One of Austin's first Black communities has largely been erased. This building tells its tale.
A 150-year-old building on West Campus is the last remnant of a freedom colony, a community of formerly enslaved people. The building has been closed as an apartment complex was built up around it. Some say the historic structure has never really gotten its due.
If you’re not looking for it, you might miss it. And if you’re not a UT Austin student, you probably don’t have much reason to pass by it at all.
Near the corner of West 24th Street and San Gabriel in West Campus, a 152-year-old stone building sits sandwiched in the middle of a new student apartment complex. Long ago it was the site of one of the first Black-led newspapers in the South, and today it’s the last remnant of Wheatville, a Black community that once thrived in Austin’s west side.
Some might call it a nail house or a holdout — a property that has endured as its surroundings have moved on and, well, up. A few years ago, a company bought the building’s neighboring properties (remember Tap 24?) and built a 140-unit apartment complex called HillTop. The stone building was protected through the city’s Historic Landmark status. Developers opted to build around it, and the complex now towers over it.
A small medallion on the front signals the building’s landmark status, but nothing on the structure gives insight into its past. The exact story behind it is hard to pinpoint.
“One of the things that’s so interesting about Wheatville and about these Black communities is that trying to get the history straight is very difficult because the history has gone the way of the buildings themselves,” says Edmund Gordon, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT Austin. “In other words, they’ve been erased, and that precise history is very difficult to come by.”
The building has been a lot of things over the last two centuries: a grocery store, a church, a home, an oriental rug dealership, a barbecue joint, a construction site. It’s changed hands a lot, too. From formerly enslaved people to Italian immigrants to a restaurateur.
Now, it, along with the surrounding apartment complex, is owned, in part, by a real estate investment trust. And soon it will meet its latest reincarnation: a coffee shop and bar called The Cauldron.
Perhaps it’s a miracle in itself that the building has lasted so long, despite the development of West Campus, which is now a hodgepodge of student housing complexes. But some say the building never really got its due.
So, what exactly is the story behind this building?
After Emancipation, formerly enslaved people acquired land and built towns, often referred to as freedmen’s communities or freedom colonies. Between 1865 and 1930, 557 of these settlements formed in Texas, according to the Texas Freedom Colonies Project.
In these spaces in Austin and across the state, newly freed Black Texans could lead independent lives, largely away from white society and the racial violence they’d encounter there. They built churches, schools, businesses and cemeteries.
“You have these communities, these enclaves, that were established by African Americans after the Civil War as places of safety, of community in the larger world where they were fraught with segregation and racial conflict,” says Tara Dudley, a professor at UT’s School of Architecture. “These were communities within the larger Austin community where individuals and families could prosper.”
One such settlement was Wheatville. A former slave named James Wheat founded the community just west of Austin in 1867. It was bounded by what is now 24th and 26th streets and Shoal Creek and Rio Grande. Residents remained relatively isolated from the rest of Austin, attending church there, sending their kids to the Wheatville school and shopping at the local grocery store. Many Wheatville residents — eventually there were 300 — traveled into Austin for work as builders, craftsmen, laundresses, wagon drivers and porters at hotels and businesses downtown, according to Dudley.
It was also where one of the first Black newspapers west of the Mississippi began — The Gold Dollar. The Rev. Jacob Fontaine, who lived in Wheatville, started the newspaper in 1876. It is thought that Fontaine published the newspaper out of the stone building at 2402 San Gabriel St.
Fontaine, who was born into slavery in Arkansas in 1808, was enslaved by Edward Fontaine, the personal secretary to Republic of Texas President Mirabeau Lamar. In addition to starting the newspaper, Jacob Fontaine was a Baptist preacher, political leader and businessman. He started six churches in Central Texas, some of which still continue today.
Active in politics, he was one of the first Black people to vote in Travis County. He also played a significant role in advocating for the University of Texas to be placed in Austin — perhaps thinking the university would be integrated. But Black students weren’t admitted until decades later.
