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The Scarbrough Building

An Austin Cornerstone Since 1910

Courtesy of Phoebe Allen

In 1839, Sixth Street was nothing more than a dead-end trail from Brenham. The Colorado River was not yet consistently navigable, but Brazos River steamboat traffic could bring colonists and supplies from the Gulf of Mexico at least as far as San Felipe before going overland to Brenham and on to the tiny settlement at Waterloo.

On a hunting trip the previous fall, Mirabeau Lamar had killed a trophy buffalo on the treeless prairie near present-day Eighth Street and Congress Avenue. As the second President of the Republic of Texas, z Lamar would influence the choice of the site for the new capital city. Edwin Waller used the intersection of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue as his starting point to lay out Austin’s streets in a classic grid pattern in 1839. That square mile was originally part of a Spanish land grant.

On August 1, 1839, an auction of lots was held to raise money for the Republic in order to finance the building of the new capital city. Recognizing the potential for this intersection, Alexander Russell purchased the southwest corner of Pecan (Sixth) Street and Congress Avenue for $2,800—the highest price paid for any lot. Russell built a two-story frame store on the lot, which was known as “Russell’s Corner” for some time. [1] On the south side of the store was the location of the Republic’s Treasury Department and pay office, which made for a popular place to gather. [2]

Across the street, on the northwest corner of Pecan Street and Congress Avenue, was the Bullock Hotel, which was the stop for the stagecoach from Bastrop. Pecan Street offered the flattest route into town for wagons, between the flooding stage of the Colorado River to the south and the gently rolling hills to the north. Pecan Street was soon lined with wagon yards, livery stables and saloons to meet the needs of travelers. The first railroad was to enter along East Pine (5th Street), arriving in December of 1871. [The names of the east-west streets were changed from trees to numbers in 1884.]

In1845, George Hancock bought Russell’s store and retailed salt, bacon and groceries on one side and dry goods on the other. His son, Lewis Hancock, leased the lot to E.M. Scarbrough in the 1890s and sold it to him in December of 1905. Scarbrough began construction of Austin’s first skyscraper on the site in 1908. The Scarbrough Building was among the most prestigious and modern structures of its day. It was to become the largest and finest department store in Central Texas for many decades.

Purchased by Merit Texas Properties in December of 1999, the Scarbrough Building lies on the southwest corner of the intersection of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue. Austin is fortunate that the present owners of both the Scarbrough and Littlefield Buildings take pride in their history as we move toward their 100th anniversaries as cornerstones of Austin’s downtown business district at Sixth Street & Congress Avenue and its two downtown National Register Historic Districts.

Emerson Monroe Scarbrough

Emerson Monroe Scarbrough was born in northern Alabama on May 19, 1846. His father Lemuel died four years later, leaving a widow and 12 children, a dozen slaves, and a farm of three or four hundred acres well-stocked with cattle, hogs, sheep, mules, and horses. Emerson attended country schools and studied at night by the light of pine knots and tallow candles.

At the age of eighteen, Emerson joined the Confederate Army, as had four of his six brothers. His unit defended Atlanta against General Sherman, and he recalled tearing up railroads and burning bridges over which Sherman was sending food and supplies to his army. Scarbrough returned to the farm after the war ended, but shortly after his 21st birthday, headed for Texas with a thousand-dollar gift from his mother in his pocket.

He first clerked at Hale & Evans – country stores in Bryant Station and Hearne, and then contracted to supply timber to railroads before going into business with H.P. Hale and Company in Rockdale in 1874. After Hale’s death in 1893, the store became Scarbrough & Hicks. Scarbrough served as mayor of Rockdale and chairman of the school board for a time; he helped persuade the railway to pass through Rockdale instead of Taylor.

Scarbrough married Ada Ledbetter of Cameron, Texas in 1877 and had four children—E.M. Jr., Julia, Ada Pearl, and JohnWilliam—before his 1889 move to Austin, where his youngest son, Lemuel, was born. Austin offered better schools, medical facilities for his ailing wife, and a larger field for his mercantile business.

