The first occupants of the Byrne-Reed House, Edmund and Ellen Sneed Byrne, were a prominent and widely respected couple. Edmund, a New York native of Irish heritage, was, according to the Daily Statesman, “popular with everybody who knows him.” Ellen Sneed, the granddaughter of influential Judge Sebron Graham Sneed, grew up in Austin and met Byrne sometime after he moved from Galveston in the 1880s and established himself as a successful cotton buyer.
The Byrnes purchased the property on October 10, 1905, from William Bohn, a partner in Bohn Brothers Department Store on Congress Avenue and an entrepreneur who bought and sold Austin real estate. The lot was perched on the northernmost boundary of the original city plan, at Rio Grande Street and North Street (now known as 15th Street).
Charles H. Page, Architect
The Byrnes commissioned Charles H. Page (1876–1957), a well-known Austin architect, to design their home. Page began his independent practice in 1898 and was soon joined by his brother Louis. His first major commission was for the original Austin National Bank. In the years just prior to the construction of the Byrne House, Page designed the Texas Building for the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1903. Over the course of a practice spanning more than sixty years, Page’s firm designed hundreds of schools and courthouses in Texas, including the art deco Travis County Courthouse in Austin.
Page’s design for the Byrne-Reed House reflects a Mission Revival style that incorporates popular architectural trends of the period: Sullivanesque friezes, mission-style terracotta roof tiles, Richardsonian-Romanesque arches, and Prairie-style porches. Its construction incorporated locally produced materials including Elgin brick, ironwork fashioned in a downtown foundry, and native oak and long-leaf pine floors from East Texas.
The Byrne Family
In 1907, when the house was complete, Edmund and Ellen moved from Fairview Park, a community just south of the Colorado River, perhaps to be closer to The University of Texas, which their children, Grace and Thomas, both attended. Carrie Tolbert, a young African American woman working as a cook for the Byrnes, moved with them and lived on the third floor of the newly constructed Byrne home. Her younger brother, Madison Tolbert, came to live in the Byrne-Reed House as well, working as a yardman.
Following Ellen Byrne’s death in 1915, Edmund sold the house and moved to Fort Worth to be close to his married daughter. His son Thomas founded a successful construction company in 1923 that has helped build and restore major office centers and cultural institutions in cities across Texas for more than eighty years.
The Reed Family
The David Reed family purchased the home in 1915. David Cleveland Reed started his business career in Austin as a cotton buyer and exporter with E. H. Perry & Company, the leading export firm in the city. Like his brother Malcolm, David became a prominent civic leader as well as a widely known and successful businessman in Austin with interests ranging from cattle ranches and oil development to a partnership in the Driskill Hotel. He served on the Austin school board, the first city council under the city manager form of government, and the board of Texas Christian University.
David Reed and his wife, Laura Moses Reed, raised two children in the house: Ruth Irene and Hiram Moses. The Reed family also maintained a professional association with Carrie and Madison Tolbert after purchasing the home from the Byrnes. By 1916, Carrie Tolbert had begun working for E. H. Perry & Company, and Madison Tolbert continued to work at the Byrne-Reed House for several years as a yardman, though he no longer lived in the home.
The Reed family made several changes to the house. Shortly after their purchase, they extended the sleeping porch along the southernmost side of the house to encompass the entire terrace. Later, striped canvas awnings were added to shade the second floor windows along the east side of the building. At some point during their ownership, the Reeds also constructed a staircase at the porch on the south side of the house.
In the late 1920s, the family undertook the first of two significant interior renovations completed during their occupation of the house. Most notably, the dining room was redesigned with ornate plasterwork ceiling and wall decorations executed by Swiss carver Peter Mansbendel. The Reeds also painted the grand staircase and beam ceiling in the gallery around this period.
In 1934, Ruth Reed and Richard Burt Dyke held their wedding reception in the Byrne-Reed House. A 1934 article in the American Statesman described the celebration:
“The walled-in garden at the south of the home was thrown open as an annex to the house. The growing shrubbery with baskets of colorful garden flowers made an effective setting for the changing panorama of women in formal evening attire and men in white linen or neutral colors. . . . The punch table was placed just in front of the stone fountain in the south wall of the garden.”
In the spring of 1948, the Reeds began their second significant interior renovation. The family commissioned plans from the architectural firm of Jessen, Jessen, Millhouse, and Greeven for a renovation of the first floor music and sitting rooms. The modifications included removing the wall between the two rooms in order to open the space into one large living room. The fireplace, previously at a forty-five degree angle in the corner of the sitting room, was reoriented to be parallel with the west wall in the expanded living room. In addition, a new wood mantel and casework surround were built around the firebox.
David Reed died tragically in an airplane crash in 1948. In 1951, the family sold the house to an insurance company, which subsequently modified the building for office use. The new owners enclosed the terraces for office space, subdivided the interior rooms, and designated the 15th Street doorway as the primary entrance. At some point between 1952 and the late 1960s, the roof tiles were removed and replaced with standard composite roofing materials. During a major renovation that began in 1969, the entire building was wrapped in a white stucco façade.
A Home for the Humanities
Humanities Texas had long sought centrally located offices that would provide both visibility within the community and a venue for our programs. Size, location, and price were important considerations, but we also wanted to find a historic building that would reflect Humanities Texas’s emphasis on history and cultural heritage. After looking at a dozen buildings, we settled on the only one that met all of our criteria, the Texas Oil Building at 710 West 15th Street.
From the first time Humanities Texas staff toured the building at 15th and Rio Grande, we knew it was something special. Although passersby saw only a nondescript 1970s office building, the interior revealed hints of a hidden treasure: a century-old mansion wrapped in a stucco façade for forty years. While touring the offices, we saw a single historical photograph depicting the original brick building before its entombment. A large brick arch, once part of the original entryway, spanned a small conference room. Above the low acoustical tile ceilings, we could see the original high ceilings, door and window openings, and historic trim.
After purchasing the property from the Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association in December 2006, we quickly renamed it the Byrne-Reed House after the two families who had lived there before its conversion to offices. We also changed the address to its original designation: 1410 Rio Grande Street.
Courtesy of Texas Humanities, Inc.