Welcome to the Neill-Cochran House Museum!

We welcome you to the Neill-Cochran House Museum grounds.  Please feel free to picnic or just to sit and enjoy the shade.  As you walk through the grounds, be on the lookout for QR codes (there are 16 in total) to orient you to the 160 year history of the property and insights into our current landscaping installation.

Contents – Quick links

Introduction – Boxwood – Pecan – Magnolia – Coral Honeysuckle – Lady Banks Climbing Rose – Austin Common Brick – Plumbago – Trumpet Vine – Dependency – Carriage House – Evergreen Wisteria – Texas Mountain Laurel – Crepe Myrtle – Fencing and Segmentation of the Grounds – Live Oak – Front Steps

Introduction

In 1850, landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing wrote:

So long as men are forced to dwell in log huts and follow a hunter’s life, we must not be surprised by lynch law and the use of the bowie knife.  But, when smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country, we know that order and culture are established.  – Andrew Jackson Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses (1850)

Though Downing primarily wrote for Americans moving into bedroom communities outside of large metropolitan areas, his comments regarding the precedent set by the beautification of one’s surroundings and the statement a “tasteful” home could set applied equally well to the growing city of Austin, TX in the early 1850s.  The 1850 US Census declared there to be 3,500 people living in and around the City of Austin.  Though the city was growing, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (most famous for later designing Central Park in New York) declared that the capital city of 1853 was home to “scatered [sic] cottages and one or two pretty dwellings,” as well as “a very remarkable number of drinking and gabling shops, but not one book-store.”

Taken within this context, the series of Greek Revival residences Abner Cook constructed in Austin in the 1850s represented an attempt to bring order to the wilderness, and to erect temples of culture and refinement.  The Neill-Cochran House grounds as you see them today are not heavily embellished, nor were they in the nineteenth century.  They were tasteful and provided opportunity for recreation out of doors, and originally were balanced between the ornamental and the useful.  The grounds likely were host to a kitchen garden, and until the 1929 sale of the property to the north of the current site, it was home to a peach orchard.

For more information about the museum, our programming and events, stop by our virtual parlor.  The museum is open from 1-4PM Tuesday-Saturday and also offers tours during other hours by appointment.  Please leave your (digital) calling card or give us a call at (512) 478-2335 with any questions or to schedule a tour outside of our normal operating hours.  We would love to hear from you!

Boxwood

(Buxus microphylla)

Boxwood is a compact evergreen shrub with rounded leaves, excellent as a hedge or border plant.  Though boxwood is not native to Texas, but rather to Asia, Europe, and North Africa, Central Texas gardeners were planting it by the end of the nineteenth century.

Ramsey Nursery advertised Buxus sempervirens, a larger varietal than the boxwood at the Neill-Cochran House, in their 1899 catalogue (see above).

This was one of several hedges that Ramsey advertised in 1899, including Japanese and California privet and Golden and Chinese arbor vitae.  None of these varietals are native to Texas.

The introduction of non-native shrub hedges to Central Texas gardening accompanied the shift away from functional kitchen yards to more formal landscaping, a trend that postdated the Civil War and increased in popularity in the last decade of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.  While functional (food-producing) spaces remained a part of many families’ landscaping plans, often they were relegated to the back of the property, leaving the front of the property free for ornamentals.  The current grounds of the Neill-Cochran House parallel this segmentation by separating front and back yards by fencing, as you will see as you pass through the property. 

Pecan

(Carya illinoinensis)

The Pecan is the State Tree of Texas. It grows across the state, and provides both great shade and an edible drupe (nut).  Pecans are slow-growing trees with deep roots.  Native Pecans such as the NCHM tree produce smaller nuts than hybridized trees grown for their crop.  The NCHM nuts are approximately ¾ in. in length.  As a result, it is difficult to crack the nuts without destroying the meat.
Pecan trees are renowned for their shade, but they also are renowned for the variety of moments in the year when they produce yard trash.  In the spring, Pecan trees drop long frond-like pollen strands, and in the fall the drop first the outer drupe husks, then the pecans themselves, and finally their leaves.  They are one of the last trees to lose their leaves in the fall and the last to regain them in the spring.  Though many varietals exist, all share pale grey or brown rough and deeply furrowed bark.

