Having already announced the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and the Golden anniversary of Richmond Elementary School to you, we have at least one more milestone to announce for 2009. In 1859 the finishing touches were put on the Sampson Building located here in Austin at Congress and 7th (although then it was Congress and Bois d’ Arc). The self same Sampson Building whose window I gaze out of this morning onto Congress from my second story office.
For a century and a half folks have stared out of what is now my window onto the heart of downtown Austin. Right down below me, the election of Lincoln was announced. From this window Sam Houston was seen walking away from the Capitol ,after resigning his Governorship in 1861 upon his failure to keep Texas in the Union. From this window was witnessed the marching down Congress of the Federal troops for the occupation of the city during Reconstruction. 150 years of people and parades have marched past this window honoring everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Elizabeth II to Darrell Royal to Lance Armstrong. Special editions of the Austin American newspaper were sold directly beneath me announcing the assassinations of McKinley and Garfield, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the battleship Maine. Someone in my office followed the bustle of confusion below following the news that John Kennedy would not have dinner in Austin after all on the evening of November 22, 1963 because he had just been murdered in Dallas. One year later, an occupant could look across the street to the huge party at the Driskill Hotel where Lyndon Johnson celebrated his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Just a little later someone in this office could hear the shots fired from the Texas Tower by Charles Whitman as we went on his murderous spree. Two centuries have turned here. On the last day of 1999 folks down below partied like it was, well, 1999 as the new millennium was ushered in. One year later thousands and thousands stood down below waiting for George W. Bush to make a victory speech which was derailed by the hanging chads in Florida. The same thousands and thousands 9although most of a different political persuasion) could be viewed from here just last spring, cheering on Barrack Obama as he made his way to the Presidency. As an aside, the shingle for Allensworth and Porter, LLP has hung out on the first floor of the building since January of 2003, very modestly linking my name, for however short a time, with all that has gone on before.
And what has really gone on before, inside these walls, while all of that history took place right outside ? Not much that was famous, although a good deal that was infamous. The sales of carpets, dry goods, drugs, both legal and illegal. Both legal and illegal sex took place between consenting adults when my office was part of the Congress Avenue Hotel. Dead bodies rested here when the building was a mortuary. Stocks have been sold, jewelry has been made, law has been practiced, shoes have been shined, documents have been copied and hamburgers have been consumed.
Except for its very early years, the Sampson building has been a downtown afterthought, towered over by hotels, Woolworths and finally a thirty story office building. It has labored in the shadows of its bigger neighbors to the point where not one Austinite in 100 could tell you where the “Sampson Building” is, despite the fact that its ownership has stayed in the same family for 150 years. Yet it survives. It survived the big hotel and the Art Deco Woolworths. Indeed it got here before the Woolworths chain really got started and stayed here after that chain, which dominated much of American retail, was gone. After the day of the “five and dime” itself was gone and forgotten. It survived the glamorous multi -story retail stores of the downtown shopping era, Scarborough’s and Yarings. It survived the mud streets, the brick streets, the wooden sidewalks and a couple of state capitol buildings. It survived the rotating fiberglass steer at the Maverick Steakhouse , Punch’s Lounge and its sister bar/dive, the Tradewinds.It saw downtown go from glamour to base seediness and back to glamour. I believe that it will be here when grass, once again, grows in the streets.
It is a privilege to be in this office. A privilege to look out my windows and think of all that has gone on here and below, good and bad. I would like to be here awhile longer and see how all of this turns out. But I know that that is not possible, it will stand here long after I am gone.
Then, ‘twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high:
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.
A.E. Houseman, On Wenlock’s Edge, “A Shropshire Lad”