Austin Towers : Inside the Sensitive Renovation of Uptown Sports Club

A photo of the Sport Bar, which would later go by the name Uptown Sports Club, taken at the corner of East Sixth and Waller Streets around the late 1970s or early ’80s. Image: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture / Texas Historical Commission

Perhaps one of the single most recognizable abandoned buildings in East Austin, the Uptown Sports Club is one step closer to a fresh start. An extensive restoration plan for the shuttered bar — which currently sits empty in a state of increasingly dire repair at the northeast corner of East Sixth and Waller Streets since its closure decades ago — found the approval of the City of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission at its monthly meeting last night, with city staff describing the project as “a very sensitive approach to the restoration of a significant historic building.” 

An interior photo of the building’s current condition. Image: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture

The building is technically not yet designated as a historic landmark, but the Texas Historical Commission has already determined its eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places — the good news is this old dive’s not going anywhere, and it’s definitely not becoming a Chili’s, despite whatever you’ve heard on the street.

Once renovated, the structure holding down 1200 East Sixth Street for more than a century now will retain the Uptown Sports Club name as a new bar and restaurant concept, announced back in February by a large team of locals including celebrated barbecue pitmaster Aaron Franklin, Mohawk co-owner James Moody, design firm Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, and hospitality outfit Bunkhouse Group.

 A current view of the southern-facing exterior of the building. Image: Google Maps

An illustration of the restored southern-facing exterior. Image: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture

As seen in the before/after comparisons of current street views and architectural illustrations seen here, the project will restore the bar’s existing doors, windows, painted masonry, and its instantly-recognizable exterior awning, which resembles an upside-down picket fence — and according to its presentation to the Commission, any elements too deteriorated for restoration will be replaced with exact replicas, using historical photos of the building for reference.

 A current view of the western-facing exterior of the building. Image: Google Maps

An illustration of the restored western-facing exterior. Image: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture

A new outdoor patio with a wood and steel canopy will be installed in the rear of the structure along Waller Street, with a large window installed inside a masonry arch facing the patio on the building’s north wall.

 A current view of the northern-facing exterior of the building. Image: Google Maps

An illustration of the restored northern-facing exterior. Image: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture

According to a report by city preservation staff, the building originally opened in 1906 as a bakery, butcher, and grocery owned by Swedish immigrant Austinite Frank Zakrison, who operated the shop for more than 20 years while living practically next door at 1204 East Sixth Street, where he died in 1933.

An interior photo of the building in its configuration as a butcher shop in the early 20th century. Image: Austin History Center

Other grocers and butchers occupied the space for the next several decades, but the structure’s modern pedigree arrived on Valentine’s Day 1969, when East Austinite and decorated World War II veteran Arnold Hernandez opened what was then called the Sport Bar with the help of a loan he was reportedly still paying off ten years later.

Image: Austin History Center

Hernandez, who served deep behind enemy lines in the Southeast Asian Theater of WWII with the U.S. Army jungle warfare unit popularly known as Merrill’s Marauders, decorated his bar with hundreds of photos of the East Austinites who fought — and many who died — in the war, describing the spot as a hangout for veterans in an Austin American-Statesman story from 1979. By the 1990s, the bar went by the name Uptown Sports Club, with Arnold’s son Ron helping run the place.

Arnold Hernandez at the Sport Bar in 1980. Photo by John Kelso / Image: Austin History Center

“This is the stomping ground of the working man, the lunch pail set, one of those places where the patrons give each other nicknames because they see each other almost daily.”
— John Kelso, Austin American-Statesman, December 1980

After the elder Hernandez’ death in 2000, family ownership disputes over the bar kept it vacant, with Ron Hernandez eventually signing a lease to reopen the space shortly before his death in a motorcycle accident in 2014, putting its future back in limbo — but the deal announced earlier this year between longtime Hernandez family lawyer Jason Jones and the hospitality team working to bring back the club seems like a best-case scenario for preserving the legacy of the building, with a depth you don’t often see even in the most historically-minded adaptive reuse projects.

Historical photos showing murals and other painted elements of the bar’s exterior dating back to the late 1970s or early ’80s. Images: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture / Texas Historical Commission

Franklin has described his team’s approach to the Uptown Sports Club as a love letter to the “Old Austin” longtime residents recall prior to the East Side’s development boom, and the enthusiastic approval of the Historic Landmark Commission — not known for mincing words about preservation efforts its members perceive to be less dedicated — is a sign that everyone involved is taking the historic value of the structure seriously. Though the local economic effects of the current pandemic might alter the timeline, the project’s completion could reportedly arrive by 2021. 


Originally posted on Austin Towers