The NCHM example likely is a volunteer that germinated around the time the Neills purchased the property in 1876. A comparison of a modern photograph with a photograph c. 1889 shows the Pecan tree in the foreground of each image.  In the older photograph the main limbs are already visible, though the tree is only about 20 feet tall.   Today our tree is approximately forty feet in spread by seventy feet in height.

pecan tree
Facade
NC2.14 (1500x1036)

Magnolia

(Magnolia grandiflora)

The grand Magnolia is a bridge tree for the Neill-Cochran House, pulling the landscaping towards East Texas and the Deep South and associating the property with the Southern Plantation tradition.  An early Anglo visitor to Texas wrote of magnolias along an East Texas bayou, where “impending shrubs are in places overtopped by the evergreen magnolia rising in the grandeur of its excellence to the reach of deserved pre-eminence where it unfolds its far-scented magnificence; softening to the eye of admiration the dazzling lustre of its expansive bloom by agreeable blending with the deep sea-green of its umbrageous foliage….”

The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in Texas planted the NCHM specimen in the early 1960s, after they acquired the property. No doubt the tree appealed to the donor because of the Neill-Cochran House’s Greek-Revival stylistic connection to other Southern antebellum homes, particularly in Mississippi.  In actuality, the Neill-Cochran House was never a plantation.  Built at the end of the antebellum period, the building does echo the plantation style, but at 17 ½ acres the original owners never aspired to large-scale commercial farming.

Austin’s climate is both more arid and more prone to extremes in temperature than the Magnolia’s native habitat.   Nevertheless, the museum’s Magnolia has flourished over the past fifty years, and nurseries advocated planting Magnolias in Austin during the nineteenth century.

In 1875, Lone Star Nursery in Central Texas advertised the Magnolia grandiflora as the “finest of all broad-leaved evergreens,” and considered it an appropriate choice for area gardeners.  Nonetheless, Magnolias never attained the popularity in Austin of the native favorites – the Pecan and Live Oak.

Magnolia Flower
Magnolia

Coral Honeysuckle

(Lonicera sempervirens)

Coral Honeysuckle is a non-invasive plant that attracts hummingbirds to the blooms and other birds to the fruit.  Coral Honeysuckle is also known as Trumpet Honeysuckle, Woodbine, Red Honeysuckle, and evergreen honeysuckle.  The vines provide excellent screening once established, with deciduous leaves and flowers that bloom through the summer.  The museum features two varietals, with coral and with yellow flowers (subspecies Sulphurea).

Coral Honeysuckle is native to the eastern United States into Texas.  It is a drought-tolerant plant once established, which makes it a good choice for Central Texas gardens.

The museum’s Coral Honeysuckles are a recent addition to the grounds.  The museum planted them in the summer of 2015 to screen air compressors from the historic structure and to incorporate more native species within the grounds.

coral honeysuckle

Yellow Lady Banks

(Rosa banksiae lutea)

The Yellow Lady Banks climbing rose is a native cultivar to China, brought to England in 1824 by J. D. Parks for the Royal Horticultural Society.

It is unknown when the varietal arrived first in Texas, but a white Lady Banks was planted in Tombstone, AZ in 1885; today Guinness recognizes that plant as the largest rosebush in the world at 9,000 square feet.

The Lady Banks varietals are good for the Central Texas climate for they are drought tolerant, grow in any type of soil, and thrive in full sun.  They are early-blooming roses, with heavy clusters of small yellow petals emerging in late spring and continuing into the summer.

The museum planted the Lady Banks roses in 1998 as a part of the Centennial Garden installation that you see today.  Note the strong trunks of the plants.  They require regular and aggressive pruning to keep the vines in check.

lady banks rose

The Front Steps

The brick facing this patio is Austin Common, a term that refers to brick produced in the city before 1900.  The brick can be identified both for its buff coloration and for its soft edges, the former the result of the local materials employed and the latter the result of the wooden forms used to produce the brick.

The Centennial Garden patio brick likely dates to the 1870s or later due to their relatively standardized shapes.  It came to the museum after being rescued from downtown historic properties slated for demolition.  The earliest brick produced in Austin, from the 1850s, has a far less consistent shape, and often has a depression on one side, as you see in this c. 1855 brick pulled from the Governor’s Mansion.

Austin Common brick was formed from caliche clay and lime that leached out of the hills surrounding Austin that eroded into the Colorado River.  Beginning in the early 1850s, multiple brickworks were established on the North and South sides of the river, including two brickworks at the mouth of Shoal Creek on the north side.  Abner Cook, the master builder responsible for the design of the Neill-Cochran House Museum, owned both kilns operating in Austin in the mid-1850s.  The Civil War disrupted the industry and unfortunately few records remain from that early period.

