Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum

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The Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum lies just east of Zilker Park and the Barton Springs Pool. In 1985, sculptor Charles Umlauf and his wife Angeline gifted this property and 168 sculptures to the City of Austin. Six years later, a garden and gallery building were built in the lower section. Their house on top of the hill has been restored and is available for private events. Both the house and his studio will be opened to the public in the near future.

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Austin Museum Day – Downtown: 2012

After visiting the East Austin museums during last Sunday’s Austin Museum Day, I headed downtown to check out three unusual sites…

I first stopped by the Byrne-Reed House on Rio Grande Street, headquarters for Humanities Texas. As the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, this non-profit “conducts and supports public programs in history, literature, philosophy, and the other humanities disciplines.” Humanities Texas administers a grants program, creates traveling exhibitions and conducts various educational programs.

The current exhibit is Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World. But I must confess that I spent more time admiring the house than reading the exhibit panels. I learned that the Byrne-Reed House was built as a family home in 1907 but was turned into an stucco-covered offering building in 1969. Humanities Texas purchased the building in 2006 and  recently completed an award-winning restoration project .

Next on my itinerary was the Texas Medical Association History of Medicine Gallery. I have driven past this corner of Guadalupe and 15th Street many, many times but wasn’t aware of this little museum in the first floor lobby.

The current exhibit, Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk, describes the top 10 public health achievements of the last century, including vaccination, motor vehicle safety, and fluoridation of drinking water. The exhibit’s name comes from sidewalk bricks which were laid to help control infectious diseases. This “museum” wasn’t big but the displays were informative and I was glad that I had stopped by.


Last stop on my downtown museum tour was the German Free School, tucked away on the 10th Street hillside near Red River. I’ve been to concerts next door at The Mohawk, but had absolutely no idea that this beautiful historic building was behind the trees. The folks in the School probably know about their noisy neighbors at The Mohawk though.

Friendly members of the German-Texas Heritage Society explained the property’s history. German immigrants started the school in 1858, which predated the Austin public school system by 20 years. Classes were “free” of religious instruction and taught in both English and German. After the school closed in 1881, the property changed hands several times before being purchased in 1948 by a deaf artist, Kelly H. Stevens. Stevens bequeathed the building and grounds to the German-Texas Heritage Society when he died in 1991. Some of Stevens paintings are on display inside. 
German classes are offered here for both adults and children. The Society sponsors events such as Oktoberfest, Christmas Market, and monthly German Film Nights. The German Free School is also available for small wedding receptions and parties.

Austin Museum Day – East Austin: 2012

Thirty-six area museums participated in Sunday’s Austin Museum Day. I took advantage of this free admission day to visit several museums in East Austin…

The George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center “collects, preserves, interprets and exhibits materials and artifacts which document the rich history of persons of African descent on a city, county, state, national and international level.” The Center is located in a relatively-new building (2005) near Kealing Middle School which reminds me of the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum with its soaring round entrance way. I especially enjoyed the wood carvings by Christopher O Adejumo and one of the permananent exhibits, Austin African American Families, where I learned that some well-known Austin neighborhoods such as Clarksville were founded by former slaves in the late 1800s.

The Texas Music Museum “explores and documents all the music that plays a role in the hearts of Texans.” Currently their main exhibit is “Contributions of East Austin African-American Musicians to Texas Music.” This museum is not very big and seems to be more focused on providing research and materials for other organizations. The walls are filled with posters containing photographs and short biographies of famous and not-so-famous musicians from around the state.

The French Legation Museum is thought to be the oldest surviving frame structure in Austin. It was built in 1841 by Alphonse Dubois, who was assigned as the charge d’ affaires to the newly-formed Republic of Texas. The house was barely completed when  Sam Houston moved the capitol to Houston in 1842, and so Dubois moved to Houston as well. The property was owned by the Robertson family for almost a hundred years, from 1848 to 1940, before being purchased by the State of Texas. The charming house and well-kept grounds are now under the care of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Music for Mother’s Day

Bill and I avoided the crowded Mother’s Day buffets this year and went to two free concerts instead…much more enjoyable with less guilt!

