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Haunted Holdings
By: RSS/News FeedsHungZai Team

Austin is an old city, as Texas cities go. As such, it holds its share of ghostly legends surrounding some of its century-old structures.

Ghost stories are more commonly associated with residential properties, but some commercial real estate occasionally is said to harbor a shadow of previous occupants as well.

Photographer David Grimes knew the building he bought at 503 Neches St. was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Paggi Blacksmith Shop. It had also served as a mortuary. After he closed on the purchase in 1993 and began renovations to the 125-year-old space, he learned the owner of the old mortuary had been murdered, and the building is rumored to be haunted.

“When I bought the building, none of that really came up,” Grimes says. “I didn’t think to ask about it.”

Since David Grimes Studio opened in the building, Grimes has frequently glimpsed a woman standing in a doorway of the oldest part of the structure.

“You couldn’t see it when you looked right at it, but you could see it with your peripheral vision,” he says. “A couple times we’ve had a client bring their dog with them to a [photo] shoot, and twice they’ve just gone nuts over that one spot where the lady has appeared. They really start barking and digging at the concrete at that one place.”

Grimes’ most recent eerie experience involved a heavy pint water glass he placed on a counter while talking on the telephone.

“I was watching this glass, and it just split from the top to the bottom,” he says. “It didn’t shatter. It’s in two exact halves, like it was cut with a sword.”

Grimes says he wouldn’t have changed his mind about buying the building had he known it was haunted.

“It’s not like spooky or wierd,” he says. “It’s never had a really bad vibe at all. It’s just kind of interesting.”

Across the Central Business District, restaurateur Tinku Saini says stories of a ghost only added to the charm of the historic building he bought on Guadalupe Street to open The Clay Pit.

“We thought that it just might be another reason for people to come to the building,” Saini says. “People aren’t scared of ghosts anymore, they are more intrigued by them.”

Steve Thurlow, a broker and owner of Downtown Real Estate Co. in San Antonio, says haunted space can be a wonderful draw for a retail user.

Thurlow recently sold the historic Alamo Palace Building directly across Alamo Plaza from the Alamo itself. Thurlow opened and operated a barbecue restaurant on the ground floor while he owned the building, and says he experienced supernatural goings on first hand.

“From the standpoint of owning the restaurant and telling [customers] about things happening, it was phenomenal,” he says. “People loved that. But I didn’t mention it … in the sale of the building.”

Some Austin companies enjoy telling others about their supernatural co-tenants.

Earl Broussard, president of landscape architecture firm TBG Partners, says ghostly phenomena were once common in his rented offices in Hanning Row, a historic building at 200 E. Sixth St. Misplaced objects and odd sounds, usually a man’s footsteps, frequent echoed in the place until the company renovated its space about three years ago, but have since ceased.

Before the renovation, Broussard was throwing darts with TBG Partners Principal Bryan Ott one evening in what was then the kitchen. As the two faced the dart board, they heard purposeful steps across the linoleum, as if someone had walked in the door and come to stand behind them. Both men turned to see who had joined them, but they were alone in the room.

“It stopped the game,” Broussard says.

Ott says he had a similar experience early one morning while making photo copies, when disembodied footsteps approached him from behind. Ott says the sounds stopped after TBG installed carpeting.

Broussard says he doesn’t know of a particular spirit that might haunt Hanning Row, but the building’s history points to several possibilities. Alamo massacre survivor Susannah Dickinson and her second husband built the structure, which served for many years as a furniture manufacturing shop. At one point it was even a mortuary.

“We didn’t know that until a couple of years later,” Broussard says.

Jessica Gregory, assistant property manager at The Scarbrough Building at Sixth and Congress, says she has encountered inexplicable activity on that building’s eighth floor.

“I’ve heard doors slam shut, knowing that no one’s here,” she says.

Luther Draehn is chief engineer at the Scarbrough and has worked in the building for 28 years. He says most of his encounters with the building’s disembodied tenants happened immediately after Scarbrough’s Department Store closed.

“Twenty-something years ago I was working down here at the building by myself at night,” Draehn says. “I would hear a door slam and footsteps coming down the stairs, and there was nobody on them.”

Draehn says the footsteps weren’t unique to one area, but occured in different stairwells on different evenings.

“It got to where I just expected it. It scared me the first few times, but I just made a joke about it,” he says.

David Caballero is now a building engineer at San Jacinto Center, but worked for nine years in the Littlefield Building across the intersection of Sixth and Congress from the Scarbrough. The Littlefield’s unexplained phenomena consist mostly of elevators shifting through the floors in the dead of night, door closings, faint conversations from empty floors and the occassional sound of moving fabric.

“You can hear a rustle like blankets or curtains, but it was more of doors closing and stuff like that,” Caballero says. “I even experienced a few of them where doors were slamming and nobody was there.”

A unique feature of the Littlefield is the “seventh and a half” floor, normally locked off from the public. Originally the building’s roof, the space was enclosed when developer George Littlefield decided to add the eighth and ninth floors. The upstart Scarbrough’s eight stories threatened to take that honor, and Littlefield wouldn’t stand for it.

Consequently, the half-height floor has a ceiling less than six feet from the floor and is unused. Cabellero says people in the Driskill Hotel next door occasionally called security at the Littlefield to report seeing figures of movement through the half-floor’s windows.

“But we could never find anybody,” he says. “That floor was always locked off.”

Toni Turner, director of education partnerships at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, says hauntings are good for businesses. Her own brush with the uncanny, however, left her terrified.

While working for the University of Texas before taking her current job, Turner was delivering some materials to her office in the Littlefield House late one evening in April 1990. The building on the UT campus is the former residence of Littlefield Building developer George Littlefield and his wife, Alice, who is said to haunt the building today.

“I came back to the building late at night during a thunderstorm and as soon as I entered the building I knew something was very wrong. I just did not feel comfortable or welcome,” she says.

“When I went up to the second floor landing, I distinctly heard the sound of taffeta skirts following me down the hall,” Turner says. “There’s no other sound in the world that sounds like taffeta. I didn’t see anything, but the sound was audible and the experience was terrifying. I’ll never forget it.”

Austin’s Driskill Hotel has as many ghostly legends as any commercial property here, but General Manager Jeff Trigger believes most of the reports of spectral encounters are the product of wishful thinking.

Trigger’s favorite story on the subject involves a hotel guest at the hotel who was taking the elevator to the ninth floor when the car stopped unbidden on the fifth. The doors opened to reveal a husky man covered head to toe in dust, wearing a hard hat and standing motionless in the darkened hall. He stared at the woman in the elevator until the doors closed, but didn’t try to enter.

Trigger said the excited guest knew she had seen a ghost, because the clerk downstairs had mentioned the Driskill wasn’t renting any rooms on the fifth floor.

Trigger says the reason the rooms were unavailable was that the floor was under renovation. The “apparation’s” explanation is a more natural, practical one — a construction worker, hoping to avoid using the service elevator, had tried to sneak downstairs on the passenger elevator, but didn’t get on when he encountered the hotel guest.

“It’s just what you want to believe,” Trigger says. “If it brings us a few more fun seekers, if it gives us a few extra room nights around Halloween, so be it, but we have a lot more trouble from the live spirits than we do from the dead spirits.”

Volney Campbell, a tenant representation specialist at CB Richard Ellis in Austin, says the supernatural doesn’t play much of a role in this city’s real estate business.

“I’ve seen lots of strange things in my career here in Austin real estate.” Campbell says. “Unfortunately, all of them were people-created, not spirit created. To the best of my knowledge, the valuation of a property here in Austin hasn’t suffered or been improved due to rumors of celestial inhabitations.”

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