Austin Common brick has remained popular with Austin architects, and frequently is repurposed today in modern building.  Because builders used a mortar made from lime, sand, animal bristle and water, the mortar was soft and could be removed without damaging the brick.

Brick!

Plumbago

(Plumbago auriculata)

Plumbago may be native to South Africa, but it has become a popular residential garden perennial in Central Texas and has a deep connection to the Neill-Cochran House Museum.

The early landscaping of the property did not include planting in front of the house’s stately columns, but by 1905 the Cochrans had installed beds on either side of the front steps that overflowed with delicate pale purple Plumbago blossoms.  The c.1905 photograph below documents that the plant both thrived and added color to the light brown limestone and white painted column façade.

Plumbago is a perennial in Central and South Texas, though it will freeze back with protracted cold weather.  Once established, it is drought tolerant – key to its early success in Austin prior to automatic irrigation systems.  It prefers sun, and can grow to over three feet in height and five feet in spread; in shade, plumbago neither blooms nor spreads as extensively.

plumbago picture
NC2.3sepia (1500x1080)

Dependency

(Campsis radicans)

Trumpet Vine, or Trumpet-creeper, is a vigorous fast-growing vine with red, tubular, 3-inch flowers that are somewhat similar in appearance to honeysuckle, though less delicate.  The vine spreads aggressively and can prove hazardous to structures due to its strong root feelers.  The museum moved this vine away from the wall of the Dependency in summer 2015 due to the vine’s persistent desire to attach itself to the wall of the building.

Trumpet vine is an excellent screen vine, for it retains its leaves in winter, and it provides color through the summer months when other Texas plants fade in the heat.  The plant is native to the Southeast United States and flourishes in Central and South Texas.

In 1898, the Ramsey Nursery fall catalogue listed the “Trumpet Creeper” under the heading “HARDY CLIMBERS.”  The Ramsey description rings true 120 years later: “A clinging vine of rampant growth; clings to wood or stone walls or trees; very hardy; produces clusters of long trumpet-shaped orange-scarlet flowers from early spring until late fall.  35 cents.”

Trumpet Creeper
NC2.3sepia (1500x1080)

Dependency

The term “dependency” applies to any secondary structure on a property.  Barns, workshops, privies, kitchens, and other support buildings all could be called dependencies.  The origin of the term is not known, but could refer either to the fact that without a primary building, none of the secondary structures would be necessary (they are thus dependent on the primary building).  In contrast, the term may reflect the fact that the primary building – the historic Neill-Cochran House in this case – could not have functioned without its secondary structures, and therefore was itself dependent on them.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Neill-Cochran House had several dependencies, including a barn (on the site of the current Carriage House), a privy, a kitchen (where our modern gift shop is today), and this workshop and living space structure.  It is thought that this building might pre-date the Neill-Cochran House itself.  If so, then the team of enslaved laborers who built the main house built this structure first and likely lived in it while building the main residence.

The basic structural design of this building mirrors that of the main building, with rubble limestone walls and cedar lintels above the doors and windows.  However, the degree of finish and in some cases the materials employed were more rudimentary than those used on the main house:

  • The walls are somewhat narrower than on the main house (14 inches vs. 18 inches), and as a result the cedar lintels are exposed on the exterior and interior walls. On the main building, the lintels are hidden behind plaster on the interior and behind limestone lintels on the exterior.
  • This structure also has a total of 3 windows and an exterior stairwell to take best advantage of the limited interior space. The main house originally had an incredible 32 windows.
  • Finally, the bottom floor originally was dirt and the second floor wood was of a lower-quality milling than the floors in the main house. The wooden floors in the Dependency have knots that expose the second to the first floor (there is no sub-floor) and raking light shows the circular saw marks that cut the wood (not visible on the main house’s interior floorboards).

Today, the Dependency is interpreted as a late nineteenth-century work space and living quarters.  If the museum is open, we encourage you to ask us to open the spaces up for you.  If we are closed, please come visit us again!

Dependency Facade
Dependency Downstairs
Depednency Upstairs
Dependency Lintel
Dependency Floor

The Carriage House

This small one-story building is called the “Carriage House,” and sits on the site of a garage that dated at least to the Cochran era (1895-1958) if not earlier.  This modern structure sits on the footprint of the garage, which creates a difficulty due to the large Pecan tree to the left of the door.