Scarbrough & Hicks

For almost four years, Scarbrough lived in semi-retirement at his home on Whitis and 27th. His wife died the year before he opened a “mammoth” Scarbrough & Hicks store in the three-story Kreisle building at 414 Congress on January 30, 1893.

Ladies in high-buttoned shoes and wasp-waisted dresses swept into ten departments on the first floor—manned with 25 to 35 sales people—to select from “a full and complete line of dress goods, white goods, calicoes, ginghams, staples, linens, towels, napkins, curtains, hosiery, insertings, corsets, notions, hats, shirtwaists, trunks, valises, and a full line of gents furnishings.” [3]

Mr. Scarbrough was a shrewd, practical, and innovative businessman. Price tags were attached to each article of merchandise, abolishing the “haggling” system; all customers now paid the same prices. His store was the first in Austin to extend credit to customers—quite a departure from the cash custom of the day. Bills were payable in the fall when the crops were in, and within the first year he took in over 2,000 bales of cotton in exchange for merchandise. He also offered free parcel post deliveries, and absorbed up to 5% of a customer’s purchases toward the cost of delivery by rail.

Just nineteen months later, the “apartment” store moved to a larger space at 512-520 Congress, formerly Schoolherr’s & Philipson’s Dry Goods. The new location was the state’s fifth largest in size, with haberdashery on the ground floor, housewares in the basement, and ladies’ garments, furs, corsets, and millinery upstairs. In the summer of 1894, Scarbrough spent two months in New York City buying the latest fashions. While there he set up a banking account in order to deal directly with clothing manufacturers, thereby cutting out wholesale middlemen to lower his costs and draw more customers.

E.M. Scarbrough died in his sleep on June 18, 1925, after a day in his office. His two youngest sons, J.W. and Lemuel, continued what was to become a family tradition. Although Scarbrough’s closed its downtown location in February of 1983, owing to a lack of parking and the proliferation of local malls, the third generation (Jack, Jr., Margaret Scarbrough Wilson—who took control in 1966, and her brother Lemuel) continued to operate Scarbrough’s stores. Today’s fourth generation, Nancy Wilson Garrison, currently operates Scarbrough’s 38th & Lamar location.

The Scarbrough Building

Designed in the Chicago style by Fort Worth architects Sanguinet and Staats, Austin’s first modern office building was erected by James Black Construction Company of St. Louis in 1908-09. Bets were taken on whether the city’s first steel and concrete structure would stand or fall.

Built on the corner site of the old Hancock building, most recently occupied by the Chiles Drug Store, the building adjoined Scarbrough & Hicks. Its base of two-story Doric piers reflected Sanguinet and Staats’ familiarity with Chicago architecture of the day. [4] The six upper floors accommodated 126 business offices, while the first two floors were created to house the finest department store in central Texas. C.A. Wheeler of Chicago designed the store’s mahogany furnishings.

There were 65,000 square feet of wood flooring in the store and offices. The floors of the corridors and toilet rooms were of terrazzo with borders and panels. The elevator lobby was of Tennessee marble with a dark border and light field. All corridors, toilet rooms and stairways had Tennessee marble wainscot, while the elevator lobby had a wainscot of imported Italian marble. The main stairway, leading up from the lobby, was composed entirely of marble. There was also a vacuum cleaning plant with connections on each floor. Two elevators transported passengers from the basement to the eighth floor, and one car moved between the basement and second floor.

The entire building was heated by steam through 250 radiators and lit by electricity from the power plant located in the rear of the basement. There were 200 electric ceiling fans. Air was cooled by passing over refrigerated pipes and circulated by a ventilation system. Hot and cold water were available in all washrooms, and ice water faucets on each floor provided tenants with drinking water.

In 1912-13, E.M. Scarbrough set up a partnership with his two youngest sons, J.W. and Lemuel, and following the death of his partner, R.H. Hicks – who had remained at the Rockdale store – bought out his partner’s interest. Scarbrough & Hicks became E.M. Scarbrough & Sons.