Fontaine and his family are thought to have lived in the San Gabriel building periodically from the 1870s to 1890s, where he held church services and operated a grocery store.
Like other freedom colonies in and around Austin, Wheatville didn’t last forever. As Austin expanded westward, and when UT was built in 1883, white people encroached and Black residents were pushed out. In the early 1900s, the area began changing into a neighborhood of Italian immigrants. The stone building was bought in 1919 by Joe Franzetti, who operated a grocery store there until the 1950s.
Once a refuge, Wheatville became less and less inhabitable for Black residents because of racist city policies. A city dump was placed across from the Wheatville school, and residents were denied city services. The city adopted its infamous 1928 Master Plan, which legalized segregation. The plan placed all public facilities for Black people, such as schools and parks, in East Austin, in an attempt to draw them to a so-called “negro district” and away from the rest of the city.
Dudley says some Wheatville residents stuck it out as long as they could.
“For a time, you do have residents of Wheatville who were trying to resist and maintain their livelihood,” she said. “You have families that had been there for decades, if not generations in Wheatville who were trying to hold on to their livelihood, to their connection to that area.”
But most eventually left. The city closed the Wheatville elementary school in 1932. And as UT grew, student housing and sorority and fraternity houses moved in.
A similar story took place in other freedmen’s communities around the city and beyond.
“That kind of erasure is not just applicable to Wheatville or any freedom colonies in Austin,” Dudley said. “It’s very similar to stories in Black communities throughout the country.”
Looking at Austin today, it might be hard to imagine a time when the city had thriving Black communities on its West Side. West Austin is known for being wealthy and white. And because of the 1928 plan, areas east of I-35 have historically been home to Austin’s communities of color. Many of those residents have been priced out more recently as Austin has grown and the East Side has gentrified.
Over the years, the percentage of Black residents has dwindled, now making up about 7% of the city’s population. But in the 1870s, Black people made up a much larger percentage — nearly 37%, according to census data.
Dudley says Austin’s original Black communities are often left out of the narrative of how the city came to be.
“There were enclaves of African Americans that lived throughout the city once upon a time, and we don’t have a sense of that belonging,” she said. “I think it’s one reason why so many people of color don’t consider Austin home, as a welcoming place. They don’t see themselves here. Definitely not physically in the landscape anymore. But that history is not really fleshed out and presented.”
She sees the last remaining structure of Wheatville as an example of such erased history. When the building was given landmark status by the city in 1977, it was named the Franzetti Store, after the Italian family who operated the grocery store there. It wasn’t named for its roots in a freedom colony, or for its associations with Jacob Fontaine.
“When the property was designated as a landmark, that’s the history that was highlighted and focused,” Dudley said. “And all of these other histories, all of these other layers, ignored.”
There have been some attempts to tie the building back to its origins. In 2012, Cuatro Kowalski opened up a barbecue restaurant in the space called Freedmen’s, a nod to the building’s history. He said when he first bought the property, he didn’t know it had once been inhabited by freed slaves.
“We were like, ‘Well, let’s look up the history and see what happened in this building,’ and that’s when we started learning about it,” Kowalski said. “We were like, ‘Well, this is awesome. We’ve got to, you know, in some way incorporate that so we could tell the story and teach other people about what was going on in here.’”
But about five years into his business, the neighboring property owners told him they were in talks with developers about building apartments there.
“They approached us and said that basically the writing was on the wall: The highest and best use for real estate in West Campus is student housing or apartments,” he said.
While the stone building was protected by its historic landmark status, the areas to the sides and back were open to development. Kowalski said he had to make a choice: Stay through years of construction or get out.
“To say that we were forced out is maybe a little harsh, but, yeah, that location became unsustainable for our type of business,” he said. So, he sold it in 2018, to the same people who owned the surrounding properties.
