Hailed as the most dazzling building in Austin since its 1929 debut, the Norwood Tower resembles a classic fairy-tale castle. The dramatic façade of this elegant Gothic Revival office tower stuns the viewer with its eclectic confection of finials, gargoyles and ornate tracery full of romance, mystique, and nostalgia.
The lobby entry is adorned with travertine marble wainscoting and columns with marble capitals and bases resting on polished Texas limestone flooring. Its ornamental plaster ceiling is adorned with gold leaf medallions.
The building’s owners, members of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s family, have deep roots in Austin and many ties to the Norwood Tower. President Johnson’s daughter and her husband have chosen to make their home in the building’s penthouse, affirming their commitment to downtown revitalization, urban living, and the building’s rich, historic significance.
Circa 1931, Historic Norwood Building
Photo by Jordan Ellison courtesy of Austin History Center,
Austin Public Library
THE CASTLE IN THE SKY
WATT HARRIS, JR.
Son of the Architect
The building has more light than most buildings. Dad was very pleased with the appearance of the building and with the opportunity to add so many innovations, like the air-conditioning and the garage.
“The Norwood Building was the first “skyscraper” in Austin. The top floor was occupied by the Butler family. A party was given for the 1938 graduates of Austin High, and I was among those invited. It was thrilling and at that point even frightening to be up so high.”
CLARENCE ODIE WILLIAMS
Throughout the period of segregation in Austin, visiting African American dignitaries and local businessmen and ministers would call on Williams to get a drink of water and use his facilities at Norwood Tower when they were downtown because it was the only facility available to them. Williams remained at the building until he retired in the fifties and afterward continued to pick up and deliver the mail for various tenants. Despite the prevailing customs of the day, the best medical professionals in the building made sure that Williams’ family received their attention. According to his daughter, Johnnie Sparks, Williams looked upon the Norwood Building as his home and its tenants as his family. He held the keys to all the locks and sometimes took his children to the very top of the building to see the view.
Photo by his daughter, Johnnie Williams Sparks, courtesy of his granddaughter, Bobbie Sparks Williams
Norwood Tower was recognized for decades as the tallest building in downtown Austin. It was the first office building in Austin (and one of the first in the nation) built to be fully air-conditioned and was also the first to have rooftop gardens, an attached parking garage, a residential penthouse, and a pre-cast exterior. The cruciform shape of the 14th-floor suite, where Norwood’s offices were located, created four large, corner terraces for Austin’s first rooftop landscape project.
The four-story attached Motoramp Garage was another first for Austin. Instead of hoisting cars vertically in lifts and ‘stacking’ them, as other garages did, cars were parked by actually driving them to the appropriate spaces. Tenants dropped off their cars with parking attendants and entered the office building, just as they do today, through a private, second-floor entrance. An in-house automotive department offered a complete line of motor services, from fueling and car washes to repairs.
Purchased by Rust Properties in the late 1970s, the building underwent a five million dollar renovation in 1982-83 to bring it up to contemporary standards while preserving its character and original style. In December of 1997, it was purchased by the LBJ Holding Company, a fitting return to a company with family ties that run deep in the history of Norwood Tower and Austin. Inside, Italian travertine marble covered the lobby walls from ceiling to terrazzo-tiled floors. Ladies operated three modern elevators until the mid-sixties. The original, heavily tooled brass elevator doors still grace the main lobby with their Art Deco medallions.
Norwood Tower’s architect, Watt Harris, is credited with the building’s Gothic Revival design which romanticizes the medieval past with pointed arches, finials and adornments that feature gargoyles, a magnificent Neo-Gothic clock tower façade, decorative motifs representing the medical and legal professions, and stepped back top floors that give the building its picturesque, castle-like silhouette.
Inside, Italian travertine marble covered the lobby walls from ceiling to terrazzo-tiled floors. Ladies operated three modern elevators until the mid-sixties. The original, heavily tooled brass elevator doors still grace the main lobby with their Art Deco medallions.