E.M. Scarbrough & Sons

In 1916, the old store building next door was remodeled, new fixtures installed, and a full basement expansion was dug by hand without seriously disturbing the business. In 1930-31, the old Scarbrough & Hicks building was razed. A three-story addition was built in its place with fireproof construction and a sprinkler system. A temporary annex (formerly Barker Motor Company) on Colorado Street was connected via a second-floor, 14-foot wide passageway during the construction and later demolished.

Wyatt C. Hedrick, Inc. of Ft. Worth and Edwin Kreisle of Austin were the architects of the 1931 project. C.E. Swanson of Chicago, who designed many interiors for Chicago’s Marshall Field’s store, was in charge of the interior work of the new building. [5]

First floor furnishings were composed of American walnut, Oriental walnut, and a walnut burl with maple contrast in the fixture backs and showcase platforms to display the merchandise more vividly. Some valuable mahogany pieces were retained and retrimmed for use in the new part of the building. Thirteen fitting rooms were added, no two of which were alike.

A direct entrance to the store was opened onto Sixth Street, offering a new stairway to the Downstairs Store. There was also an entrance into the office building and an entrance into Griffith Drug Company, operated by Dave Chiles. Chiles’ father had been the owner of Chiles Drug Company, which had occupied the old Hancock Building on the site. In the new 95,900 square foot store (1,000,000 cubic feet), the former men’s shop entry on Congress was eliminated to provide additional window display space.

Three passenger elevators, with provisions for a fourth, were added to the new part of the building. A painting of E.M. Scarbrough, by Wayman Adams of New York, hung above the elevators on the first floor. Executive offices and a photographic studio were on the third floor, women’s shops on the second, piece goods and men’s shops were on the first, and the basement provided the budget Downstairs Store and a large Fountain Room that served light lunches.

“Scarbrough’s” – as it was known locally – reopened on September 14, 1931 and became the first retail store west of the Mississippi with “manufactured weather.” [6] Air conditioning, installed by Carrier Engineering Corporation, offered “control of humidity and freedom from dust and germs to a marked degree in the warm months.” [7]

Standing on land once a Spanish land grant, the completed store now faced 152 feet on Congress Avenue and 160 feet on Sixth Street. The entire exterior had been redesigned in the Art Deco style. Green enamel baked on metal still makes for a striking contrast against the Rosetta black granite on the sides and front of the store. Only the cornice and upper floor windows yet reveal the building’s Chicago style origins.

Early Occupants:

Physicians, real estate offices, and attorneys dominate the early listings in the Scarbrough Building. Well-known Austin family names and businesses include those of Zachary T. Scott, Ralph Steiner, Henry L. Hilgartner, E.H. Perry, R. Niles Graham, M.M. Shipe & Son, George W. Walling, Jr., E.C. Kreisle (architect), M.H. Crockett, A.J. Kleberg, S. J. VonKoenneritz, John H. Chiles, Jr., the City Attorney’s office, Texas Tariff Bureau, the Austin Saengerrunde Home Company, Texas State Employment Service, Gossip Advertising, Missouri-Kansas & Texas Land Company, H. Granberry, and the Austin Typewriter Exchange.


[1] Mary Starr Barkley, History of Travis County & Austin, 1839-1899. (Waco: Texian Press, 1963) p 40.

[2] Ibid., p. 47-48.

[3] Austin Statesman, Feb. 2,1892. “Scarbrough & Hicks Will Open their Mammoth Store Next Monday for Business.” And Mar. 30, 1894. “The Apartment Store of Scarbrough & Hicks Fifth in Size in the State”

[4] Hank Todd Smith, ed. Austin: Its Architects and Architecture (1836-1986). Austin Chapter American Institute of Architects. 1986, p. 40.

[5] Austin Statesman Jan. 22, 1931, p. 1, “Scarbrough’s Store Plans New Building on Old Site.”

[6] Austin Statesman Aug. 12, 1956. “Scarbrough Store Soon Became Austin Institution.”

[7]“The Story of the New & Larger Scarbrough Store,” late 1931. Store brochure.



Barkley, Mary Starr. History of Travis County & Austin, 1839-1899. Waco: Texian Press, 1963.

