Thursday, March 8, 2012

Swedish Hill - A Historic District, Austin, Texas

Submitted by Elisabeth Kihlberg

The Swedish Hill Historic District is a former Swedish enclave that originally covered a few blocks south of 19th street (today Martin Luther King Blvd) and a few blocks east of Red River St.
The development of this area began in the 1870s when a large number of Swedish immigrants erected homes near their downtown businesses. The first to build his home there was S. A. Lundell; soon thereafter Carl John Swahn built his house there, and many others followed. Eventually some sixty-seven Swedish immigrant families built homes in the vicinity and the neighborhood became known as Svenska Kullen (Swedish Hill).

These immigrants founded the first Swedish Methodist Church in Texas, and the first Swedish Lutheran Church, later named Gethsemane Lutheran Church at 1510 Congress Avenue built in 1882 and added to the National Register in 1970. The Swedes helped to establish Texas Wesleyan College, just north of the present-day University of Texas.  It is said that around year 1900, 25% of people living in Austin, spoke Swedish!

Over time, urban development, most notably the construction of I-35 and the Frank Erwin Center, has shrunk the size of the community dramatically. Today the community comprises an eclectic mix of students and urban dwellers.

In 1986, what remained of Swedish Hill, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Swedish Hill sits next to the Oakwood Cemetery and walking around you will find many Swedish names like Ekstrom, Sellstrom, Bergstrom, Holmberg, Rosengren, Kjallgren, Sandeen Swenson, Gustafson, Danielson, Carlson, Johnson, Anderson and of course Swante Palm.

It was Swante Palm together with his nephew S. M. Swenson started the large emigration of people from Småland, Sweden to Austin, Texas.

Swante Palm, was not only S. M. Swenson’s uncle and business manager, but also Austin’s first postmaster, justice of the peace, alderman and official meteorologist. He was also an immigration agent and Vice-Consul for Sweden and Norway. He was honored with a Vasa Order by King Oscar II so that the Texans mistakenly thought that he should be addressed “Sir Swante”. He served so many times on the Austin School Board that today there is a Swante Palm Elementary School (7601 Dixie Drive). The first Palm School was at 100 N. Interstate 35. The latter was one of Austin’s first schools (and now the Travis County Health and Human Services Building). Iinside the main entrance you will find photographs and plaques describing its early history. Most of all this “renaissance man of the southwest” is known as a bibliophile. He doubled the size of the University of Texas library, when he bequeathed 12 000 volumes from his library to UT.

Swedish Hill’s significance derives not only from the broad range of architectural styles, which is represented in the District, but also from the fact that each building is an excellent example of its own particular style. Architectural styles which are represented in the District are vernacular versions of the Victorian L plan, T plan, Cumberland plan, late Victorian corner-porch plan, Pyramidal plan, and Bungalow plan. All of the buildings are finely detailed; many display pleasing carpentry ornamentation in the forms of porch columns, balusters, railings, brackets, spindles, and a variety of siding and shingling types.

You find a list of some of the families who lived on Swede Hill at: 
David Borg