Welcome to FLMA's Project Website
for the Nomination of
Santa Rita Courts
An Austin, Texas Public Housing
the National Register of Historic Places
Christmas, when all over the world people were celebrating the
birth of the Christ child, I took a walk here in Austin-a short
walk, just a few blocks from Congress Avenue, and there I found
people living in such squalor that Christmas Day was to them just
one more day of filth and misery. Forty families on one lot, using
one water faucet. Living in barren one-room huts, they were deprived
of the glory of sunshine in the daytime, and were so poor they
could not even at night use the electricity that is to be generated
by our great river. Here the men and women did not play at Santa
Claus. Here the children were so much in need of the very essentials
of life that they scarcely missed the added pleasures of our Christian
I found one family that
might be called typical. Living within one dreary room, where
no single window let in the beneficent sunlight, and where not
even the smallest vagrant breeze brought them relief in the hot
summer-here they slept, here they cooked and ate, here they washed
themselves in a leaky tin tub after carrying the water for 100
yards. Here they brought up their children ill-nourished and amid
sordid surroundings. And on this Christmas morning there was no
Santa Claus for the 10 children, all under 10 years old, who scrambled
around the feet of a wretched mother bent over her washtub, while
in this same room her husband, and the father of the brood, lay
ill with an infectious disease.....
......No one is
more proud of the beauty and attainments of the City of Austin
than I. But for that very reason I am unwilling to close
my eyes to needless suffering and deprivation, which is not only
a curse to the people immediately concerned, but is also a cancerous
blight on the whole community......"
Lyndon Baines Johnson from his famous "Tarnish on the Violet
Crown" speech, delivered on KNOW Radio January 23, 1938
(You can download a copy of the entire speech by clicking here)
Rita Courts occupies a unique place in the history of twentieth
century America. The first public housing project funded and built
under the 1937 Housing Act that established local public housing
authorities, the housing development still functions as public
housing nearly seventy years later. This website has been developed
to function as an online resource about this public housing community,
its history, and its importance.
Santa Rita Courts was the first of three public housing projects
built in Austin in the late 1930's. Santa Rita, intended
for occupancy by Mexican families, consisted of 40 units
of modern "slum clearance" public housing. Rosewood
Courts, built for African-American families, consisted of 60 units,
and Chalmers Courts, built for whites, consisted of 86 units.
All three housing projects were completed in 1939, are currently
still in operation, and are managed by the Austin Housing Authority,
now known as the Housing
Authority of the City of Austin (HACA for short). Three
separate housing projects were built because of the segregationism
common at the time.
There are quite a few resources available on the web that do
a good job of explaining the history of the American public housing
program in general, although few focus on specific public housing
projects. The following websites offer a good introduction:
- The Wikipedia entry for public
housing does a good job of explaining the concept from an
Public Housing Debate" website of the Texas
Low Income Housing Information Service does a good job of
explaining some of the contradictions and difficulties faced
by U.S. public housing since its inception. The discussion is
focused on Texas and serves as a good basis for comparison with
other states and municipalities.
- The former Techwood
Homes housing project in Atlanta, which was demolished prior
to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, holds the distinction of being
the first fully federally funded public housing project in America.
But it was NOT funded or built under the 1937 Housing Act, having
been funded and built between 1935 and 1936.
- There were several other federally funded public housing
developments built with the assistance of the housing division
of the Public
Works Administration (PWA) such as the Carl Mackley Houses
in Philadelphia (entered into the National Register in 1998).
The primary purpose of the PWA, however, was to generate jobs,
not to build housing. Hence the passage of the Wagner-Steagall
bill, the United States Housing Act of 1937. This law, among
other things, established the United States Housing Authority.
- The HUD Office
of General Counsel contains a pdf copy of the 1937 law, with
amendments and changes from the 1998 Quality Housing and Work
Responsibility Act of 1998. The changes are interesting.
- This HUD website
lists the major pieces of 20th century federal legislation governing
housing in the United States.
- Three Housing Authorities were initially announced by President
Roosevelt: New York, New Orleans, and Austin. Congressman Johnson--so
the local story goes--had the grants announced in alphabetical
order, knowing that recognition of Austin would precede New Orleans
and New York. For a fuller description of what actually happened,
for an excerpt from Ronnie Dugger's excellent 1982 biography
of LBJ The
Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson.