The new owners, a group of local partners known as HillTop SH Ventures LP and a New York-based investment firm called W.P. Carey Inc., decided to build the eight-story apartment complex so that it wrapped around the Franzetti building. John Davenport, one of the owners, said they were fans of the building’s history and wanted the building to stay there.
“We always wanted the building to be a part of the identity of the development,” he said. “So, we came up with a way for it to kind of be nestled in and be more of an amenity eventually for the property.”
“It’s unfortunate in that there are just kind of bits and pieces that are given for what I think can and should be a more robust commemoration of that building of Jacob Fontaine [and] what it means for the community, especially because there’s nothing else.”
In 2017, the city’s Historic Landmark Commission approved the owners’ proposal provided the complex would not touch the historic structure.
Around the same time, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky began leading an effort to rename the building to reflect its roots. During a 2018 Planning Commission meeting, he said the fact the building was officially named “The Franzetti Store of Wheatville” gave “short shrift” to the building’s African-American history.
“It’s time to rectify that,” Sadowsky said.
The Austin City Council approved the renaming of the building to “The Reverend Jacob Fontaine Gold Dollar Building” later that year.
But so far, the name change has been little more than symbolic. Nothing on the building itself educates people about its history.
“It’s unfortunate in that there are just kind of bits and pieces that are given for what I think can and should be a more robust commemoration of that building of Jacob Fontaine [and] what it means for the community,” Dudley said, “especially because there’s nothing else.”
The Reverend Jacob Fontaine Gold Dollar Building has been closed to the public for the last four years during HillTop’s construction around it. The apartment complex, which opened in 2020, is geared toward UT Austin students and promises “stylish apartments” and “resort-style amenities,” including a rooftop pool and gym, according to its website.
After HillTop opened, the owners put the Gold Dollar Building up for lease. Davenport said they wanted to bring in a tenant that fit the “student vibe of the neighborhood and the type of people” living at HillTop. They leased it to a new business called The Cauldron, which is expected to open in April. The Cauldron owner Isaac Quintanilla says the space will be a coffee shop by day, a bar at night and a club on weekends.
“Our aesthetic is kind of a play off like Tulum, Mediterranean vibe,” Quintanilla said in the fall when he gave KUT a tour of the building. “And we’re excited to open up.”
The two-story building maintains a lot of its original features: wooden beams, exposed limestone walls, even an old vault under the staircase where shopkeepers perhaps once kept valuables.
“We’re not going to change anything structurally,” Quintanilla said. “We’re not adding walls, we’re not removing walls.”
But the space will look different than it ever has: The downstairs will serve as a bar and coffee shop with tables for people to sit, while the upstairs will be a lounge, featuring bottle service and a DJ corner. Quintanilla is planning to have a regular bar, a smoothie bar, a wall of plants, a Zodiac mural and an Instagram wall where people can take photos. He says he’s considering having a series of paintings that relate to Jacob Fontaine and pay homage to the building’s history.
“We want to be respectful of the building, but we also need to make sure it fits the aesthetic in the community we’re going to serve as of today,” he said.
And there could be one structural change. Quintanilla is hoping to remove the siding and roof of the second story’s enclosed balcony, which he says is decaying and no longer functional. The change will require approval from the Historic Landmark Commission.
Quintanilla and others involved with the project point out the balcony was not part of the original structure. But some see its destruction as further erasure. Dudley published an article this month arguing the modification shouldn’t be allowed until experts study the structure and “make recommendations for preservation best practices.” The proposal will go before the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday.
For the first time in its history, The Gold Dollar Building could soon have a physical marker on its facade, explaining its associations with Jacob Fontaine and The Gold Dollar. The commemoration isn’t coming through official city channels or the building’s owners. Instead, the effort was spurred by a man’s last wish to a friend.
In addition to renaming the building, Sadowsky, the city’s preservation officer, wanted to make the building’s history more apparent. He’d been working on wording for a plaque, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down progress — and his health was failing, says his friend Mike McHone. McHone, a development consultant and a founding member of the neighborhood association University Area Partners, had worked with Sadowsky on various projects over the years.