The Carriage House provides climate-controlled modern storage, but it is faced with limestone quarried in middle of the nineteenth century.  The stone came to the museum as a gift in 1982 from an 1850 building on Congress Avenue demolished in that year.    On the interior, the building also incorporates timber from other Congress Avenue buildings, as can be seen in this photo of the building under construction (above).

Carriage House Under Construction_001

Evergreen Wisteria

(Millettia reticulata)

This evergreen climbing vine is native to China but is well-suited to Central Texas heat and the intensity of the sun.  Though it only blooms in the summer, it provides excellent screening year round.  The NSCDA-TX planted this vine in the late 1990s.  Note the density of its trunk.

Evergreen wisteria once established is relatively drought tolerant.  During the rainy season, the vine grows aggressively and must be kept pruned.  The NCHM has two plantings Evergreen Wisteria.  This planting is younger, but the planting in the Centennial Garden space once was allowed to grow without check and stretched at its height eight feet above the top of the wall with no regular irrigation.

Evergreen Wisteria

Texas Mountain Laurel

(Sophora secundiflora)

The Texas Mountain Laurel is a popular cultivar native to Central Texas.  Naturally a shrub, the Mountain Laurel is slow growing, with dense bush-like foliage.  If carefully and consistently pruned, the Mountain Laurel can be shaped into a tree, ultimately growing to 10-15 feet in height.  Both drought and heat tolerant, the Texas Mountain Laurel’s native habitat crosses the southwestern United States, Texas, and Mexico, where it is also known as a Mescal Bean.

The Texas Mountain Laurel is recognizable year round for its leaf pattern, showy flowers, and seed pods.  The evergreen leaves are dense, dark green, and glossy, with 7-9 shiny leaflets with rounded tips.  In springtime, the shrub bears fragrant and brilliantly purple wisteria-like flowers that have a sweet aroma reminiscent of grape soda.  Long silver-grey seed pods replace the flowers in summer and open to reveal large, hard red seeds that Central Texas Native Americans prized and used as both currency and in jewelry.  The seeds are extremely poisonous, containing a substance related to nicotine and considered both a narcotic and a hallucinogen.

Mountain Laurels may be found wild in the Austin area, but because of their hardiness and resistance to both heat and drought, the plants have become popular with residential gardeners who incorporate them into xeriscaped landscaping.

texas mountain laurel blooms
texas mountain laurel seed pods

Crape Myrtle

(Lagerstroemia indica)

It might surprise many Texans to learn that the Crape Myrtle is not a native tree,
considering its omnipresence in Central and East Texas.  In fact, the tree is native to China, but intersects with the early history of the United States in 1799, when seeds first arrived at Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s Virginia plantation.

The Crape Myrtle came quickly to Texas.  In the Houston area, an 1845 watercolor by F. J. Rothhaas of the George Allen residence includes three white blooming Crape Myrtles in the foreground.  An 1879 painting of the Jane Birdsall Harris house outside of Houston (shown below) includes mature pink Crape Myrtles lining the front walk.

By the end of the 1870s, Crape Myrtle also was marketed in Central Texas.  Lone Star Nurseries, the predecessor to Ramsey Nursery, sold one variety of Crape Myrtle by 1879.  A heat-loving plant that blooms prolifically all summer, the ornamental tree is found across Austin in white, light pink, deep pink, and lavender varieties.  The trees also are known by their unusual twisted but smooth exfoliating bark, which takes on a sculptural quality as the plant matures.  Crape Myrtles are technically shrubs, and many landscapers aggressively prune them back annually.  However, when allowed to grow naturally as the Neill-Cochran House plants have done, Crape Myrtles can grow to 25 feet in height and resemble trees more than shrubs.

crape myrtle
Briscoe House

Fencing and Segmentation of the Grounds

The Neill-Cochran House Museum grounds once encompassed 17 ½ acres. They were bordered by what is today Rio Grande to the east, Windsor Road to the north, Shoal Creek to the west, and 21st street to the south.

When first laid out, the grounds included a number of secondary buildings, including the still-standing Dependency, a barn, a privy, a kitchen, and two cisterns.  The grounds also likely incorporated fenced pasturing for livestock and a kitchen garden, as well as a fenced enclosure around the main house.

Late nineteenth-century images show a white picket fence along the north side of the house (where the stone and iron fence stands today) as well as along the east side (boxwood hedge today).  Landscaping close to the house was minimal, but the fencing protected the building from animals.

