The Mystery and History of French Place Part Deux

How did the inventor of the bucket seat and a WAC officer with top-secret clearance end up here?

Written by Rebecca Kohout

In 1850, Peyton Wade Nowlin bought a second 40 acres of land from George McClintock for $280. This doubled his land holdings—the previous year he’d received a grant from Governor George Wood for 40 acres just west of McClintock’s land, an area bounded by East Ave. to Lafayette, Manor Rd./27th on the south and Edgewood on the north.

Upon his death in 1884, Nowlin willed the land to four of his daughters, Lucy Dancy, Addie Robinson, Mary Dinkins and Annie LeSeur. Lucy inherited the 20 acres that became Dancy Addition (see “The Mystery and History of French Place Pt. I” in the November 2012 Flea for more info). Addie, who married David Robinson (hence Robinson St.) received the land that became Avalon (from I-35 to the east side of Dancy and from 30th to Edgewood). Half of Mary’s land was developed into Nowlin Heights, spanning Lafayette from Manor Rd to 30th St., while the northern half was eventually sold to Walter Staehely. He purchased this northern section of land in 1938 for $6,000 from Addie’s daughter, Mary Miller, and would develop it as Lafayette Heights (from 30th to Edgewood). Annie’s land passed to her heirs until J. H. French and wife Olivia, granddaughter of Lucy Dancy, purchased it in 1939 for $25,000. He named the neighborhood Forest Hills, more commonly known as “French Place” today.

Avalon

In 1925, Addie Robinson’s granddaughter, Addie McClellan Damon and her siblings had inherited the large lot at 1110 East 32nd Street where a large two-story brick home now sits. Addie’s sister, Mary Ann, had been declared mentally unfit and was placed in an asylum. This led Addie to donate the property to the Brown School mental health facility in honor of her sister. The property, which was once the Children’s Advocacy Center, has remained in semi-public hands ever since and now houses Pediatric Cardiology of Austin.

Another granddaughter of Addie Robinson, Frances McClellan Dieter and husband, H. B. Deiter along with their sons, Hank and John, lived at 3108 Robinson, one of the oldest homes in Avalon dating from 1932. An engineer, H.B. invented and patented bucket seats for automobiles still in use. His son Hank, a life-long bachelor who loved to sing and attend the German social club at Saengerrunde Hall, purchased several homes in Avalon that remain in the family to this day.

William and Annie Shirriffs were early residents of the oldest surviving home in Avalon, 1107 East 32nd St. (at the corner of 32nd and Robinson), built in 1931. Annie was a member of the Women’s Air Corp and the only person in her unit with top-secret clearance for the flying missions for airmen stationed at Bergstrom AFB during WWII. She’d get a call to go to the base and once the pilots were airborne for their missions, she’d issue their flight plans.

Nowlin Heights and Lafayette Heights

Homes in Nowlin Heights were mostly built in the 1930s, with the exceptions of 2806 Lafayette, built in 1912. Another notable property is the Austin Convalescent Home at 2900 Lafayette (a.k.a. the Old Man’s Home), a two-story structure built as a home for the aged in 1931. The current owner has preserved the room numbers (1 through 8) attached to the jamb above each door. Homes in Lafayette Heights were mostly built in 1939 to 1940 with no early exceptions.

Forest Hills and Dancy Addition

Homes in Forest Hills were mostly built in the 1940s, but the earliest existing home at 3005 Cherrywood went up in 1905, making it one of the oldest in the entire neighborhood. The next oldest address in this section is 3008 Cherrywood, built in 1921. The oldest surviving home in Dancy Addition is the J. H. French house at 2904 Dancy, built in 1934.

The Mystery of French Place

So what is French Place and what are its boundaries?  Possibly everything south of Edgewood to Manor Rd. and east from I-35 to Cherrywood could be called French Place, though there’s no legal precedent for the name in city records. It’s not a legal subdivision, it’s just the way neighborhood terminology evolved. Since the Nowlin and Dancy families had so many ties to France and New Orleans, maybe they called it French Place from the outset. Maybe neighbors just liked the name of the street. Maybe J.H. French had a hand in it. We may never know for certain.

Map of the Nowlin Homestead, 1884

Map of the Nowlin Homestead, 1884

 

French place Historical Map

French Place today, in all its glory

 

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