In the fall, McHone learned Sadowsky, who had cancer, was in hospice.
“One of his last wishes to me was to get the plaque installed,” McHone said.
He said Sadowsky felt strongly that proper recognition had never been given to this building and that the city had made a “great mistake” in not recognizing its history when originally designating it as a historic site in the 1970s.
Knowing his friend only had a few months left, McHone got to work. He asked a real estate developer, Lincoln Ventures, who also knew Sadowsky, to help pay for the plaque, and the building’s owners agreed to have it placed there. Sadowsky wrote the words and signed off on it. But on Jan. 12, he died.
McHone says the plaque is expected to arrive in March and he hopes to hold a ceremony for its installation.
“Unfortunately Mr. Sadowsky will not be there to share this moment with us,” he said. “But [the plaque] was what he wanted, so I’m glad I was able to do it.”
The plaque explains Fontaine’s role as a church leader and founder of The Gold Dollar newspaper. It says the “rock rubble structure … gained its significance when the Rev. Jacob Fontaine moved into the building to establish his home and grocery story for the surrounding Wheatville freedmen’s community in 1875.”
But the story that’s commonly told about Jacob Fontaine’s connections to The Gold Dollar Building may not be entirely accurate — or at least somewhat exaggerated. In the article “The Gold Dollar Building and Black Erasure,” Gordon argues more archival work is needed to understand the building’s history. He says census records and city directories indicate Fontaine actually lived next door, at 2400 San Gabriel, a building that burned down long ago. That’s likely where The Gold Dollar was printed, Gordon says.
That building was “burned purposely by agents unknown, probably white folks, because Jacob Fontaine was a well-known radical Republican and defender of the Black vote and things like that,” Gordon told KUT. “So, The Gold Dollar newspaper was burned out.”
It’s likely many parts of the building known today as The Gold Dollar Building were built by a white grocer named Isaac Claypool. The Fontaine family may have rented it and lived there for a time after the arson. Gordon points out that when the filing was made to make the space a historical landmark, not enough research was done to figure out its exact history.
“No one did the historical research to really figure out anything about it at all,” he said. “So what that says is that Black history, Black presence, Black spaces really aren’t of value, particularly when other people value them and want to turn them to their own purposes.”
Wheatville as a whole is an example of that, he says. Because of its proximity to UT, it became valuable property for white people. Today, it is home mostly to UT students — who are overwhelmingly not Black.
“It’s valuable terrain, but not valuable Black terrain, and it’s taken over by another set of people,” Gordon said. “And the history is, if anything, inconvenient.”
He clarifies he doesn’t want to say The Gold Dollar absolutely was not published at the building that still stands today; he just has his doubts. Dudley, too, says archival sources show Fontaine and his family lived next door. However, she says, it’s been passed down through family lore that Fontaine did operate The Gold Dollar at the remaining building. A biography of Fontaine co-written by his grandson, for example, says he did live there and used it to operate the newspaper, a grocery store and a church.
But nailing down the specifics of a community that’s largely been erased is difficult. And perhaps what’s most important is that there’s anything left at all for people to remember Wheatville by.
“In some sense, it’s important that we still have something that we can say is a remnant of Wheatville,” Gordon said. “It’s important that there be some kind of commemoration of it. So, it’s The Gold Dollar Building.”
The story of Wheatville is more than this building. There’s still much more to be learned about what it was like to live in Austin’s freedom colonies, Dudley says. There are descendants of these communities that can share stories, and archives that hold oral histories from these early Austin residents.
“I think it’s important as a historian, as a preservationist, to continue to preserve those stories, to bring out those stories that realize it or not, are there in the archive and other places,” she says. “We just have to look for them.”
Wheatville, she says, still has stories to tell.
“Even though the buildings aren’t there,” she says, “we still can humanize that history and bring that back to life.”
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