The idea of demarcating different portions of the grounds into practical vs. ornamental gardens has existed throughout recorded history but in Texas took on vigor after the Civil War.  Landscape historian Sadie Gwin Blackburn has written of Houston that, after the Civil War, homeowners increasingly divided their grounds between a decorative “front” yard and a utilitarian “back” yard.  In a description consistent with the layout of the Neill-Cochran House grounds today, Blackburn continues:

The earlier picket fence was replaced by a decorative wire or iron fence.  A walk led from the entrance gate to the steps of the front porch, and narrower walks branched away at the front steps on one or both sides of the house, making narrow beds between the walks and the foundation of the house.  A fence of vertical boards or latticework extended from each side of the house to the outer side fence, screening the back yard utility area.  – Sadie Gwin Blackburn,  Houston’s Forgotten Heritage (1991)

The fencing you see today is a combination of original and reproduction cast iron from a cemetery outside of Seguin, TX.  The original fencing was 28 feet in length and included 8 posts.  That fence and the gate on the north side are original, while Herrera Metal Works produced the remainder of the fencing in the 1980s.  The museum also turned one of the original iron posts into a hitching post ring which stands to the side of the Carriage House (#10).  The stone on underneath the wrought iron fence on the north side also is original to the property.  It was originally a field fence on the west side of Longview street, two blocks to the west of where you stand today. 

1887 map detail

Live Oak

(Quercus virginiana)

The Neill-Cochran House Museum grounds are home to several Live Oaks. Though the Pecan wears the mantle of State Tree of Texas, the Oak has played an equally significant role in our history and ecosystems, with over 21 different sub-species throughout the state.

The Live Oak is recognizable for its relatively small, elongated, oval leaves, which are glossy and dark green above and silvery white beneath.  Oaks are excellent evergreen shade trees, and provide a great buffer against the intense summer sun in Central Texas.  The thick canopy does however make it difficult to maintain turf, as the Neill-Cochran House Museum grounds demonstrate.

This Live Oak likely was a volunteer that began its life sometime after the house’s construction, perhaps around the time the Neills purchased the home in 1876.  Photographs from the 1880s and 1890s include the tree, which at the time had a trunk closer to 12 inches in width.

The tree’s location has become increasingly problematic over the past 20 years. Oaks frequently have root systems that break through the soil surface in order to increase the tree’s access to oxygen.  Unfortunately, as a result Oaks frequently interfere with other landscaping, and in particular with hardscaping.  The museum recently rebuilt the walkway to accommodate the tree’s root system, and will likely have to do so again within the next few years.

NCHM with Live Oak
NC2.12 (1500x1221)

The Front Steps

In 2015, the Neill-Cochran House Museum determined that our stone front steps had shifted out of alignment and required adjustment.  This complex project included removal of all of the component stones, which weigh in excess of 2 tons each, in order to place a concrete footing underneath.

Beneath the steps, we excavated a variety of metal objects, which you see in the photograph below: two horse shoes, a hitching post ring, and a gate latch.  This evidence suggests that the stone steps were not original to the building, but a later addition.  Photographs from the 1880s and 1890s include the steps; we believe that the Neill family installed them to replace original wooden steps when they purchased the house in 1876.

Andrew and Jennie Neill moved to Austin from Galveston, a refined city and home to the most extravagant architecture in Texas at that time.  Andrew Neill was in his sixties and we believe he purchased the Neill-Cochran House because it was one of few homes in Austin that could rival the elegance of Galveston.

Though the Neills made few structural changes to the home, aside from fitting lines for gas lighting, they likely installed the massive stone steps in order to anchor a monumental approach.  With horseshoes and a hitching post ring found next to the building, the original approach to the house would have brought visitors right up to the porch and thereby reduced the impact of the building as seen from a distance.

The stone steps also tell us something about the quality and process of stonework in Austin during the 1870s.  The large stones that bracket the steps originally mirrored one another.  However, on installation someone determined that the symmetry was visually misleading.  Looking at the house, the left-hand plinth has been carved to create a more severe curve than the one to the right.

The fourth (bottom) step also provides information about the way masons processed and installed stonework.  The museum removed the step, which was practically sub-grade due to changes in the land around it over time.  Visit the step on the south side of the house, where it has been repurposed as a bench.  Note that the top and front of the stone step are polished while the back, sides, and bottom of the stone remain rough cut.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
NC2.12 (1500x1221) (1500x589)
horseshoes and other artifacts