


American Statesman. “14-Story Building Planned.” 1964. HB-Lavaca 1801. Austin History Center, Austin, TX.

American Statesman (Austin, TX), “Apartments Scheduled On Lavaca,” August 1, 1963.

American Statesman. “150 Unit-Structure To Be 15 Stories High.” 1963. HB - Lavaca 1801. Austin History Center, Austin, TX.

Austin American-Statesman (Austin), “High Fire,” June 9, 1978.

Cambridge Condominiums Council of Owners. “Cambridge Condominium: Official Declaration, Articles of Incorporation, By-Laws, Community Rules, and Amendments.” October 2, 2008. Cambridge Tower Condominiums, Austin, Texas.

Cambridge Tower Condominiums Community Handbook. Austin: n.p., n.d.

Cambridge Tower (promotional brochure). Austin, Texas: Publisher unlisted, 1966.

"Cambridge Tower: Things We Thought You Would Like to Know." Information provided to prospective tenants. HB - Lavaca 1801. Austin History Center, Austin, TX.

The Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX), “Mayflower Builds Austin Apartment,” July 14, 1964.

Donald, Mark. "Rich Man, Poor Man." Dallas Observer News. August 2, 2001. http://www.dallasobserver.com/2001-08-02/news/rich-man-poor-man/ (Accessed November 2, 2011).

Fox, Stephen. E-mail correspondence, May 5, 2010.

Gane, John F., ed. American Architects Directory. 3rd ed. New York and London: R. R. Browker Company, 1970. S.v. “Thomas Edward Stanley II.”

Giant New Building.” Newspaper clipping, Austin History Center.

Haydon, Peggy. Peggy Haydon to James W McClendon, January 27, 1967 Austin History Center, Austin.

Koyl, George S, ed. American Architects Directory. 2nd ed. New York: R. R. Browker Company, 1962. S.v. “Thomas Edward Stanley, II.

———, ed. American Architects Directory. New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1955. S.v. “Thomas Edward Stanley II.”
Plohetski, Tony. “New Push for Fire Safety: Fire Chief Asks for Ordinance on High-Rise Sprinklers.” Austin American-Statesman (Austin, TX), August 21, 2002.

Smith, Barry. Interview by author, Cambridge Tower Condominiums Office - 1801 Lavaca, Austin, TX, February 19, 2010.

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