- You may be asking, "so where IS the oldest public housing
project in America?" Good question, and there is no
easy answer. Two leading contenders for the title of "first
public housing project" appear to be the "First
Houses" (on East Third Street in New York City (lower east
side of Manhattan), which was built in 1934-35, and "Knickerbocker
Village" on the lower east side, financed by a loan
from the New York State Housing Board in 1933. Senator
Robert F. Wagner Sr. of New York, a strong New Dealer, was
a Senate sponsor of the 1937 Housing Act.
- The New York City Housing Authority is the largest in the
country. Historically speaking, it is also one of the best
managed. Take a look at their "plan to preserve public
- The Austin Housing Authority enjoys the distinction
of being the first local housing agency (most of which were public
housing authorities) to start construction and to move a resident
into a development (Santa Rita Courts) built under the 1937 Housing
Act. Click here
for the Wikipedia entry briefly describing the law.
- As a public service, I have scanned in, in
its entirety, the very useful publication Urban
Housing: The Story of the PWA Housing Division, 1933-1936.
This is a LARGE file (~20mb). Adobe Acrobat or Acrobat Reader
greater than version 6.0 required.
History and Background
- The first
annual report of the Austin Housing Authority in 1939 serves
as a leading primary source document about how Santa Rita Courts,
Rosewood Courts, and Chalmers Courts were site selected, financed,
constructed, occupied, and maintained. The pdf file reproduced
here is a third generation scan from the files of the Austin
- The 1948
annual report and the 1988
annual report are also good historical documents, as well
as highly informative. Several noteworthy developments took place
between the 1939 and 1948 annual reports, perhaps most notably
the growth in units at Chalmers and the lack thereof at Santa
Rita. The addition of more units at Santa Rita came later.
- The LBJ Library in
Austin has a good collection of historic photos of Congressman
Lyndon B. Johnson visiting
Santa Rita and its first Mexican and Mexican-American occupants
from March of 1939. I have also included other historic photos
in the file, including interior shots as well as a famous photograph
of LBJ in front of what is now 2408 East 2nd. St. in East Austin.
I visited the current occupants of that housing unit on
5 June, 2006 and took these
photos of the exterior while there. The older photos were
probably taken by Neal Douglass of the Austin Statesman.
pdf file contains newspaper clippings from the Austin
American and the Austin Statesman from 1938 and 1939.
Included is a picture of the actual signing of the 1937 Housing
Act (LBJ is standing farthest on the left).
- The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company has produced excellent
maps for well over a century. An overlay of the 1935 Austin
edition (updated between 1941 and 1953) includes this
verbal and pictorial description of Santa Rita. For
the Sanborn map of Rosewood Courts, click here.
- For a recent satellite image of Santa Rita Courts from Google Maps click here.
As with the Sanborn Map shown above, the original 40 units constructed
in 1938-39 are to the lower right (eastward side) of the picture.
For another satellite shot, with street names, click here.
- The USGS 7.5' quadrangle map topographic view of the nominated
area can be found here.
- The Latitude/Longitude and UTM coordinates of the original
40 unit housing project are as follows:
- Northeast corner, located approximately on the street corner
of Santa Rita and Prowse is located at 30°15'24.1" N
and 97°43'00.5" W. UTM coordinates are 14 623447 E and
- Northwest corner, located on the corner of Santa Rita and
Pedernales streets is located at 30°15'23.6" N and 97°42'57.5"
W. UTM coordinates are 15 623530 E and 3347913 N.
- Southwest corner, located at Pedernales and 2nd, is at 30°15'19.5"
N and 97°42'59.0" W. UTM coordinates are 14 623486 E
and 3347791 N.
- Southeast corner, located near 2402 East 2nd St. which has
a latitude of 30°15'20.6" N and a longitude of 97°43'02.5"
W. UTM coordinates are 14 623400 E and 3347824 E.
- The site forms an approximate rectangle with a length on
either side of 450 feet and a width of 310 feet.
The National Register Nomination
You can download a copy of the draft nomination
Comments and suggestions are welcome!