Classic Doric columns characteristic of the Greek Revival style convey a sense of urban sophistication on the porch of the 1855 Neill-Cochran House Museum. Yet in the mid-19th century, this site was over two miles from Austin, a young city of around 1,000 inhabitants.
Austin had become the state capital in 1845 by a constitutional decree that required a statewide vote in five years to reaffirm its status. Following the election of 1850, the State of Texas began planning and building permanent government buildings, and by 1853 was in the midst of its first boom.
Washington Hill, a young surveyor, commissioned Abner Cook (shown left) to build a comfortable suburban home for himself and his wife Mary on 17.5 acres of land a little over two miles from town. At the time, Cook was the most important master builder working in antebellum Texas. He had been awarded the woodworking contract for the 1853 capitol and had been selected to build the Governor’s Mansion in addition to many other grand residences for prominent Austin families, commercial buildings, the First Presbyterian Church, and the campus for the first blind school in the state.
Toward the completion of the House, the Hills had overextended themselves financially. They borrowed money and sold three slaves to raise funds, and, in the end, never occupied their new home. In 1856, Hill leased the property to the State of Texas, which was looking for a temporary site for the Texas Asylum for the Blind.¬† The blind school used the House for classroom and dormitory space while Abner Cook worked on the its campus located where Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive intersects IH-35.¬† Once the school moved, the House was leased to Lt. Governor Fletcher Stockdale.
After the Civil War, one of the owners contracted with the U.S. Government to lease the House for a hospital. Federal troops were housed and treated for over two years during Reconstruction. General George Armstrong Custer was stationed in Austin for several months during that period and undoubtedly made official visits to the House. The federal government neither paid for its use of the House nor the damage caused by the soldiers, and, as a result, the investors sold their portions to another investor, who, in turn, sold the House to Colonel Andrew Neill (right) and his second wife Jennie Chapman Neill. Two years after the Colonel’s death, Mrs. Neill moved “into town,” renting the House in 1893 to Judge Thomas Beauford Cochran (left) and his wife Elizabeth (Bessie) Rose Cochran. The Cochrans purchased the House in 1895, and the Neill-Cochran House remained in the Cochran family until 1958 when it was bought by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in The State of Texas (shown below, on the stairs of the Austin Woman’s Club). Dedicated to architectural preservation, the Colonial Dames have been careful stewards of this notable residence for fifty years.