A Century of Austin History:
1855 – 1958
As a museum and organization dedicated to historic preservation, our work takes us across disciplines. From the collection and interpretation of information about the individuals connected with the historic property to designing curricula for visiting students of all ages, and from overseeing the material maintenance of the structure and finishes of the house to using the historical resources at our disposal to shine light on aspects of the city’s past, our small staff and our active membership are adept at keeping themselves busy.
If you’re just discovering the Neill-Cochran House Museum for the first time, these pages are your behind-the-scenes tour to what goes in to what you see and hear on a tour, during an event, and our most important public face, the east-facing façade of the historic house – complete with its stunningly and carefully restored columns and entablature. We invite you to use these pages as a resource to learn more about our connections to Austin, our offerings for school groups looking for extra enrichment in state and local history, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, who own and operate the museum, and to see what went in to the comprehensive exterior restoration project, bringing the house to an almost unprecedented state of preservation.
Cut from the cloth of Austin History
The Neill-Cochran House offers its visitors an intimate view of the fabric of the lives of prominent Austinites and some of those who lived among them from the mid-19th through early 20th centuries. Through the visual information of the historic architecture and the period-correct and frequently family-provenance furnishings and decorative arts , we catch glimpses of the changing styles of what we now might call Austin living. Further interpreting across a set of changing social and economic landscapes, we incorporate the individuals who lived at what is today 2310 San Gabriel in our re-telling of the first century of our city .
In 1855, a young land surveyor named Washington Hill commissioned local builder, designer, and businessman Abner Cook to construct a fine Greek Revival house on nearly 18 acres of land northwest of the city of Austin. Wash and his wife Mary were very much in good company; as Austin’s economy rapidly expanded after it once again became the capital of Texas in 1845, many prominent Texans found themselves in the market for finer residences in and around the city. However, the Hills’ ambitions exceeded their means, and despite their attempts to finance the project, they were unable to afford finishing the house, and, as a result, never lived a day at their suburban residence.
Mirroring the changes in Austin’s economic and political landscape, an eclectic group of occupants carved out the next twenty years of the house’s history. Local investors (and clients of Abner Cook) S.M. Swenson and John Milton Swisher owned and leased the house through the Reconstruction era. Their clients? The Texas Asylum for the Blind, Fletcher Stockdale, Lieutenant Governor of Texas under Pendleton Murrah, and the Federal Army under George Custer.
After a short period of ownership by C.W. Whitis, the Neill family purchased the house in 1876. Andrew, then 63, and his wife Jennie, having recently returned from the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, furnished the house with an impressive suite of walnut furniture and began to make a name for themselves in the social and political landscape of 1870s Austin. Neill, a lawyer and soldier native to Scotland, had previously been a Grand Master mason, a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, a captive of the Mexican army, and a late-arriving fighter at the battle of San Jacinto, fashioned his library (now installed as a French Parlor) as a destination for powerful men of his day, while the cellar became renowned for the fine wines and foods that would come out of it during the family’s many lavish parties.
Jennie Neill and her relations, perhaps most notably Pearl Cashell Jackson (1869-1928), an early alumna of the University of Texas who would go on to become president of the Texas Women’s Press Association (now the Press Women of Texas), remained in the house until 1892. When Jennie “moved to town,” she leased the house to Thomas and Bessie Cochran, a lawyer and the daughter of Williamson County’s only Presbyterian minister. Thomas Cochran had recently been appointed circuit judge for the district encompassing Travis and Williamson counties by Governor Hogg, a defining moment in his career that ultimately paved the way for decades of prosperity for his family. If the Neill-Cochran house represents any one group’s history, it represents the Cochrans’; after buying the house outright in 1895, four generations of Cochrans would go on to live in the house through the immense social changes between the late 19th century and the middle of the 20th century.
In 1958, after nearly 70 years of continuous residency, the Cochran family sold the house to the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Texas, who began the work of preserving the historic structure and building, cataloging, and interpreting a collection of furnishings and examples of decorative arts to display inside of it.
This work continues today through preservation and interpretation as NCHM staff and NSCDA members work to sharpen our focus on the unique and little-known moments from the past of our seemingly endlessly expanding city. Whether your interests center on local or Texas history, design and architecture, or on the stories and connections of the individuals involved with this singular house, you will find more than a few occasions to reflect on the lives that we lead today in any given tour or visit to our collections.