A House Built On History
Neill-Cochran House Museum offers a glimpse into Austin’s past
by Avery Tanner
The Neill-Cochran House Museum is a true hidden gem. Located near the University of Texas campus, it is easy to walk by and never take the time to learn of the house’s significance. But step inside and you’ll see a beautifully preserved antebellum home with stories to spare.
The house has lived many lives – first as a rental, then a hospital during the Civil War, a family home, and even the location of a school for the blind. It was built in 1855 by builder Abner Cook, using the same floor plan as the Texas Governor’s Mansion. A lack of funds forced several changes to construction, leaving the house smaller and build to a lower standard than originally intended. The family that commissioned its construction never moved in, and there began its time as a rental. “We like to say we were a rental property long before rentals were cool,” says Dr. Rowena Dasch, Executive Director of the museum.
The history of the home is not without its tragedies. It was built in a culture driven by the slave economy. When the Civil War broke out, a third of the six thousand residents of Austin were African slaves. Dr. Dasch believes this is one of the reasons the museum is important to the city. “This house gives us a glimpse of a certain cultural moment and lifestyle that people can learn from.”
In her five years at the Neill-Cochran House, Dr. Dasch has focused on bringing her background in art history into the museum. As Dr. Dasch says, “What we make says so much about who we are as a culture. You can learn a great deal about other periods of time by studying what they made well.” Dr. Dasch strives to showcase art that reveals truths of the time in which the house was built and used. The downstairs is currently home to an exhibit of work by Anna Stanley, a 19th century impressionist painter.
Stanley’s granddaughter lives in Austin and has loaned her collection of Stanley’s work to the Neill-Cochran. Looking at the exhibit, Stanley’s interest in painting working women is evident. Stanley was ahead of her time in shining a light on the important roles of women in 19th century society.
Upstairs, visitors can see a World War I exhibit that shows the impact of the war on those who stayed behind. Artifacts include a flag the Cochran family hung from the house when their two sons served in the military during World War I. This is a year-long exhibit, with a new one coming at the start of 2019.
The museum is a window into Austin’s past, preserving a moment in time before our city grew into what it is today. Dasch is focusing on the future of the the museum by implementing more exhibits and events for Austinites. “The goal is to be a resource to the community. We want people to visit more than once and develop a relationship with us.”
The Neill-Cochran House Museum holds several special events every month, including a speaker series and monthly events for children. The Anna Stanley exhibit will be on display through December 21. Find more details about events at the museum here.
Paintings courtesy of Marni Holbrook Roberson.