The Travis Heights-Fairview Park Historic District [†] is a large residential neighborhood spread across the northern expanse of central South Austin. It lies opposite downtown on the south side of the Colorado River which essentially divides the city into two halves: Austin, platted in 1839 on the north side as the capital of the Texas Republic, and South Austin, identified only as an undeveloped landscape on the south side of the river which remained sparsely-settled with scattered homesteads through most of the 19th century. The district is composed primarily of three major subdivisions: Swisher's Addition (1877), Fairview Park (1886) and Travis Heights (1913). It covers approximately 353 acres of irregular terrain and changing elevation defined by bluffs, creeks, ravines and wooded hillsides with dramatic views, scenic beauty and natural parkland. Its boundaries extend roughly from Edgecliff Terrace above the south bank of Lady Bird Lake, on the north, to the south side of Live Oak Street, on the south, and from the rear property lines along the east side of South Congress Avenue, on the west, to the east side of Kenwood Avenue, on the east.
It was no coincidence the bridge started and ended at James G. Swisher's ferry landings. Swisher was one of the few landowners in South Austin who both recognized the area's potential for large scale development and took tangible steps to direct and profit from it. Swisher and his wife, Elizabeth, were pioneer settlers who came to Travis County with their four grown children and their families in 1846. Swisher established his homestead on a bluff above the Colorado River, directly opposite Austin and Congress Avenue, its main street. Seeing the advantage of his location, Swisher set up a ferry to run between his station and tavern at the foot of Congress Avenue and the landing on his property on the south bank. In 1852, Swisher laid the groundwork for developing his property when he petitioned the Travis County Commissioners Court to build a dedicated highway between Austin and San Antonio across his property. Proposed as an extension of Congress Avenue, Swisher offered to donate a broad, 120' path from his station on the river to the southern boundary of his homestead. In exchange, the county provided the labor and materials to build the road. A deal was made and S. Congress Avenue, aka the San Antonio Highway, quickly became the most important road south of the river. It was also an investment for the Swishers who owned the land on both sides.
By 1877, when the bridge was underway, James Swisher's son, John handled most of the family business and matters. John Milton Swisher had risen above his pioneer roots to become a successful auditor and banker. Like his father, he had an instinct for enterprise. Just after the Civil War, he organized a stock company to build Austin's first street railway company and served as its president until 1870. When the railroads came to Austin, he worked as a land agent for the International and Great Northern Railroad to promote Austin and Travis County to immigrants looking for farms and home sites. Furthermore, he owned the Austin-San Antonio stage line which departed daily from his parents' ferry landing and continued south on the highway through their property.
Just as John Swisher may have been prompted to subdivide his family homestead when he learned news about the wooden bridge, so might Charles A. Newning have been inspired to develop his Fairview Park addition when he heard that an iron bridge would soon replace it. Newning was the driving force behind Fairview Park, which he intended as an exclusive enclave of substantial houses set on large lots among the wooded hills above the south bank of the Colorado River. Newning had come to Austin from New York in 1878 looking for investment opportunities in the "reconstructed" South. He soon partnered with Fred Turner as local agents for a New York-based land and insurance company. Unlike other so-called carpetbaggers, who came south to make their fortunes and then went back north, Newning let it be known that he meant to make Austin his home. As proof, he brought his fiancé, Annie Brush, from New York to Austin where they were married by the Rev. Dr. R. K. Smoot in the spring of 1880.
Newning's development concept differed entirely from Swisher's straight-forward plan to sell lots to any and all comers with virtually no restrictions or guiding principle. Instead, Newning intended to develop his addition along the lines of the "Garden Suburb" model that had become popular on the East Coast. These suburban communities were set in the countryside far beyond the noise, congestion and squalor of the city, composed of fashionable homes on estate- like lots that reflected the beauty of their park-like or scenic settings. He may have taken inspiration from Llewellyn Park, one of the country's first planned residential communities designed in 1857 by Alexander Jackson Davis. Set on a 100-acre farm tract about twelve miles from New York City in New Jersey, it was a community of country estates built around the beautiful, slightly enhanced natural environment with winding paths and selected plantings for greater enjoyment. As intended, the addition featured charming, well-crafted homes tucked among "majestic trees and running streams" on the wooded eastern slope of the Watchung Mountains. Llewellyn Park was carefully cultivated to appear as a natural environment.
As the economy continued to improve in the new century, developers and investors again looked to South Austin for development opportunities. Once again, reliable transportation for commuters loomed as the biggest challenge to South Austin's real estate potential. Business and civic leaders began agitating for better roads, a new bridge, and, at long last, a rapid, electric streetcar line linking South Austin to the city across the river. Foremost among them was William H. Stacy. When he lived in Fairview Park, Stacy was just starting out in the real estate business, but by the early 1900s, he was a seasoned veteran and ready to develop an addition of his own. Stacy became involved in initiatives to improve transportation to South Austin and in 1907, he worked with other businessmen to pass a bond election for the construction of a new bridge with a 50' concrete roadbed, wide enough to accommodate tracks for an interurban railway along Congress Avenue. As soon as the new bridge was completed on April 3, 1910, track was immediately laid for a street railway across the Congress Avenue bridge all the way north to the Capitol.
Stacy believed the streetcar would do for his Travis Heights Addition what a new bridge alone couldn't do for Swisher's Addition or Fairview Park: convince commuters to buy homesites on the south side of the river. He negotiated with the city's street railway company to lay track east from S. Congress Avenue along the sand road present Academy Drive, then known as Riverside Drive, to the foot of Travis Heights Boulevard. From there it turned south along the boulevard through the center of his addition, to its southern terminus at present Live Oak Street. Lots along the boulevard had wonderful views of the river and city of Austin. The boulevard followed a straight line up and across a rolling plain to the southern boundary of the addition. Other streets twisted through hills or dropped down steep ravines, very much like the drives in Fairview Park. Stacy planned his addition so that all of 600 lots would be more than two blocks away from the streetcar line. That intent was likely the reason Travis Heights was so successful in its early period of development, from 1913 through the 1930s.
It took nearly three years from the initial announcement of the Travis Heights Addition to its grand opening, scheduled for the last week of May 1913. As opening day drew near, the developers peppered the newspaper with full- and half‑page advertisements depicting happy families ascending to "the heights" – drawn as a cozy bungalow nestled in the pines in a heart-shaped frame at the top of the page. On May 25, 1913, an ad heralded "Beautiful South Austin Addition is to be Placed on Market Soon," proclaiming that Travis Heights' natural beauty had been conserved as evidenced by its "winding drives around natural slopes, beautiful with full grown trees and the earth well sodded; with creeks here and there, and this all on a natural slope to the Colorado River for its front, Austin will have a scenic residence district near the central business district second to none in any community."150 Its many attributes were enumerated one-by-one: frontage on the Colorado River, a dedicated eight-acre park along the shore, a fine site for boathouses and boating places, a ravine reserved "for a rambling walk," views of Austin from any point, and "one of the most beautiful drives imaginable from the opening of the tract" (at Riverside Drive and Travis Boulevard).
† Adapted from: Terri Myers, historian; Kristen Brown, architectural historian, Preservation Central, Inc., Travis Heights-Fairview Park Historic District. nomination document, 2020, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C., accessed August, 2021.
Academy Drive • Alameda Drive • Alta Vista Avenue • Annie Street East • Brackenridge Street • Drake Avenue • East Side Drive • Kenwood Avenue • Leland Street • Live Oak Street East • Mariposa Drive • Milam Place • Milton Street East • Monroe Street East • Newning Avenue ( • Nickerson Street • Rutherford Place • Travis Heights Boulevard