CityLab had an interesting piece a few weeks ago on Sanborn fire insurance maps. These maps were created by Daniel A. Sanborn beginning in the 1800s to help insurance companies map fire risks. The maps were exquisitely detailed catalogs of existing structures, and included the outlines of each building and outbuilding, the location of windows and doors, street names, street and sidewalk widths, building composition and a host of other information, and updated every few years. They were a hand-crafted, pre-digital GIS database.
There were Sanborn maps for Austin. Here is the east side of the 500 block of Congress from the 1956 Sanborn map. Note the density of businesses. I count 24 separate buildings in this one block.
This map portended the future character of downtown development, though. By 1956, the southeastern corner of the block had been converted to an "open deck garage" and drive-thru bank, the eventual fate of many downtown properties.
There’s an interesting quirk to these maps. To save money, Sanborn did not produce totally new maps between 1934 and 1956. Instead, map makers (called "pasters" or "correctors") carefully cut out overlays to paste over the existing maps. The pasters would visit subscribers' offices to paste the slips on top of the old maps. But the paper they used was not thick enough to completely blot out the underlying buildings. They inadvertently created a record of how the building stock changed between 1934 and 1956.
They tell a story of a drastic reduction in building stock during the Great Depression and early post-war years.
For example, here is the 900 block of Lavaca/Guadalupe, which today is the site of two drive-thru banks. The map documents the destruction of four buildings (numbered 1-4), and their replacement with parking.
A close-up of the southeastern corner clearly shows the ghostly image of a demolished building:
The period was especially hard on Rio Grande. Take the 400 block of Rio Grande, just north of today's 360 condominiums. Nine buildings on this block -- excluding small outbuildings and sheds -- were demolished during the Depression or post-war years and replaced with used car lots.
The damage was not limited to the west side of downtown. The 1400 block of San Jacinto and Brazos, smack next to the Capitol, was almost completely leveled. Depending on how you interpret the map, either eight or nine principal structures were knocked down, turning this into a mostly-vacant block.
(The subsequent development of this block shows that there are worse terminal states than being a parking lot. There are a lot of complaints about all of the new parking plinths downtown, but this is how we used to build parking plinths: impregnable walls with small offices perched, castle-wise, on top.)
Even where there was not wholesale, block-level destruction, there was a general thinning out of buildings. Take the four blocks meeting at 8th and Lavaca:
Every block experienced at least one demolition.
This is not to suggest that all of downtown's parking lots date to the Depression and early post-war years. During the 1960s and 1970s, structures continued to be demolished and replaced with parking lots at a disheartening rate. Judging from aerial photos, the early 1980s were the apex of the surface parking lot in downtown Austin.
But the Sanborn maps document a clear collapse in demand for downtown space, whether for office, retail, industry, or warehousing, before the mid-1950s. The interesting question is why?
One cause can be ruled out right away: the collapse was not caused by the construction of I-35 along downtown's eastern edge, because I-35 did not open through downtown Austin until 1962. Downtown property owners no doubt cheered the freeway's development, hoping that the new highway would reverse the collapse in demand.
Nor can the suburbanization of office and retail be credibly blamed, because this phenomenon didn't take off until the 1950s. Suburban retail either had not yet been built or was just coming on line by 1956. For example, the Twin Oaks shopping center at Oltorf and South Congress was completed in 1953. The Lamar Plaza shopping center on South Lamar, just one mile south of Town Lake, was completed in 1958. There is a lag between the loss of tenants and the decision to demolish the building. Demolition is an of despair, a decision an owner makes once he's convinced that the rental value of a building has dropped below the cost of maintaining and paying taxes on the building. Incipient suburbanization would not have lead to such a widespread loss in confidence in downtown rents.
So what's the answer?
Probably the Great Depression. The Great Depression caused a monumental collapse in demand for office and retail space, not just in downtown Austin but in downtowns across the country. Historian Robert Fogelson chronicled the collapse in his excellent book Downtown. For example, by the mid 1930s, the vacancy rate in downtown Detroit was running between 35 and 40 percent. With rents falling and increasingly hard to collect, property owners began demolishing buildings and replacing them with parking lots. Between 1932 and 1940 about 92 million cubic feet of commercial space, close to 10 percent of the total, was demolished in the Chicago Loop, most of it replaced by parking lots and one- or two-story garages. By the early 1940s in Los Angeles, roughly 25 percent of the buildable land was used to store autos -- large chunks of the business district were leveled for more than nine hundred parking lots and garages, with space for more than sixty-five thousand cars. Fogelson explained the phenomenon:
[H]itherto these buildings had been torn down to make room for taller, more up-to-date buildings, which, it was assumed, would make more money. Now, in the depths of the worst depression in the nation’s history, the owners were facing a unique situation, in which, said one real estate appraiser in 1934, 'there is no demand.' Hence the demolition of buildings like the Temple Theater [in Detroit] and their replacement by parking lots or one- and two-story garages, which were commonly referred to as “taxpayers.” The “taxpayers” were as much a legacy of the depression as the “Hoovervilles,” bread lines, soup kitchens, and dance marathons. They symbolized downtown in the 1930s as much as skyscrapers, department stores, and high-rise hotels had in the 1920s.
Downtown Austin likely experienced the trend afflicting other American downtowns. The Great Depression caused the collapse in demand for downtown buildings, resulting in the widespread conversion of buildings to parking lots.
Austin still bears some of those scars today. For example, here is the northwest corner of 9th and Lavaca today:
This is now the site of a drive-thru bank but mostly remains a parking lot, just as it was in 1956. This should be thought of as a scar of the Great Depression. Change in the built environment usually happens very slowly; damage can take a long time to heal.