Nov 16, 2012

Remnant of Austin African-American Neighborhood to Open as Restaurant

The Austin building that housed the Gold Dollar newspaper in the 1800s, when Wheatsville was an African-American neighborhood, will soon open as Freedman’s restaurant. Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez.


By Jillian Bliss
For Reporting Texas

A new chapter is about to open for a piece of Texas history nestled in West Campus, a bustling neighborhood next door to the University of Texas.

The last remaining building from the former African-American neighborhood known as Wheatville was built in 1869 and is about to reopen as a smokehouse and bar named Freedman’s. (The historical neighborhood is often called Wheatsville these days. That began after the nearby Wheatsville food cooperative was founded in the 1970s.)

Cuatro Kowalski, owner of Freedman’s and neighboring restaurant Cuatro’s, said he chose the name to honor the rich history of the building — especially its time as publishing house for one of the first black newspapers west of the Mississippi.

Jacob Fontaine was a Baptist minister and former slave known for his political activism and support for establishing a University of Texas. He established the Austin Gold Dollar as a weekly newspaper in 1876 and ran it out of his home in the two-story, limestone building at the corner of San Gabriel and 24th Street.

“After emancipation there was greater freedom for blacks in general, but the freedom to attend schools and to learn was restricted by segregation, and some of the laws in the Deep South almost forbade them to learn to read and write,” said Gene Burd, a University of Texas professor of journalism. Burd researched the building’s history when Fontaine family members asked him to help prepare a biography of the minister.

Burd said the newspaper served not only to inform, but also to educate.

“Since Reverend Fontaine was a preacher and in a sense a teacher, he saw the newspaper as a way to educate blacks who were freed and also to help them to read and learn more about that new freedom and the future ahead,” Burd said.

The name of the paper celebrated freedom, Burd said. Fontaine derived the idea from a gold dollar given to him by his sister after a 20-year separation because of slavery. Historical documents show the paper existed until about 1880, with the reason for its demise unclear. In 1881, Fontaine began campaigning for the creation of the University of Texas, traveling to towns across the state to secure the black vote for the school.

After the paper ended publication, Fontaine focused on his calling as a Baptist minister. He established the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church — one of six he helped create — in the building in 1887. The church has relocated but is still active in Austin.

Burd’s research shows that Fontaine also operated a laundry and grocery store there, though it’s not clear he ever owned the building. It was purchased by the Franzetti family in the 1920s, when the neighborhood began to gain recognition as an Italian community. The family ran a grocery store out of the building for 12 years, adding a wooden porch to its facade in 1923.

The building received historic landmark status in 1977, and members of the family lived there until the 1980s. It housed a Moroccan imports store when its current owner moved to town in 1998 to attend UT. Kowalski, now 32, returned to Austin after working at a restaurant in Chicago for a few years to open Cuatro’s Restaurant in a building next door to the Gold Dollar structure.

The University Area Partners neighborhood association has endorsed Kowalski’s plans for the building, according to board member Mike McHone. To get it in shape, Kowalski has refinished hardwood floors, stabilized the 3-foot-thick limestone walls, repaired a hole in the northwest corner, installed a bar and kitchen, and brought electrical and water systems up to date.

Kowalski said he and business partner James Stockbauer want Freedman’s to reflect the building’s history in its décor as well as its name. The chandelier over its front bar was formerly a part of the historic Pease Mansion, where Fontaine’s wife kept house during the 1870s. The West Austin mansion was home to at least two governors and remains a city landmark.

“We’re going to have all sorts of pictures and written history all over the walls playing it up big time,” Kowalski said. “It’s such a unique building, and we wanted to play that up.”

Antique liquor bottles found during refurbishment will join the modern liquor cabinet and wine collection overlooking the 1907 bar, obtained from a San Antonio soda fountain, Kowalski said.

Kowalski’s efforts have drawn a few criticisms. Bernadette Phifer, who has served as curator of the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Austin for 25 years, said she has feared for the future of the Gold Dollar building for some time. She said she has hoped that a new owner would erect a kiosk explaining the structure’s rich history.

Though the relics inside Freedman’s may reflect its history, Phifer said she does not think the establishment’s new name is appropriate given the building’s past and the type of business Kowalski plans there.

“It is important we celebrate our culture and community, and for those coming into the neighborhood, we don’t want to discount the past and let it erode,” Phifer said. “In our culture there are certain phrases that mean more to us. ‘Freedman’s’ and what is related to that is, in our culture, something that’s lifted up. A bar isn’t necessarily something we would want related to it.”

A sign sporting the business’s name and “opening early 2012” hangs from the wooden front porch. The debut of Freedman’s has been delayed by bringing the building up to the city’s structural and safety standards.

Alyson McGee, city of Austin deputy historic preservation officer, said that because the building is a historic landmark, modifications had to be submitted to her office for review.

“We have the authority to approve and deny exterior work, and our concern would be to maintain the exterior appearance so it retains its historic integrity,” McGee said. “That doesn’t mean additions can’t be made. They just need to be done in a way that doesn’t harm its historic features.”

Kowalski and Stockbauer made a few exterior additions — such as a beer garden and kitchen facilities — in their remodel of the building. The team has invested almost $400,000 in remodeling, Kowalski said.

Freedman’s front room features a cocktail lounge, and owners plan offer the upstairs for private parties and maybe music acts. The menu will feature craft beers, upscale adult beverages and smoked meats.