Humphrey, David. Austin: An Illustrated History. Northridge, Ca.: Windsor Publications, 1985.

Jackson, Pearl Cashell. Austin Yesterday and Today. Austin: E.L. Steck, 1915.

Smith, Hank Todd, ed. Austin: Its Architects and Architecture (1836-1986). Austin Chapter American Institute of Architects. 1986. P. 13, 39, 40.

Newspaper Clippings &  Articles

____Tribune. March 2, 1910. “Austin’s First Skyscraper and the Man Building It.”

Austin Statesman

Feb. 2,1892. “Scarbrough & Hicks Will Open their Mammoth Store Next Monday for Business.”

Mar. 30, 1894. “The Apartment Store of Scarbrough & Hicks Fifth in Size in the State”

Sept. 11, 1931. “Scarbrough Opening Dated”

Sept. 15, 1931. “Scarbrough’s First Customers Come Back”

Jan. 22, 1931, p 1+ “Scarbrough’s Store Plans New Building on Old Site.”

Aug. 18, 1931. P 1, “Scarbrough’s Will Open New Store During September.”

Jan. 22, 1931. “Founder of Store & Its Present Operators.”

Sept. 15, 1931. “Thousands See Scarbrough Store”

Sept. 13, 1931. p. 1. “Scarbrough Opens In New Building Monday Morning.”

Sept. 1, 1946. “Scarbrough & Sons Since 1893.”

Oct. 18, 1953. “Scarbrough’s Grows with Austin.”

Aug. 12, 1956. “Scarbrough Store Soon Became Austin Institution.”

Austin Morning Herald Sept. 11, 1931. P. 2. “Scarbrough Store Moves to New Location.”

Baker, Betty. Historic Walking Tours: Congress Ave. & E. 6th St. City of Austin, 1995.

Daniell, L.E. “Texas, the Country & Its Men: G. W. Littlefield.” Austin: ca. 1918.

Galvin, Lois Hale. 1894: 75 Years on Congress Avenue. Newspaper clipping.

Files and Miscellaneous

Austin History Center House & Building File: 512-520 Congress, Austin, Texas

Austin History Center Austin File Biography: E.M. Scarbrough. “From notes written in the handwriting of E.M. Scarbrough,” undated. Reproduced 11/25/60.

Austin History Center Austin Biography File: Ada Ledbetter Scarbrough and E.M. Scarbrough

Austin History Center Austin Biography File: “A Brief Biography of E.M. Scarbrough.” 2/1959.

City Historic Landmark Files, City Historic Preservation Office, Department of Transportation, Planning and Sustainability, City of Austin.

Files of Nancy Wilson Garrison (great-grandaughter of E.M. Scarbrough):

“Scarbrough Building, Austin, Texas, Contains. “- Undated back of 10-year calendar

Location Map of Departments during the erection of new Scarbrough Store.

“The Story of the New & Larger Scarbrough Store,” late 1931. Store brochure.

National Register of Historic Places, “Inventory Nomination Form.” Item 7, p. 2-3. Item 8, P. 5.

Special thanks go to Betty Baker and Ed Vandervort of the Austin Historic Landmark Commission for their assistance and suggestions, and to the helpful staff of the Austin History Center.

Legal Description:

Lot 4-6 & N 16’ of lot 3

Block 55 Original City

Total square feet 24,640

(Total building approximately 105,000 square feet)

522 N. Congress Avenue

Scarbrough Owners

1. Merit-Scarbrough Limited Partnership, Dallas 12/17/99 TR 1999.157.817

2. Scarbrough Partners, LTD, 12/19/97 Vol. 13088, pg. 860 (#5876137 12/24/97)

3. Scarbrough Building Partnership, 12/1/83 Vol. 8413 pg 329

(Dr. Robert Blake, Lemuel Scarbrough Jr., Robert Hearon, Jackson Mouton)

[Blake & Mouton later bought out interest of Scarbrough’s cousin, with each of those three men then owning a one-third interest.]


This article is © Phoebe Allen 2002 

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