Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Reagan Ray is illustrating 100 of his favorite Austin signs—many for establishments that are no longer with us.
It’s practically a Texas tradition at this point: The Hole in the Wall in Austin threatens that it’s being forced to close, so someone swoops in at the 11th hour to save it. Or sometimes the 13th hour: The Hole briefly closed in 2002 but was revived the following year by new owners. Will Tanner, the latest owner of the Hole—the home of “Cheap Music, Fast Drinks, and Live Women”—started intimating last year that the bar couldn’t survive another rent hike.
The alarms went off again in September: This was it for the Hole. Earlier this month, though, the bar owner and landlord struck a new deal to renew its lease for another 5 years. Local real-estate brokers, usually painted as the villains in any story about a beloved institution shuttering its doors, stepped in and negotiated a new lease—pro bono—between parties for the Hole.
If you know the Hole, then you already know it’s a slam-dunk entry for The Signs of Austin, a project blog by Reagan Ray, a web programmer and illustrator. “The welcoming yellow glow of The Hole In the Wall marquee has been a fixture on The Drag since 1974,” Ray writes. “With legendary venues such as Liberty Lunch and Armadillo World Headquarters long gone, The Hole epitomizes the original spirit of Austin’s music scene.”
Ray is illustrating 100 of his favorite Austin signs—many for establishments that are no longer with us. It’s one-part homage, one-part documentary project, and one-part really good opportunity to sell some prints to homesick Austinites through an online shop (which Ray is not or not yet doing).
Each entry comes with a mini-history of why the establishment matters. (The signs, most of them glorious neons, speak for themselves.) While Ray is for the most part preserving the signs he feels most attached to, there is at least one exception so far. On the Don-Mar Motor Court, he writes:
Sometimes change is good. The Don-Mar Motor Court was built in 1935 by Don and Mary Roberts but had seen much better days by the time it was leveled in 2008. At one time there were plans to turn the property into the Don-Mar Condominiums and incorporate the old sign, but those plans never materialized. The site is now home to Ben’s Workshop, an auto repair shop that has been in Austin since 1979. The old Don-Mar sign was purchased by Don Lougheed in 2013 and is on display at his RV dealership in Buda.
(He’s right: The sign still rules.)
Some of these signs are a pretty potent reminder that one of the things that makes Austin great, that Keeps Austin Weird, is its creative energy. While one quality that made it an easy place to love in the first place is rapidly disappearing—abundant cheap land—there’s no reason that the city still can’t retain its high quality of life while embracing the kind of change that welcomes even more residents into the city.