First we saw Elizabeth McQueen up at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. This month the Texas Center for Music History is sponsoring a free concert series on Sunday evenings on the museum’s terrace. Last year I had avoided going to outdoor concerts here since it’s all concrete. But while watching The Big Squeeze competition a few weeks ago, I realized that the terrace is shaded by the museum after mid-afternoon so these evening concerts are not unbearably hot.

Elizabeth McQueen performs with the Texas swing band, Asleep at the Wheel, but also does solo work. Our local NPR station KUT has been playing songs from her third and latest album, The Laziest Girl in Town. Elizabeth’s voice is clear and strong and she has a good stage presence.

The museum offers free admission on Sunday evenings during these concerts, so Bill and I looked around inside. Their latest special exhibit, Texas Music Roadtrip, celebrates famous Texas musicians including Janis Joplin, Bob Wills, Selena, Willie Nelson, and many more. I was thrilled to actually see Stevie Ray Vaughn‘s famous guitar, Number One, which has never been on public display before this exhibit. His custom Fender Strat  is immortalized in the Stevie Ray statue at Auditorium Shores.

Bill and I then walked a few blocks to the Texas State Capitol to hear a free concert by the Austin Symphonic Band. I know a few musicians who play in this band and have attended their other concerts around town. We arrived late to this concert (I had spent a lot of time looking at Number One) but we enjoyed selections by Henry Mancini and John Phillip Sousa. Both concerts had several hundred people in attendance.

La Peña

I’m always on the lookout for a good breakfast taco. So when I’d heard that La Peña on Congress Avenue sells the best ones in town, I just had to investigate. Bill and I have walked by this building many times but never went inside.

I was very surprised to discover that La Peña is actually an art gallery that also sells some food. Founder Cynthia Perez created this gallery to showcase Latino art in downtown Austin. Usually the word peña means “rocky outcrop or summit” in Spanish, but it can also refer to “a grass-roots community meeting place where popular folklore and other artistic expressions accompanied by food and drink are showcased.” Cynthia and her sister Lidia used to own Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, a popular Mexican restaurant that used to be on Congress Avenue as well. I remember the controversy in 2008 when Las Manitas was closed to make way for a new Marriott hotel. (Construction on the hotel was subsequently delayed and is supposed to begin later this year.)  

La Peña’s current exhibit “The Amazing Talavera Style” displays painted ceramics made by fifth-grade students from East Austin’s Sanchez Elementary School. Another definition may be needed here: talavera is a type of Mexican pottery with a milkish-white glaze. The children’s creations are very colorful and creative. The upcoming exhibit, “Healing Manadalas” by Juan Pabloe Gutierrez, features traditional cut paper techniques and opens later this month.

Now about those breakfast tacos: La Peña contains a small food counter called Congress Avenue Grocery that sells pastries, coffee, soft drinks, and breakfast tacos. The tacos actually come from Elsi’s Restaurant, located north of downtown on Burnet Road. My egg-and-potato taco was quite delicious, maybe not the very best in Austin since it’s not made-to-order, but I will certainly return for more.  

Austin History Center

In my continuing quest to visit Austin’s many museums, last week I walked up to the Austin History Center, on the corner of Guadalupe and 8th Streets. I was surprised to learn that the Center is actually the local history division of the Austin Public Library. Built in 1933, this was originally the main library building, but became the Austin History Center in 1983 after the much-larger central library was opened next door.

The Center houses over a million items including photographs, maps, and recordings related to the history of our city. Items can be requested from the closed stacks and viewed in the Reading Room. A Mayors’ Room contains photographs of Austin’s mayors. Meeting rooms and a Reception Room are available for use by non-profit groups.
Two exhibits are currently on display: 
  • Sounding Together: 100 Years of the Austin Symphony  traces the history of the Austin Symphony Orchestra from 1911 to 2011. This exhibit has been on display since last fall. While I was browsing the displays, three women (maybe from the Women’s Symphony League?) were discussing what to do with the photos and artifacts when the exhibit ends next month. Their conversation was almost as interesting as the exhibit itself.