Monday, April 1, 2013

Littlefield Building

A story about Major Littlefield and the Littlefield Building:

George Washington Littlefield (1842-1920) was a Texas cattleman, banker and member of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas.  He made numerous contributions to Austin and the University.  

Littlefield served in the Civil War.  At the Battle of Mossy Creek in Tennessee he was severely wounded.  He was promoted to Major as he lay on the snow-covered ground.  He remained unconscious for three weeks and was kept alive with morphine and brandy.  His body servant, a slave from his childhood who had insisted on accompanying him to the war front, nursed him back to health.  He had married Alice Tillar during the war, and now returned to Texas to manage his family's farm.  Due to his war injury, he was on crutches for three years.  Natural disasters made those same years financially perilous, and he was nearly bankrupt by 1871.  He sold all of his and his brother's remaining cattle which yielded enough to discharge his debts, after which he had $3,600 remaining.  He set out to start all over again.

Littlefield continued to engage in various business activities and by 1881, just ten years after 'starting all over again,' he sold one of his assets, the LIT Ranch, for $248,000.  Littlefield said that he had made "far more money than he had ever expected to have."  He was 39 years old.    

He moved to Austin in 1883 and accepted a position on the board of Eugene Bremond's State National Bank.

In 1890, he established the American National Bank in the Driskill Hotel.  Littlefield owned the bank from 1895 to 1903 and served as its president until 1918.  He moved the bank into his own building, the Littlefield Building, in 1912.

The Littlefield Building was Austin's first skyscraper and, in 1912, it was described on a postcard as the "Financial Center" of Austin.  It was designed in the Beaux Arts style by local architect C. H. Page, Jr..  The roof-top garden was an elegant retreat for high-society.

There is an interesting story about the height of the building.  It was at first built as an 8-story building with a roof-top garden.  Major Littlefield engaged in a friendly competition with the 8-story Scarbrough Building on the opposite corner, and when that building was completed he removed the roof-top garden and added an extra floor.  The Littlefield Building remained the tallest building in Austin for another 19 years.  Major Littlefield decorated the lobby with oil paintings of scenes from his ranches. The doors of the bank, which also depicted ranch scenes, were bronze, cast by the Tiffany Company of New York.   His bank offered a separate ladie's banking department with female tellers and an elegant waiting room furnished in solid mahogany.

As a banker, Littlefield was said to have been masterful in sizing up new loans.  One cowboy said that  Littlefield "could look in your eye and tell you what you was up to."

Through the bank, Major Littlefield gained interests in a number of businesses, in particular the Driskill Hotel.  Littlefield owned the hotel from 1895-1903, during which time he installed the hotel's first electric lighting system.

Littlefield Building

601 Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas 78701